Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Winter wine festival at Sun Peaks

Photo: Okanagan Wine Festivals Society chair Eric von Krosigk

When the Okanagan Wine Festivals Society launched a winter wine festival 14 years ago, the focus was on Icewine.

As iconic a wine style as that is, it was somewhat limiting. The winter festival quickly opened up to embrace all styles of Okanagan and Similkameen wines. The 27 wineries at Sun Peaks Resort this year were pouring everything – sparkling wine, table wine, fruit wine, port-style wine and, of course, Icewine.

The resort, which is marking its 50th anniversary this year, has always been the venue for the winter wine festival. The Wine Festivals Society has resisted pressure to move it to Kelowna or Penticton. There, the wineries would be preaching to converted locals since the Okanagan gets few tourists in winter.

At Sun Peaks, however, the wineries are much more likely to be exposing their products to consumers relatively new to British Columbia wines. Sun Peaks draws both local and international visitors, many of whom take time off from skiing to attend winemaker dinners and other festival events. This interaction extends the brand of British Columbia wines.

The resort is about 45 minutes north of Kamloops (there is a shuttle from the airport). The compact and friendly village nestles at the base of good ski runs. There is a good chance that guests get to ski with long-time resident and Olympic champion Nancy Greene Raine. These days, however, she splits her time between the resort and the Senate in Ottawa.

Sun Peaks has none of the pretentions of Whistler. The restaurants, for example, manage to satisfy without over-the-top wine cellars (and prices).

Of course, Whistler’s Cornucopia each November is a far bigger food and wine festival because it draws on a bigger market and includes imported wines as well as British Columbia wineries. However, it is not a hardship to have to taste only British Columbia wines.

Whereas the big Cornucopia tastings are all in a large conference centre, the major tasting at Sun Peaks encompasses the village. This year, the wineries were spread among 14 locations. Tasters, wine glasses in hand, stomped through the snow from one hotel lobby or shop to another. The experience is both intimate and merry, as groups of tasters exchange recommendations as they pass each other.

To sum it up, this is wine festival manages to be serious at the same time as it is casual and fun. It works for me.

Here are notes on some of the wines I thought noteworthy. I should add that get to every winery’s table, so there certainly are noteworthy wines I missed.

Black Hills Syrah 2009 ($35 for a production of 1,200 cases). This is the first Syrah from Black Hills and seems an obvious companion to Nota Bene. Dark in colour, the wine begins with aromas of pepper, black cherries and game meat. On the palate, the flavours are generous, with flavours of plums and figs and the spiciness of good deli meats. The wine is full, with the textural elegance of ripe tannins. 90.

Cassini Syrah Collector’s Series 2009 ($34). A robust Syrah in the Cassini style, the wine has meaty and dark fruit aromas with flavours of black cherry, plum, fig, liquorice and pepper and an almost earthy finish. 90.

Cassini Viognier 2010 ($19 for a production of 425 cases). With an alcohol of 12.6%, this is probably the lightest wine from Cassini in the vintage. It has pleasant fruit aromas and flavours of apricot, pineapple, pear and lemon. The wine is crisp and tangy with skein of minerality. 88.

Church & State Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 ($26). Just being released, this wine created something of a buzz among the tasting crowds. Made from grapes grown in Vanessa Vineyard in the Similkameen Valley, this is a ripe and elegant wine, tasting of currants, plums and chocolate; a very satisfying drink. 91.

Church & State Quintessential 2008 ($50). This is a blend of five Bordeaux varietals (the percentage of each is not available). Each varietal was aged separately in French oak for 12 months and then, after the wine was blended, it spent another 12 months in French oak. The wine soaked up the wood very well; it does not intrude on the vibrant aromas and flavours of red fruit (raspberry, cherry), with hints of mocha and red liquorice. The fine-grained tannins give the wine a supple, accessible texture. 90.

Church & State Hollenbach Pinot Noir 2009 ($26). Just being released this is a delicious, concentrated wine with lots of black cherry flavours. 88-90.

Ex Nihilo Pinot Noir 2010 ($N.A.). The winery’s first Pinot Noir is a promising start – a wine with concentrated fruit and aromas and flavours of cherries. Still firm, the wine needs another year in the bottle. 88-90.

Fort Berens Pinot Gris 2010 ($18). This wine is made in the broad, rich style of Alsace with flavours of apricot, pear and white peach. There is a honeyed hint of botrytis on the nose and on the finish. The alcohol, at 13.8%, is a little on the bold side for a white wine. I scored this 86 in the spring; time in bottle has raised it to 89.

Fort Berens Meritage 2009 ($28). This is a blend of 70% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Cabernet Franc. It has the soft, ripe texture of Merlot, with attractive aromas of blueberry and blackberry. The berry flavours echo these aromas. The rich, ripe tannins give the wine an early accessibility and appeal. 90.

Hester Creek Cabernet Franc Reserve 2009 ($26.99). This swaggering red with a perfume that vaulted from the glass caused a significant stir when it was served at a dinner. The fruit flavours just burst with blackberry, raspberry and cherry notes. 92.

Perseus Tempus 2009 ($28.90). This is a chewy Syrah with flavours of plum and black cherry and earthy minerals. 90.

Sonoran Jazz Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 ($27.90). The smooth texture of this wine reflects the fact that it spent 28 months on oak, 90% of it new. The wine has appealing currant and vanilla flavours. 89.

St. Hubertus Dry Riesling 2009 ($15.75). After squandering its mature Riesling vines for years in an off-dry style, St. Hubertus has started making what Riesling lovers would call a serious Riesling. This has the classic touch of petrol on the nose with citrus flavours. The mineral elements give the wine an excellent structure. The finish is crisp and dry. 90-91.

Stag’s Hollow GVM 2010 ($27.99). This is a novel white blend of Grenache (66%), Viognier (23%) and Marsanne (11%). Grenache is a red variety but in 2010 (and again in 2011), winemaker Dwight Sick judged the grapes not ripe enough for one of his big red blends. So he pressed it as a white grape, producing a complex, barrel-fermented wine with flavours of apples and melons. The rich texture will blossom with a few years of bottle age. 90.

Stag’s Hollow Cabernet Franc 2009 ($27.99). This is the winery’s first varietal Cabernet Franc. Youthfully firm, the wine begins with brambleberry aromas and tastes of blackberries, tobacco and chocolate. 91.

Stag’s Hollow Hart 2010 ($25 for 500 ml bottle; 78 cases released). This is a port-style wine made with very ripe Merlot and fortified to 20%. It has a delicious core of sweet fruit. The wine should be cellared for a few years. 88.

Summerhill Organic Riesling 2009 ($19.95). Winemaker Eric von Krosigk, who is also chair of the Okanagan Wine Festivals Society, has made a 10.2% Riesling that takes him back to the Mosel, where he learned winemaking. The wine is tangy, with flavours of lime; it also has aromas and flavours of petrol. 90

Summerhill Organic Syrah 2008 ($39.95 for 130 cases). With an alcohol of only 12.5%, this is an elegant red with notes of pepper, chocolate, black cherry and figs on the palate and with an earthy finish. 88.

Tinhorn Creek Kerner Icewine 2010 ($29.99 for 200 ml). By packaging this wine in a small bottle, Tinhorn makes it affordable for those who would like to taste Icewine but balk at the price. This is a wine with exquisite balance of acidity and sweetness, with clean and fresh flavours of pineapple and ripe apricot. 90.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Serendipity rolls out its big reds

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Photo: Serendipity Winery's Judy Kingston

Changing careers to enter the wine business has a romantic appeal to many – but it is not a walk in the park. Just ask Judy Kingston, who operates Serendipity Winery at Naramata.

For 25 years, she practised computer law with a big Toronto law firm. But in 2006 she left that career for personal reasons and bought a Naramata orchard which has since been replanted with 7 ½ acres of vines. A winery was built on the property in 2010, opening its tasting room in the spring of 2011.

Along the way, she has had to acquire a whole new set of skills, from planting and growing grapes to cellar management. Just before the 2011 vintage, Jason Parkes, her winemaker, suffered an injury which kept him out of the cellar during crush. She was largely on her own in managing the 2011 harvest.

No doubt that was daunting; but it is not the first daunting challenge she has mastered. The first may have been when she started hand-selling Serendipity’s first wines in 2011.

“I have never sold anything in my life because I’ve been a lawyer,” she told me last spring, after her first visit with samples to sommeliers in Vancouver. “I never had to.”

Her attachment to the wines is understandably possessive. “Because I planted the grapes, I have seen them all the way through and then helped put them in the bottle,” she explained. “For me, it was like I was in the bottle. It was a real funny thing for me. It was the first time I had ever done it, offering myself in a bottle to somebody.”

After running a tasting room last summer, she undoubtedly learned the art of letting go what she once referred to as her children because Serendipity has now released several new wines.

These include four ultra-premium reds made in such limited production that you need to belong to Serendipity’s wine club for a first crack at them. The reds are aggressively priced but, in my judgment, the quality is such that they don’t disappoint. These are all bold, ripe wines with alcohol levels between 14.5% and 15% but with so much substance that one is not aware of the alcohol.

Here are notes on the current releases.

Serendipity White Lie 2010 ($18). The varieties in this white blend are not disclosed on the label but my guess is that the wine is anchored with Viognier. Crisp and tangy, the wine begins with aromas of pear and pineapple. On the palate, there are flavours of green apples, green melon and apricot. The spine of minerality in the backbone is what makes me think there is Viognier here. The finish is lingering. 90.

Serendipity Private Reserve Estate Cabernet Franc 2009 ($50). Dark in colour, this wine begins with aromas of figs, plums and vanilla. It delivers layers of flavour – black currants, black cherry, coffee, chocolate and liquorice. The structure is still firm, suggesting the wine has even more to give with several years of cellaring. Hence, a point score suggesting the wine’s upside. 90-92.

Serendipity Private Reserve Estate Merlot 2009 ($50). This wine begins with aromas of blueberry and boysenberry and goes on to deliver bold, ripe flavours of black currants, blackberries and figs. The wine combines both power and elegance; it also deserves a few more years of cellaring. 90-92.

Serendipity Private Reserve Estate Syrah 2009 ($50). Only 40 cases of this Syrah were produced. Once again, this confirms the house style of Serendipity reds – big and bold. This wine has aromas and flavours of plum, black cherry, cola and vanilla, with a hint of chocolate and spice on the finish. The tannins are long and ripe, giving the wine a muscular texture. 90.

Serendipity Private Reserve Serenata 2009 ($50). This is the winery’s flagship Bordeaux blend, a complex wine with aromas of vanilla, plum and fig and with flavours of plum, figs and chocolate. The firm but ripe tannins frame a lovely core of sweet fruit flavours. The structure of this wine suggests it is a keeper with plenty of upside. 91-93.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Admiral Shorts and his fleet of ports

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Ganton & Larsen Prospect Winery’s latest releases include the winery’s first port-style wine, labelled Admiral Shorts Okanagan Tawny.

Given the limited size of the market for ports, I asked the winery for its market rationale. I asked a similar question of one or two other domestic port producers. The replies confirmed that these are not always wines that the marketing department asked for. These are wines that the winemakers wanted to make.

When I put the question to a marketing executive at Mark Anthony Brands (Prospect is one of the brands), he in turn put the question to Wade Stark, the winemaker.

I was told: “He says that he’s been quietly and patiently observing the development of these almost 20 year old barrels of wine that he was lucky enough to have access to. In the last year or so they were tasting surprisingly well and he decided they were ready for bottling and sharing with the public.”

For those of us who appreciate fortified wines, we are lucky to have winemakers like Wade around. This is a delicious 90-point wine with aromas of spice and vanilla and intense cassis flavours. I enjoyed it with cheese. It would pair well with fruit cake, chocolate or walnuts, all the usual pairings with port. The price, $17.99 for a half bottle, astonishes for wine that has been barrel-aged this long.

It is available in B.C. liquor stores. Well, actually, there are 94 bottles divided among three stores – one in Kamloops, one in Burnaby and one in Kamloops. Of course, your local liquor store will bring it in for you if you ask. It will also be in the Mark Anthony stores.

That spotty distribution by the B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch tells something about the market for port through the LDB stores.

In the 12 months to September 30, 2011, sales of imported port in the LDB totalled $3.9 million (down two percent from a year earlier). Sales of domestic VQA port in that 12 month period were only $359,000, but that was 25% higher from a year earlier.

Sales of non-VQA domestic port in that 12 months totalled $851,000, down about 1%. The wines in this group include primarily Brights 74 ($8.59 for a full bottle) and Okanagan Cellars from Calona ($19.99 for two litres). These are brands that have been around for a long time: Brights 74 (there is an even cheaper sherry) may be the oldest Canadian wine brand. Currently, the LDB has 2,270 bottles of the port spread among 162 stores. These are not for the port connoisseur but for those who want wines that are sweet and potent.

Admiral Shorts Okanagan Tawny is a wine that a connoisseur will enjoy. The name refers to a man named Captain T.D. Shorts who operated a freight boat for a few years in the 1880s on Okanagan Lake. (Prospect Winery names all of its wines after obscure facts from Okanagan history.)

The size of the domestic market for VQA-quality domestic ports probably is larger than the LDB’s sales figures show because most of these wines are never listed by the LDB in the first place. Wineries hand sell them directly or through channels like VQA stores. When you dig through winery websites, you find a surprising number of these wines, including blackberry and other fortified fruit wines.

Some points of definition: very few are called Port. Under an agreement Canada signed a decade ago with the European Union, our wineries have had to stop using European geographic names on Canadian wine. Some Okanagan wineries are testing that. Dirty Laundry Winery proposes releasing a wine called “A Girl in Every Port” while Pent├óge Winery is thinking of releasing a very good fortified Zinfandel called “A Port in a Storm.” Good luck.

Most of these wines are made like real Port, although not with authentic Port varieties, which have just been planted in the Okanagan. That means that super-ripe grapes or fruit is crushed and fermented about half way to dryness before being fortified with brandy or grain alcohol. That arrests fermentation, leaving enough natural sugar in the wine to rate between 8 and 10 on the LDB sweetness scale, with between 16% and 19% alcohol. The wines are finished in bottle or barrel before release, a process that can take years if the object is to make a tawny style.

Here, from a quick canvass of memory, notes and a few websites, are some examples of VQA or VQA-quality ports available in the LDB, VQA stores or directly from wineries (since fruit wines are not VQA eligible). All are sold in 375 ml bottles unless otherwise indicated. The La Frenz wines, and a few others, are sold out.

Fruit wines are in italics.

Averill Creek Cowichan Black ($18)
Beaufort Vineyards Black ($18)
Black Widow Vintage One ($25)
Blue Moon Winery Lunacy ($22)
Blue Moon Winery Dark Side ($22)

Burrowing Owl Coruja ($N.A.)
Calona Vineyards Sonata ($16.99)
CedarCreek Platinum “M” ($65 for 750 ml).
Cherry Point Cowichan Blackberry ($20)
Desert Hills The Ambassador ($25; $50 for 750 ml)
Elephant Island Stellaport ($28)
Elephant Island Cassis ($20)
Forbidden Fruit Plumiscuous Plum Mistelle ($26.95)
Forbidden Fruit Caught Apricot Mistelle ($26.95)
Forbidden Fruit Cerise D’Eve ($29.95)
Fort Winery Raspberry Portage ($20)
Fort Winery Wild West Blackberry ($20)

Granite Creek Fortified Merlot ($20)
Gray Monk Odyssey III ($20 for 500 ml)
Kettle Valley Caboose ($24)
La Frenz Vintage Port ($25 for 500 ml)
La Frenz NV Tawny ($20)
La Frenz NV Liqueur Muscat ($20
Quails’ Gate Fortified Vintage Foch ($23 for 375 ml)
Rustic Roots Mulberry Pear ($29)
Salt Spring Vineyards Blackberry “Port” ($24)
Stag's Hollow Hart ($25 for 500 ml)
Starling Lane Port Victoria Wild ($23)
Sumac Ridge Pipe ($25 for 500 ml)
Summerhill Chalice NV ($30)
Vista D’oro D’Oro Walnut Wine ($49.50)
Wild Goose Black Brant ($20)