Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Malahat Winery's Lorne Tomalty is mourned

Sadly, there is one less romantic in the British Columbia wine industry with the death on May 20, at the age of 87, of Lorne Tomalty, the founder of Malahat Estate Winery on Vancouver Island.

Romantic? How else would one describe a man who planted a vineyard and then opened a winery well beyond the age when most are retiring? He was, in fact, the second-oldest person to ever start a winery in British Columbia. He was motivated both by his love of wine and by his love of people. Immensely social, he was always inviting people to drop in to join him in engaging conversation and a glass of wine.

Even without this small winery, Lorne had a lifetime fuller than most. Born in Ottawa, he spent World War II with an armoured corps, the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards. Upon being discharged, he enrolled in economics and political science at the University of British Columbia. When he tried to enter the job market in 1949, his education attracted two offers: one as an airline ticket agent and the other as an insurance salesman. So he became a miner in the Yukon until he could afford to earn a master’s degree in public administration at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Upon graduation in 1952, he joined the British Columbia government as a personnel assistant. By the time he retired in 1985, he had become what he called the government’s “czar of manpower.” He and his wife, Peggy, a nurse, bought a 4.6-hectare (11.5-acre) property near the scenic summit of the Malahat, north of Victoria. After clearing some trees, he decided to plant grapes. With an elevation of 192 meters (630 feet), this is one of Vancouver Island’s highest vineyards.

Lorne’s interest in wine arose from years of making wine at home with friends of Italian heritage. He began planting the terraced vineyard in 1995, choosing Ortega, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris on the recommendation of a grower on the Saanich Peninsula.

His initial winery application was filed in 1997. Ironically, the civil service he had once worked with manage to lose the paperwork. Later, he concluded that was good fortune because his preparations were still premature. “I’m an Irishman,” he told me. His forebears came from Ireland five generations ago. “The luck must still be there.” By the time the second application was filed six years later, Lorne had begun to make wine in a converted double garage under the mentorship of John Kelly, owner of Glenterra Vineyards in the Cowichan Valley.

The winery opened in 2005 and Lorne enjoyed several seasons of welcoming visitors. Unfortunately, ill health in 2010 prevented him from opening the winery’s tasting room.

While his son, David, had helped him, especially as working the steeply terraced vineyard became difficult for Lorne, the future of the winery remains to be determined.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Ruby Blues: smile and tasting is free

Posted by Picasa

Photo: Prudence Mahrer

There is a $2 tasting fee for five wines at Ruby Blues Winery on Naramata Road but it is seldom collected.

“Why should you pay if you don’t like the wine?” reasons Prudence Mahrer, the co-proprietor and the effervescent presence in the wine shop.

It is curious logic. The chances of not liking the wine, especially the current releases, are slim to none. In any event, the only fee that Prudence really wants from her patrons is that they smile.

Prudence has long been a familiar personality on the Naramata Bench. She and husband Beat moved to the Okanagan from Switzerland in 1990. They turned an apple orchard into a vineyard and, in 1997, opened Red Rooster Winery just outside the village of Naramata.

The guests invited for the grand opening included Prince Charles. The real one sent a letter of regret, unaware of the inside joke. The Mahrers had a pet rooster also named Prince Charles. The rooster attended the opening while the real prince’s nice letter was hung on the wall.

Six years later, they build a much grander new winery right on Naramata Road for Red Rooster, with a big wine shop and, because Prudence is artistic, with a second floor art gallery. The winery soon became the safe house for Frank the Baggage Handler, the gangly sculpture of a nude male that had been vandalized repeatedly when first erected in downtown Penticton.

In 2005, Red Rooster, having become too big for the lifestyle that the Mahrers wanted in wine, was acquired by Andrew Peller Ltd. However, Prudence desperately missed interacting with customers. Soon after her non-compete clause expired, she and Beat opened a small new winery in 2009 right next door to Red Rooster. They vow it will never get bigger than 4,000 cases a year.

The winery initially was called Ruby Tuesday, inspired by the lyrics of a late 1960s Rolling Stones song, Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday. Prudence grew up with music like that and the lyrics still speak to her, especially this line: Catch your dreams before they slip away.

There is a big American restaurant chain (about 900 outlets) called Ruby Tuesday and Prudence soon heard from their lawyers. After she recovered from her first instinct, to fight, she changed the name of the winery this spring to Ruby Blues. Except for that one word, the label design has kept the red shoes with stiletto heels and the image of a young woman chasing her dream. There has been no noticeable damage to the branding.

This year, as you listen to the rock and roll music that is piped into the vineyard, you can even buy red shoes like that in the wine shop. There are two glamorous designs made in Vietnam and sold under the Dear Prudence brand.

Behind all the wine shop fun is some serious winemaking. The consulting winemaker, Philip Soo, is an Andrew Peller veteran now successful as a consultant in the Okanagan. The hands-on winemaker is Lyndsay O’Rourke, a Canadian who trained in New Zealand and who, with her husband, has her own Naramata Bench vineyard.

Here are notes on the current releases. As vintages change, the Ruby Tuesday labels will all be switched to Ruby Blues.

Ruby Blues Pinot Gris 2010 ($20). This is a delicious wine, juicy and appealing, that fills the mouth with pear and citrus flavours. The finish is refreshing, balanced toward dryness. 90.

Ruby Blues Gewürztraminer 2010 ($20). The wine begins with aromas of spice and rose petals. It has spicy flavours of grapefruit, grapefruit rind and lychee, with the dry and rich finish of a good Alsace Gewürztraminer. 90.

Ruby Blues Riesling 2010 ($20). The wine begins with apricot and peach aromas; has flavours of lime and green apples and finishes with a savoury tanginess. 90.

Ruby Blues White Stiletto 2010 ($20). This is a blend of 80% Viognier, 13% Gewürztraminer and 7% Muscat Ottonel. Beginning with aromas of spice and grapefruit, it is a crisp white with hints of apricots and with a nice mineral backbone. 89.

Ruby Blues Red Stiletto 2009 ($25). This is an unconventional blend of 80% Shiraz, filled out with Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon; and aged in American oak. It is a juicy red, with plum and vanilla aromas and spicy flavours of plum and mocha. The texture is rich and fleshy. 88.

Ruby Blues Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 ($30). This is a good 51/49 blend, starting with aromas of spicy red berries and mint. On the palate, there are flavours of plums and currants with a hint of chocolate on the finish. The long ripe tannins give this a full-bodied texture. 90.

Ruby Tuesday Shiraz 2008 ($30). Aged in French oak, this wine begins with aromas of red fruit and white pepper. On the palate, there is black cherry and plum, with a hint of pepper on the finish. 89.

Ruby Tuesday Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 ($30). Dark in colour, firm in texture and with aromas of mint and blackberries, this has flavours of currants and blackberries. 89.

Ruby Tuesday Merlot 2008 ($30). Many think of Merlot as a soft, fruit red. That’s not true for Okanagan Merlot, a far more structured red, thanks to the climate and the terroir. All that is nicely reflected in this wine, which is firm and brooding at first. It opens to aromas and flavours of blueberry and black currant. 88.

Ruby Tuesday Grand Reserve Merlot 2008 ($40). This bold and concentrated wine is from grapes grown for the winery by a leading grower in Osoyoos. It is dark in colour, with cassis aromas and mouth-filling flavours of plum, blueberry and currant. 90.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Krāzē Legz brings the Charleston to Kaleden

Posted by Picasa

Photo: Gerry and Sue Thygesen with a bottle of Speakeasy Rose.

With all of the winery growth in the Okanagan in the last decade, it is strange that no winery opened until now in the picturesque village of Kaleden.

Just eight miles south of Penticton, this century-old village has a long history of orchards (dating from the 1920s) and a reasonably long history of vineyards. The Gewürztraminer vineyard owned for 30 years by Earl Cornish was planted in 1978. More recently, Chris Scott’s Oak Knoll Vineyard has grown superior Merlot for several wineries. Several other vineyards are also tucked away here on slopes facing Skaha Lake.

One of those is a new vineyard, supporting Krāzē Legz Vineyard and Winery, the winery that Sue and Gerry Thygesen opened here in September, 2010, to finally put Kaleden on the wine map in the Okanagan.

The winery name is pronounced “crazy legs” but is deliberately misspelled to make it more memorable (and probably to distinguish it from a wine brand in Sonoma). What should make the winery memorable is its 1920s theme, beginning with the keyhole in the tasting room door and the 1920s music playing inside.

The 1920s was the era of Prohibition. The illegal drinking establishments – the speakeasies - had keyholes in the doors through which the operators screened patrons. Often the patrons were supposed to have passwords. According to Gerry, “Joe sent me” usually worked. The Krāzē Legz wines all have names reflecting that era: Black Bottom Stomp, for example, recalls an energetic dance of that era.

Sue and Gerry come to the wine industry after successful marketing careers here and in the United States. Gerry, who was born in Alberta in 1957, first came to Penticton in 1973 to play junior hockey. He returned to the Okanagan in 1980 after university in the U.S. to marry Sue, a native of Golden.

He began his marketing career with Okanagan Dried Fruits. By the time it was purchased by Sun-Rype in 1993, it had become a major national brand.

The Thygesens then moved to Washington State, where Gerry worked for two similar companies as vice-president of sales while Sue developed a photography business.

Just before moving to the U.S. in 1995, they bought the Kaleden property that is now their vineyard. At the time it was planted to apples and peaches. When they got around to planting vines in 2007 (tree fruits no longer were viable), they turned for advice to Chris Scott, not just because he had a vineyard but because he and Gerry worked together at Okanagan Dried Fruits.

“We got tired of the rat race in the States,” Gerry says, explaining their decision to come back to the Okanagan. “We had a long conversation with Chris, with our investment advisor and with our accountant. Coming back to the Okanagan all made sense for the life style we wanted to enjoy. I have always been extremely interested in the marketing end of things and been very successful at it. So it made sense to tie that in to our plans for the future – not just the growing of grapes but the crafting of fine wines.”

They have a 14-acre property with slopes that provides excellent exposure for their nine acres of grapes. The site also has appealing views of Skaha Lake. The neighbour down the hill is Linden Gardens, Kaleden’s leading tourist attraction.

In the vineyard, they grow Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc. Given their practice of limiting the crop load to around three tons an acre, the vines will not produce enough fruit for estate-only production. However, that crop load produces quality grapes.

“We would like to get to, and stay around, 2,500 cases,” Gerry says. “Based on our cropping here, we are going to have to purchase some grapes. We would like to purchase them locally if we can get growers locally to work with us on what we are looking for.”

Initial production in 2009 was about 1,000 cases of red and white wines. That increased somewhat in the 2010 vintage, although the Thygesens had a setback now common in the Okanagan. A bear and her two cubs found the vineyard and ate the equivalent of about 300 cases of Chardonnay. They hope to deter the bears this fall with the vineyard dog they purchased after that experience.

The Krāzē Legz wine labels set the wines apart from most other Okanagan wines, both for the 1920s themed names and for the keyhole on the back of each bottle. B y peeking through the keyholes on the wines – at least the whites – consumers can have fun discovering hidden artifacts among the feet of the dancers.

“The keyhole for us is more important than the characters,” Gerry says. “We feel it eventually it will be our Nike Swish. It will be consistently the most recognizable part of our marketing.”

Here are notes on the current releases.

The Bee’s Knees Pinot Blanc 2009 ($23). This wine has the aroma of spiced apple, with flavours of ripe apples and pears. The flavours are fresh and clean and the finish lingers. This wine was a silver medalist at last fall’s Canadian Wine Awards. 89.

The Charleston Chardonnay Unoaked 2009 ($23). This is a ripe Chardonnay (14.6% alcohol) with the fruit flavours and weight to carry the alcohol. The winery let it hang deliberately late into fall to plump up its flavours and character. It has flavours of honey, butter and tangerine, with a hint of residual sugar nicely balanced with natural acidity. The wine is a crowd pleaser and, in fact, was a silver medalist peoples’ choice at an Okanagan Wine Festival last year. 89.

Speakeasy Rosé 2009 ($23). This wine was made by blending white and red wines. The wine has a lovely vibrant pink hue. It is robust on the palate, with an aroma of blueberry and flavours of raspberry and strawberry. The finish is dry. 88.

Black Bottom Stomp Merlot-Cabernet Franc 2009 ($32). This wine, with a good concentrated texture, begins with berry and vanilla aromas. On the palate, there are the brambly flavours of the Cabernet Franc, along with black currants. The finish includes hits of coffee and chocolate. This is a generous and satisfying red. 90.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Fairview's Bill Eggert at Salt Tasting Room

Photo: Bill Eggert at Salt

It tells you something about the fans of Fairview Cellars wines and its winemaker owner, Bill Eggert, that they packed the tasting room at Salt for a winemaker dinner on the final evening of the Victoria Day weekend to hear Bill.

An unpretentious restaurant in Blood Alley in Vancouver’s Gastown, Salt has the personality in which a salt of the earth winemaker like Bill is a perfect fit.

Part of his appeal is that he is ever the iconoclast. If you are looking for a provocative opinion (and usually a sensible one), he is your man.

For example, he thinks that bag-in-the-box wines made from British Columbia grapes should be permitted to carry the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) seal. The matter recently was in the news because Summerhill Pyramid Winery plans to release from boxed VQA wines primarily for restaurants. But the wines cannot be identified as VQA because the regulations state that VQA wines must be bottled only in glass.

Bill Eggert would like to have the option of release some boxed wines, although he seems to have no immediate plans for that. Given that all his wines are produced in limited volume and sell out quickly, he might have difficulty scraping together enough production for a box program.

Judging from his website, only one of the seven wines poured at Salt is actually available from the winery. A few might show up in a private wine store or on a restaurant wine list. Those who collect Fairview Cellars registered on the winery’s web site long ago.

Bill opened Fairview Cellars in 2000. It is based on a six-acre south-facing vineyard that overlooks the Fairview golf club near Oliver and is not far from the site of the historic mining town (it no longer exists) also called Fairview. Since there is no highway sign for the winery, visitors usually use the golf course as their marker.

The absence of a sign does not mean Bill is hostile to visitors. He will open the tasting room if he is around and if there is wine available. If there is a gate across the driveway, that might suggest he is not around. Fairview Cellars is basically a one-person operation and visitors need to accept that.

If Bill is not in the tasting room, chances are he is in his vineyard. “I am not a winemaker,” he once told me. “I am a grape grower. My wine is made in the vineyard and it is the vineyard secrets I keep to myself, not the winemaking secrets.”

Bill grew up in northern Ontario, the son of a mining engineer. He has a degree in agriculture from the University of Guelph and might still be working in Ontario if he had been able to talk a grape-growing uncle to replace the hybrid grapes in his vineyard with vinifera. Bill moved to British Columbia in 1963 and worked in Okanagan vineyards until buying his own land in 1989. You can bet it is planted to vinifera, notably with Cabernet Sauvignon, his favourite grape variety.

Initially, he planted only red grapes. “Why waste my land on white varieties?” he said once. Then he made a white wine in 2005, a Sauvignon Blanc, with purchased grapes. It was well received and Bill subsequently planted the variety in the coolest part of his vineyard.

The Salt tasting included two vintages of Sauvignon Blanc. The 2009 was made with grapes from a Golden Mile grower called Bruce Iversen. It is a classic, crisp varietal, with hints of lime and flint. The 2010 ($19.90 but the 190 cases are sold out) is a blend of Iversen and Fairview grapes. It is also quite a different wine. The acidity in the 2010 whites, Bill says, was the highest he had “ever experienced with vinifera in the Okanagan.” So he balanced the wine with enough residual sweetness to offset the acidity. The result is a soft and peachy Sauvignon Blanc.

Still available is Fairview’s Cabernet Franc 2009 ($26.90 with a production of 300 cases). This is a dark, muscular red with flavours of fig, plum, tobacco and chocolate. The generous texture adds to the satisfaction of drinking this wine. Bill advises opening it in 2013 but it tastes good already. 91.

Bill dipped into Fairview’s cellar for three reds from 2007, another red vintage almost as solid as the 2009 vintage.

Madcap Red 2007, which is mostly Merlot, is a svelte and polished wine; medium-bodied with a touch of mint and with currant flavours. 88.

The Bear 2007 is Fairview’s Meritage, a blend incorporating all five Bordeaux varietals, usually with Cabernet Sauvignon being 50% of the blend. Bill selects wines from his best barrels for this premium wine. This wine began with aromas of cassis, moving to flavours of black currants and liquorice. It presented a fairly tight structure at first but blossomed in the glass. 90.

Cabernet Sauvignon 2007: Bill describes this varietal as “the workhorse” at Fairview. He grows it on his original property and on a leased vineyard next door. As well, he contracts two acres of Cabernet Sauvignon at Inkameep Vineyards. The variety is used in at least two blends as well as being released on its own. The 2007 wine, which Bill suggests is three years from its peak, begins with the classic aroma of eucalyptus often found with Cabernet Sauvignon. It has red currant flavours with hints of cedar and cigar box; and coffee and chocolate on the finish. 90.

The tasting ended with a Cabernet Franc 2005, one of the first reds that Fairview bottled under screw cap. Lucky collectors with this wine will find that the closure has preserved the fresh berry and floral aromas and flavours very well. On the palate, there are flavours of boysenberry. The tannins have softened and the wine is elegant, but with not quite the power of the 2009. 89

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Church & State releases its first Rhone whites

Photo: Jeff Del Nin at the Coyote Bowl tasting bar

This spring, when Church & State Wines opened the Coyote Bowl winery’s tasting room just off Black Sage Road, it also released its first Viognier and its first white Rhone blend.

No one was happier with these new products than Jeff Del Nin, the winemaker who joined Church & State in 2009 after two or three vintages at Burrowing Owl.

A Canadian – he was born in Thunder Bay in 1971 and has a master’s degree in chemistry – he earned a winemaking degree in Australia after working in the chemical industry there. In Australia, he was attracted to the Viognier grape and the wines made there by Yalumba, the winery that brought Viognier back from near-extinction, adopting it as a flagship variety. In Jeff’s view, Yalumba’s Virgilius is the best Viognier in the world; and it is his benchmark.

Burrowing Owl, which he joined in 2006, grows no Viognier. Nor do many other Okanagan wineries. But Church & State, with more than 100 acres of vineyard on Black Sage Road, planted Viognier about the time Jeff was starting his Okanagan winemaking career, providing him with his first small harvest in 2010.

“I have been waiting for years to make a Viognier,” he said as he poured a glass of the 2010.

This wine represents a tweaking of the Church & State portfolio now that its young vineyards are producing. The winery started on the Saanich Peninsula, where it still has a winery and a vineyard. There, it plans to focus on sparkling wines.

However, Kim Pullen, the winery’s owner, has turned it primarily into an Okanagan winery, leasing a former packing house south of Oliver as a production and storage facility. Last year, Church & State opened a boutique winery and tasting room amid the vines of its Coyote Bowl vineyard.

The stylistic direction is to make Church & State wines that full-bodied, full of flavour and sensual in texture. “Kim likes a big soft pillow,” Jeff quips, a reference to the juicy reds with tannins that are ripe but not aggressive. Another influence on the style comes from consulting winemaker Bill Dyer, a Californian who made wines like that in the seven vintages he spent previously at Burrowing Owl.He supervised several Church & State vintages before ending his contract in November, 2009.

Church & State plans to produce 10,000 to 12,000 cases a year, 65% of it red wine. And all of the wines will be as big and a lush as Jeff can make them from grapes grown by Michael Mauz, the winery’s Geisenheim-trained vineyard manager,

The red wine portfolio, from which Pinot Noir has now been dropped, is built largely around the Bordeaux varieties. There are two flagship blends, Quintessential and the Coyote Bowl Meritage. Supplementing these are single varietals from the Bordeaux grapes. There is also a Syrah; it stays in the portfolio because Church & State grows it and because it makes a big red, supporting the overall style of Church & State reds.

The white wine portfolio is led by two big whites. The Chardonnay is made deliberately in what Jeff calls the California style – lots of ripe fruit flavour backed up with good but not excessive oak. The 2008 Chardonnay has won double gold and best of show in two major wine competitions. The 2009, not yet released, is made in the same style.

“It is unapologetically a new world style of Chardonnay,” Jeff says. “We are digging in our heels and we are saying this is the way Chardonnay should be done.”

The Viognier is also big and ripe. The grapes for the 2010 vintage were left on the vines late into the season because Viognier develops its flavours only late in the year. That was a risky thing to do in 2010 when there was bunch rot in the valley. Church & State eliminated unsuitable grapes at the sorting table. The upside of the year was that some of the rot was noble. The wine has the honeyed finish that comes from a touch of botrytis.

Jeff described the wine as “an apricot bomb,” an aroma and taste profile that was preserved by long, cool fermentation of very ripe grapes. “It has that huge rich mouthfeel,” he says. “That is stylistically the Viognier that I wanted to make.” He is considering barrel-fermenting some this fall.

The companion wine is Rhone blend called TreBella. It has about 12% Viognier (for the aromatic component) and roughly equal portions of Marsanne and Roussanne. Again, it is full and ripe.

“I place a very high priority on the texture of the wines I make,” Jeff says. “I try to do everything I can in the winery to build texture, all the way from the choice of yeasts, to how the grapes are handled to how the wine is handled afterwards – lees stirring and so forth.”

Two other new releases this spring will be a Gewürztraminer and a rosé made with Cabernet Franc grapes.

In the future, the wine portfolio is expected to be rounded out with a blend comprising the noble Alsace varieties – Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat.

“When I joined the company, we talked a great deal about the intended style of the wines,” Jeff says. “As a comparatively new entrant into the wine game, you can’t make styles of wines that have to put away for 10 years before you can appreciate them. You have to craft wines that are stylistically pleasing to people. They may still last for that period of time but they are far more pleasing to people up front.”

Even Quintessential, the winery’s icon red blended from the best wines in the cellar, is made to be generous and approachable.

Here are notes on the current releases.

TreBella 2010 ($24.90 with a production of 170 cases). The wine begins with floral and herbal aromas. On the palate, there are flavours of apricot and tropical fruits, backed by hints of honey and minerals. It is rich in texture, dry on the finish. 90.

Viognier 2010 ($24.90 with a production of 155 cases). This golden-hued wine has aromas and flavours of apricots and peaches with hints of honey on the finish. The texture is lush, almost fat, with the good backbone of minerals and tannin that sets Viognier apart as a white wine for red wine drinkers. 90.

Chardonnay 2008 ($24.90 for a production of 1,152 cases). This is a rich, bold Chardonnay. Half of the grapes were grown in an old Golden Mile vineyard and half in a vineyard on Black Sage Road. The two terroirs have been blended into a wine with complex citrus flavours – think marmalade – along with white peach and the buttery caramel note from malolactic fermentation and almost a year in French oak. The finish is long and lingering. 92.

Merlot 2009 ($25.90 with a production of 559 cases). This is a juicy, generous red with appealing berry aromas and flavours of black currants and blackberries and with a hint of spice. 90.

Coyote Bowl Meritage 2007 ($35 with a production of 550 cases). This is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. It has been in the bottle long enough to develop appealing aromas of berries and sage. It has flavours of sweet, savoury berries and has a meaty texture, with a long finish. 91.

Quintessential 2007 ($50 with a production of 547 cases). This is a Cabernet Sauvignon-led blend of all five Bordeaux varietals, including meaningful quantities of Malbec and Petit Verdot. It begins with aromas of mint, vanilla and chocolate. On the palate, there are rich flavours of currants and plums and chocolate. The long, ripe tannins give the wine a concentrated texture. This is a red for those who want to linger over a glass as the layers of flavour reveal themselves. 92-93.

Photo: Coyote Bowl winery

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Class of 2011: River Stone Estate Winery

Posted by Picasa

Photo: Lorraine and Ted Kane

Among this year’s new Okanagan winery owners, River Stone Estate Winery’s Ted Kane stands out for his intense and driven passion to be in the wine business.

“I was in second year medical school and Ted was in Edmonton and he was chomping at the bit to get out to the Okanagan and buy some land before it was all gone,” Lorraine, his wife, says, referring to the late 1990s. “We just had had a baby and we had no money.”

He curbed his impatience until she had her medical degree. It turned out that good properties were still available and, in 2001, they found 9½-acres of raw land near Oliver, wedged on a hill between Tuc-El-Nuit Road and the Okanagan River. A dense seven-acre vineyard was planted the following year, the first step in creating the winery that opened its tasting room quietly in April. There will be a grand opening in the fall when Corner Stone 2009, the winery’s flagship Bordeaux red, is ready for release.

The three wines already released – a Pinot Gris, a Malbec Rosé and a Cabernet Franc - are an impressive debut.

Born in Edmonton in 1962, Ted was making fruit wines at home by the time he was 19. “Then I got into kits and then right away into grapes.” He bought his first Okanagan grapes from Bill Eggert before Bill opened Fairview Cellars.

Ted was a respiratory therapist at the University of Alberta hospital with a burning ambition to open his own winery. “I built a small greenhouse by my house in Edmonton,” he says. “I bought grape vines from Eastern Canada and propagated and grew them, just so I could learn pruning and trellising and irrigation techniques.”

He met Lorraine at the university hospital where she nursed briefly before entering medical school. “I had to sell her on the idea of what we wanted to do and where we wanted to live, and that was going to be Oliver,” Ted says. Her medical school residency included time in Osoyoos and Ted seized the chance to look for the “perfect” vineyard property. He found the property and they moved to the Okanagan in 2002 where she is now a family doctor as well as a mother of three.

Lorraine grew up on a diary farm in the Fraser Valley. “I like farming; I like the lifestyle,” she says. “I thought I understood farming but harvest and crush is a completely different level of intensity. I could not believe it. I lost my husband there for about a month and a half.” She quips that she has started a support group for winemakers’ wives.

They have been something of 21st Century homesteaders on a property that had grown nothing but sage brush for about 30 years. The first clue that this is good dirt is the adjacent vineyard: Wild Goose’s renowned Mystic River Vineyard.

River Stone’s property has well-drained soils with ideal slopes to the south, the southeast and the southwest. The tightly-spaced vines are primarily Bordeaux reds, with a little Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer on the coolest part of the slope. The vineyard is planted in the French tradition, in the proportions needed for the winery’s red blend. The leading variety is Merlot, the foundation for the Corner Stone blend, followed by the other three varietals in the blend – Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Cabernet Franc. If there were room for Petit Verdot, Ted would grow that as well.

“I have seen people do a Meritage blend with just two of those varietals,” Ted says. “That’s not right. You have to have at least four of the five classics in the blend.”

He retained consultant Valerie Tait, who taught him viticulture at Okanagan College, to help him through his first year or two as a grape grower. Although he began making wines from his grapes in 2006, he retained consulting winemaker Jacqueline Kemp in 2009 to mentor him through River Stone’s early vintages.

“It is like an apprenticeship,” says Ted, who gave up his therapist career several years ago to concentrate on the winery. “I can fine-tune my winemaking with what she teaches and what she knows.” A New Zealand-trained winemaker with a strong résumé, she is also the consulting winemaker for Tantalus Vineyards.

Besides being an experienced winemaker, she brings the frugal values that support the limited resources of the Kanes. “New Zealand [wine growing] is really grass roots,” Ted believes. “People don’t need deep pockets to do it; they improvise and work with what they got … more of a garage-style winery, and that was what I run here.”

The River Stone winery is in a carriage house originally intended as a garage. Ted, husbanding finances, shelved a plan for gravity-fed winery amid the vines. The tasting room is on the ground floor of the house designed by Ted and Lorraine and built by Ted with help from two carpenters. “Ted has this thing where he feels the need to do everything on his own” Lorraine says.

The winery draws its name from the nearby river. “The river is a big part of our lives here, in the summer time especially” Lorraine says. “We have a great swimming hole down there; the kids spend a lot of time down there.”

The winery’s elegant label, with what looks like a courier du bois steering down river on a large maple leaf, picks up on that theme. It is surely one of the most economical label designs that any new winery has. Lorraine found a website, www.logomyway.com, of an organization that runs global contests for label and logo designs. Clients provide background on their businesses, put up modest prize money and sit back while designers compete.

River Stone’s design was created by an artist in Brazil. “It sort of evokes the place and our lifestyle,” Lorraine says.

Here are notes on the three wines now available.

River Stone Pinot Gris 2009 ($19.90). This is a satisfying wine with clean, focused flavours of citrus and pear, with good texture on the palate and with a crisp and refreshing finish. 89.

River Stone Malbec Rosé 2010 ($19.90). This wine was suggested by Jacqueline Kemp who recognized that the tasting room portfolio would be limited without it. The wine was made by cold-soaking the juice on skins for five days, extracting an intense, jewel-like colour and intense flavours of strawberry and red plums. The wine is full-bodied for a rosé, dry on the finish and altogether delicious. 90.

River Stone Cabernet Franc 2009 ($26). Only 61 cases were made. This was also not in the original plan but Jacqueline and Ted agreed that the quality of wine in one oak puncheon was special. The wine begins with an alluring aroma of red berries, mint and iodine. On the palate, there are flavours plum, black cherry, blackberry and chocolate, with a hint of cloves on the finish. 91.

River Stone Estate Winery
7148 378th Avenue,
Oliver, BC, V0H 1T0.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Perseus: Penticton's in-town winery

Photo: Anthony Burée

Visiting Perseus Winery & Vineyard in Penticton recently brought to mind a Sunday afternoon I once spent exploring wineries in Grinzing, a western suburb of Vienna.

The wineries and vineyards there sit comfortably among houses, apartments and shops just off the street car line. Most wineries serve hearty lunches. For a change of pace, there are several Beethoven museums in the area in houses in which the great composer once rented rooms.

The Perseus winery, which opened its tasting room last year, is in a 60-year-old house on Lower Bench Road, a busy street bordered by comfortable residences. It is one of a handful of wineries within Penticton city limits. You could actually walk here from downtown (there is no street car). For a cultural side trip, the art gallery is just down the hill.

It is only in the parking lot behind the wine shop that one sees the vines – a substantial expanse of vineyard running up a slope from a rugged ravine. None of this is visible from Lower Bench. Even in the future, when a proposed showcase winery is nestled into the ravine, Perseus is likely to remain discreetly in the urban landscape.

So far, it is a strategy that seems to be keeping the neighbours on side. “We’re open until six o’clock,” explains Anthony Burée, the general manager. “They can come home [from work], walk up the street, have a glass of wine at the bar and buy a bottle of wine.”

No cars park out front because the parking lot is tucked away out of sight and off the street. The house, although renovated to accommodate a very smart tasting room and a basement winery, looks largely unchanged. “It fits in with the neighborhood,” Anthony says.

Planning for this winery, which opened initially under the name, Synergy, began about five years ago. The three major partners are leading Penticton businessmen. Larry Lund, once a star center with the Houston Astros of the World Hockey Association, was the founder in 1963 of the Okanagan Hockey School. Ron Bell is a home builder, a land developer and a hotel owner. Jim Morrison operates a major construction company.

Among them, the three own just over 100 acres of vineyards in the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys; most of that acreage is just coming into production. A substantial portion of last year’s production, about 3,000 cases, was made with purchased grapes.

The early plans called for the construction of a winery designed by Robert Mackenzie, Penticton’s most experienced winery architect. Preliminary drawings have been made but, when the economy slumped in 2008, the partners decided on a more cautious strategy of building the brand before building the new winery.

Anthony, who had previously been involved in launching Le Vieux Pin and LaStella wineries, was hired last year as general manager. On his recommendation, the winery switched its name from the corporate-sounding Synergy to Perseus.

Perseus was actually among a group of prospective winery names that the partners had register before getting a license as Synergy. Anthony thought that Perseus is a great name, if only because the constellation can be seen in the night sky from the vineyard. However, Synergy remains the “fighting brand” label for wines in the $19 to $22 range.

Neither the fighting brand nor the premium range of wines are aggressively priced; that reflects Anthony’s judgment of what consumers will spend on wine after the recent adjustment in the economy.

“The halcyon days of being able to charge $50, $100 a bottle right out of the gate is not there any more,” he says. “I said we have to focus on creating a product that is so much better than what it is priced at. We are a brand new winery.”

The winemaker since the first vintage in 2008 has been Lawrence Herder, the co-owner of Herder Vineyards in the Similkameen. He and Anthony do many of the blends together in order to shape a Perseus style that is different from the Herder style. “There are winemaker egos,” Anthony says. “Fortunately, Lawrence is so well established that he does not mind doing it that way.”

Clearly, it works. The wines, in bottles with smart, contemporary labels, are well worth the stop in the tasting room. Here are my notes on some of the current releases.

Perseus Synergy Pinot Grigio 2009 ($18.99). This has the easy quaffability one associates with Pinot Grigio – notes of pears and citrus on the palate, refreshing acidity, lingering finish. 88.

Perseus Synergy Sauvignon Blanc 2009 ($19.99). This wine has ripe flavours of peaches and apricots, with a soft acidity that gives it a full texture on the palate. 87.

Perseus Synergy Merlot 2009 ($20.99). Here is good value. Ripe and spicy, with flavours of currants, it is as delicious as a good slice of fruit cake. 89.

Perseus Synergy Shiraz Cabernet 2009 ($21.99). This is a 58%/42% blend with Shiraz taking the lead in what is a classic pairing. It has aromas and flavours of spice and red berries with notes of leather from the Shiraz. 88.

Perseus Invictus 2008 ($29.99). This is the winery’s Bordeaux blend: 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 21% Cabernet Franc, 19% Merlot, 8% Malbec and 5% Petit Verdot. Elegant and full bodied with lovely ripe fruit, the wine tastes of currants, blueberries and blackberries with an appealing spicy finish. 90.

Perseus Invictus 2009 (not yet released). This wine is also built around about 50% Cabernet Sauvignon which accounts for the appealing eucalyptus aromas. A little more floral in aroma than the 2008 (probably reflecting its youthfulness), this has a similar flavour profile. The finish is vibrant, elegant and complex. 91.

Perseus Tempus 2009 (not yet released). This is the winery’s Syrah and a very good one it is. Round and chewy in texture, it has classic flavours of plum, delicatessen meats and spice, notably white pepper on the finish. 91.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Wine books celebrate our coastal wineries

The tidal wave of publicity about Okanagan wineries in the past decade must have seemed like a tsunami sweeping aside the wineries on Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands and the Fraser Valley.

It is ironic, then, that two books dealing with this “forgotten” region are in bookstores this spring.

One is my newest book: John Schreiner’s BC Coastal Wine Tour Guide (Whitecap Books, $20). The other is Island Wineries of British Columbia (TouchWood Editions, $30).

The purpose of this blog is to promote my book. But I have no hesitation in recommending the other book as well. While the books overlap somewhat, the differences are so substantial that, in fact, these are complementary volumes.

Island Wineries, written by contributors of EAT Magazine, devotes itself only to Vancouver Island and Gulf Islands producers. While missing some producers, it does include craft brewers and artisan distillers. It also includes recipes and some listings of restaurants and bed and breakfast accommodation. The book, with 232 pages, is illustrated with such beautiful photographs that it will appeal as a gift book.

BC Coastal Wine Tour Guide is laid out to be a practical tool for touring wineries. It is 234 pages but is in a handy pocket-sized format ideal for the wine tourist’s glove compartment or the saddle bags of the bike or motorcycle. The text covers the history of wine growing in the coastal regions (surprisingly interesting) and profiles 70 producers – wineries, cideries, meaderies and sake houses) from Chilliwack to Port Alberni, and points in between. Some of these producers are opening this summer or are under development. I include them to ensure that this book is as up to date as possible, and stays that way for a year or two.

The guide is a companion to my Okanagan Wine Tour Guide, now in its third edition. I persuaded my publishers that the coastal wineries needed a separate guidebook to help them raise their profiles. It has always struck me how few Vancouver consumers go wine touring in the Fraser Valley or on Vancouver Island. Perhaps they don’t know there are at least a dozen wineries to visit in the valley. An Island tour can fill a happy week, starting in the Saanich Peninsula and ending on Quadra Island. My book includes helpful maps.

The coastal producers are every bit as colourful as wine producers elsewhere in the province. Because the wineries are small, there is always a good chance that the owners will be hand to welcome visitors.

What is so interesting about coastal producers? Consider these examples.

* There are doctors in the house at three wineries. Averill Creek north of Duncan is owned by Andy Johnston who practised in Alberta for 27 years before setting out to make great Pinot Noir. Devlin and Joanne McIntyre, who took over Salt Spring Vineyards a few years ago, were long-time practitioners in Abbotsford. John Wrinch, the winemaker at Starling Lane, is a radiologist in Victoria. Four if you include veterinarian Hans Kiltz, owner of Blue Grouse Estate Winery.

* Former economists run several wineries. Elaine Kozak’s mother was upset when Elaine left her profession to make the wine at Garry Oaks Winery. Xavier Bonilla, who owns Cherry Point Estate Wines, was an economist in Colombia for three presidents. Rolf de Bruin and Heleen Pannekoek, the owners of Lillooet’s Fort Berens Estate Winery, trained and worked in economics in Holland before coming to Canada to start a winery.

* Of course, there are lawyers: Kim Pullen, the owner of Church & State; Eugene Kwan, one of the owners of Domaine de Chaberton; and Larry Pierce, who plans to open Little Tribune Farm and Winery this year on Hornby Island.

* Former oil industry managers Jeff and Susan Vandermolen have a unique guardian figure in the Comox Valley vineyard of their Beaufort Vineyard & Estate Winery. Carved from a massive cedar log, it is a Moai inspired by the stone carvings of Easter Island.

* An active towboat captain, Wade Bauck, owns The Fort Winery while a former operator of a towboat company, Bill Montgomery, plans to open 40 Knots Estate Winery this year at Comox.

* Many wineries offer unusual and unique products. Kermode Wild Berry Winery at Mission relies almost totally on wild berries as its raw material. At the Saskatoon Berry Farm south of Duncan, the sparkling wine is a blend of red table wine and saskatoon berry wine. Nearby, Damali Winery & Vinegary has a lavender-Gewürztraminer blend. Venturi-Schulze Vineyards is renowned for its balsamic vinegar (to say nothing of the fine wines). Vista D’oro Farms in the Fraser Valley makes a remarkable walnut wine, among other wines.

* Bird watcher Vaughan Chase, owner of Chase & Warren Estate Winery in Port Alberni, has a rare hummingbird nest on display in the wine shop.

My subjects all have engaging stories, generously shared with me for this book.

Obviously, I discuss and recommend wines as well, but always within the context of vivid personalities that make the coastal wine regions so special.

No surprise: Herder releases more Big Reds

Photo: Lawrence and Sharon Herder

If you want big red wines, Lawrence Herder is your man.

He is the winemaker and co-proprietor, with his wife Sharon, of Herder Winery and Vineyards in the Similkameen Valley.

Once the owner of a winery in Paso Robles in California, he chose the Similkameen for the re-launch of his brand in Canada because he wanted to make big reds here. While his initial vineyard choice proved to have some issues with frost, the current location on a hillside near Keremeos is a sun-drenched, south-facing slope with great air drainage and with a heat-reflecting cliff.

The fruit he gets from this vineyard and from others in the valley is exactly what the doctor would order for ripe, muscular wines. (He also gets fruit from the Okanagan, since some of his vines are still young.)

The winery opened May 1 for the season with three new releases. As well, the winery has allowed an early look at the 2008 Josephine, the flagship red which will not be released until this fall.

Here are my notes.

Herder 2009 Chardonnay ($20). Bold and rich, this wine has wrapped subtle oak (but not too much) around the flavours of apricots, apples and peaches. The wine was fermented half in stainless steel, half in French oak. The label says the alcohol is 13.4%; the impression on the palate is that it may be a trifle higher. I make that comment because the reds all have significantly more alcohol but, as red wines often do, carry it better. 88.

Herder 2008 Merlot ($35). This delicious wine is concentrated and juicy, beginning with aromas of spice, iodine, blueberry and cassis, leading to flavours of cassis and blackberry. The tannins are ripe and long, giving the wine a texture that is full and almost chewy. This wine was re-tasted a day later to see how it was developing, a test it passed with flying colours. This is a fine, generous Merlot, with 14% alcohol. 91.

Herder 2008 Cabernet Franc ($35). Here is a powerhouse, the Similkameen’s answer to Zinfandel, with 15.1% alcohol. The big ripe wine is so packed with extract and flavour that the alcohol is never an issue, providing you stop at two glasses. The wine has brambly aromas of blackberries and raspberries, with generous flavours of plum, fig and chocolate and with a spicy finish. If you like reds that make a statement, this is a real orator. 91.

Herder Josephine 2008 ($40 with a production of 3,180 bottles). That price is a bit of a guess on my part: it is the price for the 2007 Josephine, which is still in the market. Few wineries are raising prices this year and I have not seen Herder raise prices either. This is a blend of 81% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 6% Cabernet Franc. Stated alcohol is 14.8%, again not an issue, given the fullness of the fruit and texture. The wine begins with dramatic aromas of spicy blackberries. On the palate, there are flavours of blackberry and black currant, with the cedar notes often found in a Bordeaux-style red that has been aged in good oak. Collectors of previous vintages will recognize that, even with vintage differences, Herder has achieved a consistent house style. This wine can be aged for seven to 10 more years before hitting its peak. 92.

Monday, May 9, 2011

A world-beating Pinot Blanc from Kruger-Rumpf

Photo: Peter Schleicher

That fine German wines are available in Western Canada is due, at least in part, to the diligent salesmanship of Peter Schleicher, under his banner, German Estate Wines.

He understands the territory from an earlier time. Between 1967 and 1969, he lived in Regina and worked as a salesman for a firm that sold spin driers.

I learned that in a brief conversation with him last week and, unfortunately, neglected to clarify whether he was selling washing machines or industrial equipment for wheat farms.

Nor did I ask how he moved from that to selling wine. Perhaps it had something to do with the notorious taste of Regina water at the time. German wine would have tasted a lot better. In fact, almost anything tasted better,

At British Columbia’s Liquor Distribution Branch, the veteran staff remember Peter’s sales calls when he was getting established in the business. He would travel out to the LDB head office by bus from his downtown hotel, carefully husbanding the transfer. If the visit was short enough, he could travel back downtown on the same ticket.

Hard work has paid off. During the past decade or so, German Estate Wines has been welcomed regularly to the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival. The festival’s selection committee knew that Peter would always bring four or five outstanding wines from some of the top German producers he represents.

Last week, he was back in Vancouver to call on the LDB (probably arriving by taxi this time) and to host several trade tastings. I attended one of those events and tasted one of the greatest Pinot Blancs that I have ever tasted.

The flagship grape in Germany, of course, is Riesling and Peter had four Rieslings as well. They were all excellent; the Pinot Blanc, however, took many of us by surprise.

I am not sure why it should have. In Germany, the variety is called Weissburgunder and is fairly widely grown because it adapts well to many German terroirs. It was one of the varieties that Dr. Helmut Becker introduced to British Columbia in the late 1970s for a trial of vinifera grapes. Pinot Blanc was arguably the most successful variety in those trials. It is now grown widely here and turned into very appealing white wines by numerous B.C. producers.

The one that Peter showed last week is from Weingut Kruger-Rumpf, a very fine family winery in the Nahe. The family has been growing grapes since 1708. Since 1992, the winery has been a member of VDP, the consortium of top German wine producers.

Posted by Picasa

Photo: Stefan Rumpf

The winery is well worth visiting. It is in a small community called Münster-Sarmsheim. Stefan and Cornelia Rumpf, the owners, also operate a first-rate tavern as part of the winery.

Three of the five wines Peter presented last week were from Kruger-Rumpf. Two of them, according to Trialto, Peter’s Vancouver agency, are of “limited availability.” If this post stirs your interest, call Kenn Lymer at Trialto (604-367-5670).

Here are notes on Peter’s wines.

Dr. Pauly-Bergweiler Riesling QBA 2009 ($18.99 and a specialty store listing). This wine is fresh and appealing. Light on the palate, it tastes of limes and grapefruit with a tangy, dry finish. 90.

Rappenhof Alsheimer Fischerpfad Riesling Kabinett 2007 ($22; a speculative offering). This wine has a lovely, juicy balance, with honeyed flavours of lime and apple. The flavours are deceptively fresh and bright for a four-year-old white, a reminder of how well German Rieslings age. 91.

Weingut Kruger-Rumpf Schiefer Riesling Feinberb 2009 ($24.99 and a specialty listing). This elegant dry Riesling shows a complexing touch of petrol on the nose, with flavours of peach and citrus and a honeyed note on the finish. 90.

Weingut Kruger-Rumpf Munsterer Kapellenberg Kabinett 2009 ($25.99 and a speculative offering). Another elegant wine, this has aromas and flavours of lime and grapefruit with a lingering finish that does not want to quit. 91.

Weingut Kruger-Rumpf “Silvercap” Pinot Blanc Dry ($33 and a speculative offering). Both rich and juicy on the palate, this wine has lovely, clean aromas and flavours of apples and melons, with a spine of minerality. The finish is long and immensely satisfying. 95.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Okanagan Crush Pad brings concrete fermenters to the Okanagan

Photo: Egg-shaped concrete fermenter

When the Okanagan Crush Pad winery is completed this summer just north of Summerland, it will include six egg-shaped concrete fermenters – the first time that such fermenters have been installed anywhere in the Okanagan.

This is an indication of the cutting edge winemaking that we can expect from this winery.

Okanagan Crush Pad is owned by Christine Coletta and Steve Lornie, her husband. The senior winemaker is Michael Bartier, formerly the winemaker at Road 13 Vineyards.

The major label produced here is Coletta’s Haywire Winery, which is releasing two new wines, a Pinot Gris and a Gamay rosé.

Because Okanagan Crush Pad is set up as custom crush winery – making wine with other vintners who do not have their own wineries yet – there will also be other labels. In mid-June, it will release three wines under the Bartier-Scholefield label. That is the label of Michael Bartier and David Scholefield. David is what one would call a wine personality: a former portfolio manager with the Liquor Distributions Branch, he is now a teacher, consultant, wine judge and a wine representative with a major Vancouver wine agency.

The concrete fermenters are made in California by Sonoma Cast Stone, a company with a history in making a range of unusual concrete products.

“This is a very new concept to an Okanagan winemaker,” Michael says. “The irony there is that this is not a new concept at all, this is a very old concept.”

Wineries in France and elsewhere have used concrete tanks for at least a century, drawing the inspiration for such vessels from antiquity, when clay or ceramic containers were used for wine Over the past half century, stainless steel tanks have pushed out both concrete and wood fermenters (although wood is making a comeback for premium wines).

Photo: Alberto Antonini

The impetus for the use of the concrete tanks at Okanagan Crush Pad came from Alberto Antonini, their Italian winemaking consultant.

“Last summer we were looking over the winery plans with Alberto,” Michael remembers. “He is very quiet as he looks through the blueprints and he says, ‘These round things, what are those?’ I said: ‘Those are the tanks’. He asks what are they made of. Of course, I say, they are made of stainless steel. He said ‘I have an idea’.”

When Alberto began making wine years ago in his family winery, he was an advocate of stainless steel, having accepted that concrete tanks are not sanitary. After strenuous argument, he talked his father into replacing the winery’s concrete tanks.

“My father passed away a few years ago but if he could listen to me now, he would say I told you so,” Alberto says. His professional experience had turned him against stainless steel for the production of anything but “industrial” wine.

“Concrete is a nice environment,” he argues. “When you smell an empty concrete tank, you smell life. You smell something which is important for making a premium wine. If you do the same with a stainless steel tank, you smell nothing. You smell death. To me, the making of premium wine is about life, it is not about death.”

The egg-shaped fermenters have heating and cooling coils inside the four-inch thick walls for precise and even temperature control. The shape improves the contact between the wine and the lees while the production of carbon dioxide during ferment keeps the fermenting must moving gently.

“There are divine geometries, whether it is the Roman arch or the pyramid,” Michael believes. “The egg is a divine geometry. The movement of the wine against the lees is very important.”

Alberto also contends that fermenting with wild yeast succeeds better in concrete. As for sanitizing concrete, he believes that hot water is sufficient.

“I don’t want to kill anything” he says. “What you kill is what you lose. Premium fruit only brings good little animals into the facility. I want to keep them inside the facility and I want to create a natural environment. Concrete helps a lot to do that.”

The two 2010 vintage Haywire wines, which will be released next week, were made in stainless steel, of course, since Okanagan Crush Pad is still under construction. The experience does not seem to have hurt them. Here are my notes.

Haywire Pinot Gris 2010 ($23 with a production of 855 cases). A single vineyard wine (Switchback Vineyard, owned by Christine and Steve), this is crisp and focused white with a spine of good minerality and bright acidity. It tastes of lime and lemon, with notes of pear and apple. The finish is dry, tangy and refreshing. 90.

Haywire Gamay Noir Rosé 2010 ($21 with a production of 1,078 cases). This wine presents a lovely salmon pink hue, with aromas of raspberry and flavours of raspberry and cranberry. It has a crisply dry and tangy finish, thanks to its bright acidity. As much as I liked the wine, I think a touch of residual sugar would have put flesh on the lean texture. 88.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Orofino releases 2010 whites, 2009 reds

Photo: John and Virginia Weber, courtesy Orofino Vineyards

John and Virginia Weber, the owners of Orofino Vineyards, celebrate the 10th anniversary this year of their arrival in the Similkameen Valley to operate a six-acre vineyard.

Both from Swift Current in Saskatchewan, John had been a teacher and Virginia was (and still is) a nurse. There was not even a great deal of farming in their backgrounds, let alone growing grapes. Yet they have succeeded brilliantly as wine growers, making small volumes of excellent wine that sells out quickly after its release.

They are original thinkers. The winery they opened in 2005 is housed in a building made of straw bales. Unique among Canadian wineries, it was built at moderate cost. The natural insulating quality of the bales minimizes the winery’s energy consumption and its environmental footprint.

It is hard to say whether that motivates consumers with a green sensibility to buy Orofino wines. The Webers do not make a big deal about their values, largely preferring to let the wines speak for themselves.

The wines are good, as I found during a tasting with John of the recent releases from Orofino. These included two whites from the 2010 vintage. That year, John says, was “fantastic for whites – and for reds if the work was done properly in the vineyard.” The white varieties matured at slightly lower sugar levels than in the previous year; alcohol levels are a little more moderate but the flavours of the wines are not compromised.

Here are my notes.

Pinot Gris 2010 ($19.90 with a production of 165 cases). Orofino drew grapes for this wine from two Similkameen growers not far from the winery. The juice remained on the skins for several hours after crushing, picking up more flavour and the slightest of bronze hues before being fermented in stainless steel. The result is a cleanly focussed wine with flavours of citrus, pear and apple and with a crisply dry finish. John believes it is the best Pinot Gris he has made. 90.

Riesling 2010 ($19.90 with a production of 710 cases). John did not say so, but I think this the best Orofino Riesling yet. He drew on three Similkameen vineyards for the fruit, including the 21-year-old vines at Orofino, which give the wine a fine mineral backbone. While the aroma is still restrained (time in the bottle will develop that fully), the wine is packed with flavours of grapefruit and lime. The wine fermented to natural dryness, ending up with a tangy, refreshing finish and 12.3% alcohol. 90

Pinot Noir 2009 ($31.90 with a production of 70 cases). This wine is made entirely with estate-grown grapes. John has four clones of Pinot Noir in four different blocks, one of which is 22 years old. The volume amounts to about three barrels, one of which was new French oak. The wine, which is unfiltered and unfined, spent 16 months in barrel before being bottled. It begins with appealing aromas of spice and strawberries. On the palate there is more raspberry and strawberry, with toast and spice from the underlying barrel notes. It has an attractive silky texture. 90.

Red Bridge Merlot 2009 ($25 with a production of 650 cases). Five vintages ago, John began buying Merlot grapes from Chris Scott’s five-acre Oak Knoll Vineyard at Kaleden. He likes the grapes so much that this remains the permanent exception to his sourcing only Similkameen fruit. Ironically, the wine is named after the red bridge across the Similkameen River at Keremeos. This is an appealing wine, with aromas and flavours of blackberry, blueberry and plum. The dense, chewy texture of the wines reflects that Scott cropped the vines about 2 ½ tons an acre – when Merlot is often cropped nearly double that. This big, ripe wine has 14.7% alcohol but has so much substance that the alcohol is not hot. 91.

Beleza 2008 ($33.90). This wine was already released last year, winning several awards. It is a blend of 60% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% each of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Unfiltered and unfined again, it spent 16 months in a combination of French and American oak. It begins with aromas of currants and chocolate, continuing to flavours of plum, black cherry, vanilla and spice. It has substantial weight on the palate and ripe tannins that will allow it to age well for another five years. 92.

Orofino has two other 2009 reds not yet released, a Syrah and a Cabernet Sauvignon from a nearby vineyard called Passion Pit. You can imagine what the local teenagers did there before vines were planted.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Quails' Gate wines reprise three vintages

Photo: Vineyard at Quails' Gate

In each of the last three Okanagan vintages, nature has thrown curves at the vintners. It has taken careful grape growing by experienced viticulturists to produce good wines.

There are few Okanagan families with more vineyard experience than the Stewarts, the owners of Quails’ Gate Estate Winery. The vineyard on a slope of Mt. Boucherie overlooking Okanagan Lake was established in 1956. It has been replanted several times as better wine-growing varieties came available; some of the oldest vines date from the early 1960s. However, the emphasis in the last decade has been on increasing the Pinot Noir plantings. The winery grows eight or nine clones now and makes its flagship wine from that variety.

The recent vintages have tested the acumen of the Quails’ Gate team.

The 2008 season began with a cool spring and late bud break. Then a spell of fine warm weather caused the vines to put on a heavy crop which had to be thinned considerable to ensure good ripening. Cool weeks in autumn delayed ripening. The season ended two weeks late but with a blast of warm weather. The harvest started in mid-October, was short and intense – and produced good quality grapes.

The 2009 season, coming off a long and cold winter, also saw late bud break. That was followed by warm, sometimes hot weather for much of the growing season, with an early harvest beginning in the third week of September and finishing about the same time the 2008 harvest had started. The harvest ended a month ahead of previous vintages. Again, intensely flavoured grapes were produced.

The 2010 season began with very late bud burst. A cooler than average spring required aggressive crop thinning so that the vines would ripen what crop remained. Quails’ Gate had a much smaller harvest than in previous years. The rainy September threatened the vines with mildew, combated by removing leaves so that the natural air flow kept the grapes healthy. The weather turned for the better late in September. Quails’ Gate began its harvest October 4th and only finished with an early icewine harvest on November 23. In spite of all the challenges of the year, the grapes came in with the intensity of flavour and the vibrant acidity that yields good wines from a cool year.

The recent releases from the winery show that Quails’ Gate’s vineyard and winemaking crew can hit the curves, sometimes out of the park.

Here are notes on those wines.

Quails’ Gate Pinot Noir 2008 ($24.99 with a production of 7,424 cases). This wine, with 14% alcohol, has the big, ripe flavours of that vintage. The winemakers extracted additional flavour by macerating the juice on the skins for about 20 days. The wine was aged entirely in French oak (15% new) for about 11 months. It is a dark wine with aromas of cherries, raspberries and with bright but also savoury berry flavours, along with a touch of mocha. It has the velvet texture of a classic Pinot Noir. 90.

Quails’ Gate Stewart Family Reserve Pinot Noir 2009 ($45 with a production of 3,112 six-bottle cases). It is a seductive wine, beginning with a rush of spicy berry aromas in the glass. There are concentrated flavours of black cherry, plum and spice. The velvet texture adds to the wine’s seduction. This elegant wine is so good that it should be in a one-litre bottle because every glass tastes like more. 93.

Quails’ Gate Chardonnay 2009 ($19.99). The winery made 4,420 cases. The wine was fermented 50% in barrel, 50% in stainless steel, leaving the spotlight on the fruit flavours and keeping the oak flavours quite subtle. It begins with citrus aromas. The flavours are clean and focussed – tangerine, a note of honey and buttered brioche, with lingering clove notes on the finish. This is a very appealing wine. 90.

Quails’ Gate Stewart Family Reserve Chardonnay 2009 ($29.99). Fermented entirely in French oak barrels, this wine presents with a disciplined elegance, reflecting the intensity of flavours and minerals from mature vines. There are aromas and flavours of citrus over subtle oak, with a lingering finish that includes notes of cloves. This wine should be cellared a few years to achieve all of its complex potential. 91.

Quails’ Gate Dry Riesling 2010 ($16.99 with a production of 4,800 cases). This wine begins with aromas of honeyed citrus fruits, leading to intense flavours of lime and grapefruit. There is a good backbone of minerals and bright acidity. Recently, I had a 2006 Quails’ Gate Dry Riesling; the age had rounded the acidity and increased the intensity of the aromas and fruit. I would recommend putting the 2010 away for a few years as well. 91.

Quails’ Gate Chenin Blanc 2010 ($18.99 with a production of 4,400 cases). This wine actually is 90% Chenin Blanc, fermented in steel. The rest is Sauvignon Blanc which was barrel-fermented with a little Chenin Blanc, a technique to achieve a little more weight, according the winemaker Grant Stanley’s notes. It worked – “good weight” appears in my notes. This is a crisp, tangy white with aromas and flavours of green apples and lime. 90.

Quails’ Gate Gewürztraminer 2010 ($16.99 with a production of 3,700 cases). This is a restrained reading on the variety, with delicate aromas of rose petals and cinnamon, flavours of lychee and grapefruit and a crisp finish. 88.

Quails’ Gate Chasselas Pinot Blanc Pinot Gris 2010 ($17.99 with a production of 9,000 cases). This one brand alone is bigger in volume than most of the wineries British Columbia; that is testimony to the popularity of this slightly off-dry white. Chasselas is a Swiss variety that the Stewarts planted by accident in the 1970s when their vine supplier screwed up their order for a labrusca white. Recognizing their good fortune, they never pulled it out. On its own, Chasselas makes a rather neutral wine. The winemaker transformed the wine by adding 30% Pinot Blanc and 10% Pinot Gris to the blend. This is a juicy wine with flavours of melons, apples and lime and with a vibrant acidity that adds to the refreshing finish. 90.

Quails’ Gate Rosé 2010 ($14.99 with a production of 3,500 cases). Made with 90% Gamay and 10% Pinot Noir, this is a fine dry rosé just begging for a hot summer. There are aromas and flavours of raspberry, strawberry and red currant, with a refreshing tangy finish. 89.