Sunday, June 16, 2013

Seven Stones has a new cellar

The photograph at the head of this posting was taken in late April at Seven Stones Winery in the Similkameen Valley.

The concrete structure is one end of the 3,000-square-foot underground cellar that owner George Hanson added to his winery. To build it, a massive pit was excavated. When the structure was in place, it was covered with earth. This photo was taken the day before the final loads of earth were put in place.

The rationale for this project is that George has been able to move 300 barrels from the above-ground winery into the northern half of the cellar. There, the barrels of wine will mature in the cool ambient temperature of the earth. A small waterfall tumbling down the north wall will maintain ideal humidity, reducing the evaporation loses from the barrels during the hot, dry Similkameen summers.

The vacated above-ground barrel storage now is used to store case goods, which were offsite. Seven Stones is making about 3,000 cases a year, on the way to a target of 4,000–4,300 cases.

While utterly practical, the cellar also caresses a bit of the winemaker’s ego. After all, George called his icon red blend The Legend from the very first release several vintages ago.

The south end of the cellar, which connects to the Seven Stones tasting room with a spiral staircase, includes a commercial kitchen and a space for winery dinners. There is nothing quite like this in any of the other dozen wineries in the Similkameen.

George arrived in the Similkameen in 1999 to buy property for the 20-acre vineyard he planted just beside Highway 3 in 2001.

Born in Alberta in 1957, Hanson spent 25 years in the Yukon, becoming a manager in the territory’s telephone system. “I got an early golden handshake from the telephone company and decided to pursue my dream,” he recounts. He had already been thinking of retiring to a winery of his own by the time he was 55, having become, by his own account, the Yukon’s best amateur winemaker.

He planted primarily red varietals. “I remember planting this vineyard and thinking that the reason is to make a Meritage blend,” he says. Accordingly, he planted Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Subsequently, he added Petit Verdot and Malbec, giving himself all five major Bordeaux reds.

He was not entirely focussed on Meritage, for he also grows Syrah, Pinot Noir, along with Chardonnay. The Seven Stones Syrah is always a big, generous wine. The Pinot Noirs, considering the heat of the Similkameen summers, are remarkably elegant. The 2012 Pinot Noir, a concentrated wine with floral aromas and cherry flavours, will have a tribute label to George’s late wife, Vivianne, who died in 2012.

It was Vivianne, who formerly had run a Prince George health foods store, who suggested the winery’s name. The inspiration is from seven massive boulders around the Similkameen significant in First Nations history. Standing Rock, for example, was a meeting place. A mural in the Seven Stones tasting room elaborates on this history.

George hired a consultant to make the winery’s debut vintage in 2003, but he has long since taken complete charge of the cellar.

“The Legend is my top priority,” he says of the icon. He limits production to 100 cases a year but that wine has the effect of lifting the entire portfolio. It is not made from special blocks in the vineyard but is selected from best barrels in the cellar. That disciplines him to grow every vine with The Legend as the objective.

“It is blended from my favourite barrels in the cellar – my favourite Cabernet Sauvignon barrels and my favourite Merlot barrels, and then I play with them,” he says. “My strategy is to make The Legend and then I choose the next barrels to make the Meritage blend. Once I have the blends completed, everything else is spun off as a single varietal.”

The “leftovers” are often exceptional. In a recent vintage, Petit Verdot not needed in either The Legend or the Meritage became a solo release of 23 cases. Visitors to the winery snapped it up in four days.

One of the best selling varietals from Seven Stones is Row 128 Merlot. It started as a small label from George’s favourite row in his vineyard. It has become such a successful brand that George has had to plant more Merlot.

This spring Seven Stones also launched its first wine club. Members commit to buying three cases a year, typically six bottles of one variety and six of another wine in each case. The offerings, sold at a 10% discount, occasionally include library wines.

George had expected to enrol 50 members by the end of the year but was delighted to have 52 members after just one month. “What I learned from that is that our brand has some traction,” he says.

Here are notes on some current releases.

Seven Stones Pinot Noir 2009 ($28). This is a charmer, with aromas and flavours of strawberries and cherries. There is a spiciness on the finish that recalls black tea. The texture is silky. 90.

Seven Stones Meritage 2008 ($32). With almost five years of age, this wine has matured to be complex and elegant, with aromas of cassis and flavours of black currant, blueberry, plum and spice. The blend is 58% Merlot, 37% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot. 91.

Seven Stones Row 128 Merlot 2010 ($30). This is a remarkably ripe and concentrated wine, considering that the vintage was cool. The winery achieved that by dropping 60% of the crop in August so the remaining grapes would ripen. The wine has vibrant flavours of plum and blackberry with long ripe tannins. 90.

Seven Stones Cabernet Franc 2010 ($30). This is another vibrant red, with brambly aromas of raspberries and blackberries and with a touch of chocolate on the finish. 90.

Seven Stones Syrah 2011 ($35). This is a juicy red with earthy plum flavours, along with pepper in the aroma and licorice on the finish. 90.

Seven Stones Speaking Rock Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 ($35). I reviewed this wine a year ago and gave it 91. I think it is even better now, starting with aromas of cassis and blackberry and delivering dollops of sweet fruit, chocolate and coffee to the palate. 93.

Seven Stones The Legend 2010 ($45). This is 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 12% Petit Verdot and 8% Cabernet Franc. This is a bold and complex red, with floral, spicy and berry aromas and with flavours of black currant, raspberry, blackberry. On the finish, there are notes of dark chocolate. 94.

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