Monday, January 27, 2014

Oculus: lifting all boats at Mission Hill

 Photo: Mission Hill winemaker John Simes

A saying with which we are all familiar is that a riding tide lifts all boats.

An icon wine performs that role for a winery’s portfolio. There might be no better example than the impact that Oculus has had at Mission Hill Family Estate.

The first vintage of Oculus – the Bordeaux blend is named after the opening that looks onto the winery’s barrel cellar – was made in 1997. Cautiously, Mission Hill made just 500 cases, followed by 660 cases in 1998 and 1,000 cases in 1999, 1,330 in 2000. Since then, the winery has not released production figures. The production increases were as much a matter of the rising supply of premium grapes as they were of growing market acceptance of the wine.

The debut vintage got a tepid 87 points from Winetidings Magazine. The next vintage garnered scores of 89 and 90, along with a gold medal at the All Canadian Wine Championships. Technical notes on each subsequent vintage show the winery’s ongoing efforts to refine the wine with such measures as longer aging in better barrels.

That culminated in what winemaker John Simes calls the “significant investment in 2005 and 2006 in equipment that allowed us to really elevate what we could do as winemakers with those premium red grapes. We effectively built a small winery inside the big winery.”

This facility was equipped with oak vats (there are 17 now) that each have the capacity to ferment six tons of grapes at a time. A highly sophisticated destemmer was added, so that the berries seperated from the hand-picked bunches are the best quality and very clean.

“Once we have gone through that mechanical sorting, the grapes get lifted onto a conveyer that is about the length of this table,” John says. “There are people on either side, sorting any other bits of pieces of stalks and stems.” The grapes drop into bins which are lifted to catwalks above the vats, allowing the grapes to fall in by gravity. That avoids pumping crushed berries.

Fermentation temperatures are monitored and controlled by computer. The vats are equipped so that the winemakers can either punch down the cap or pump wine over it, as required. When fermentation is complete, the free run wine is drained away and the remaining skins are pressed gently in a basket press. It is designed to yield press wine of such a quality that some can be blended into Oculus.

At the same time as Mission Hill was investing in the mini-winery, it was making evolutionary improvements in its vineyards. The driver was the need to grow the best possible grapes for Oculus and the other wines in its top of the line Legacy tier.

“There is a lot of effort into targeting quite small areas in the vineyards that we believe will have the potential to achieve that quality level,” John says. “Once you have been making premium wine for a while, the best area in the vineyard is always the best area in the vineyard, even if it goes up and down with the season. The best areas are usually the best.”

In recent years, Mission Hill has taken infrared photographs of its vineyards from the air. These help identify the strongest blocks and also to direct the efforts that elevate grape growing in the other blocks.

“When I set the overall plan for the vineyards in spring, it is based on what volume we believe we should be making for all of the wines at that tier,” John says. “The sales guys will work out what they think they can sell of each wine. I have a master planning spread sheet and I know exactly how many tons I should be trying to make of Legacy Tier Cabernet or SLC Tier Cabernet or Reserve Tier Cabernet, or whatever it is. Everything gets targeted, even down to the Five Vineyards. Every single block has a targeted quality expectation within it. The viticulturists will know that this block is targeted for one level and this for another, and they manage it accordingly.”

The production of Oculus and the Legacy wines sets the gold standard for viticulture and, in my view, pulls everything else up.

The investment in the mini-winery also opened the door for Mission Hill to start making premium Pinot Noir like the 2011 Martin’s Lane Pinot Noir that garnered a major award in a London competition last fall.

The equipment installed to make the Bordeaux reds also enabled Mission Hill to handle Pinot Noir gently. “One of the biggest was gravity-fill tanks,” John says. “Pinot Noir does not like being pumped. There were two things we needed that we didn’t have [before 2005]. One was that we did not have that capacity in the winery. Pinot Noir really punishes you if you can’t treat the grapes gently. And then we didn’t have Pinot Noir vineyards in the cooler part of the valley. We have both now.”

As a result, Mission Hill proprietor Anthony von Mandl is now giving serious consideration to building a winery just for Pinot Noir.

“We have a site and something in the plans right now,” Anthony told me recently. “But it is a pretty major undertaking and it follows the significant investment we have been making in planting new vineyards and Pinot Noir development. We are really starting to get a handle on growing Pinot Noir.”

He has also hired Phil McGahan, an Australian winemaker who had been working at Williams-Selyem, a leading Sonoma Pinot Noir producer, to manage CheckMate Artisanal Winery. That is the new name for the Golden Mile winery formerly known as Domaine Combret. Anthony bought it in 2012 and operates it entirely independent of Mission Hill.

“We are using it as a base to do experimentation on Pinot Noir, given Phil’s background,” Anthony says. “But we likely are going to do something else specifically for Pinot Noir.”

Clearly, the Oculus project has had far-reaching ramifications for Mission Hill.

Here are notes on an eclectic selection of recent Mission Hill releases. Most are from the winery’s entry level Five Vineyards range.

Mission Hill Compendium 2010 ($50). The little brother to Oculus, Compendium has emerged as another collectible Bordeaux red. This vintage is 41% Cabernet Sauvignon, 38% Merlot and 21% Cabernet Franc. The fruit is from some of the winery’s best blocks on the Osoyoos and Black Sage Benches – blocks that have come to be called ‘Compendium’ blocks. The wine is fermented in the small French oak fermenters as Oculus, with three weeks of post-fermentation maceration on the skins. Then the wine ages 13 months in barrel and almost another year in bottle before being releases. I still took pains to decant the bottle, allowing it to reveal aromas of red fruit and flavours of black currant, blackberry, coffee, chocolate and cedar. There is a lovely core of sweet fruit on the palate, framed by the oak. 92.

Mission Hill Perpetua 2011 ($34.99). Mission Hill put itself on the map with a barrel-fermented Chardonnay from the 1992 vintage – the debut vintage made by John Simes, who remains the chief winemaker and who continues to refine Chardonnay. The first Perpetua, as the ultra-premium Chardonnay is called, was made in 2006. The 2011 is a superbly elegant wine with a focused purity. It has lovely aromas and flavours of citrus. The satisfying texture reflects the barrel fermentation and the biweekly lees stirring during the eight months the wine rested on lees. 91

Mission Hill Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2012 ($19.99). This vibrant wine begins with aromas of lime and grapefruit. The palate echoes those fruits, along with herbal notes on a finish that is crisp and refreshing. 90.

Mission Hill Five Vineyards Chardonnay 2012 ($14.99). This is a crisp, fruit-forward Chardonnay whose citrus and apple flavours are very subtly supported by almost imperceptible oak. This is Mission Hill’s entry level Chardonnay; it over-delivers, having benefitted by the winery’s long focus on this varietal. 88.

Mission Hill Five Vineyards Pinot Grigio 2012 ($15.99). The wine is surprisingly robust for a Pinot Grigio, even sporting a light bronze blush suggesting some skin contact. It has aromas and flavours of citrus, pears and peaches, with a crisp and spicy finish. 88.

Mission Hill Five Vineyards Pinot Blanc 2012 ($14.99). Here is a textbook unoaked Pinot Blanc, with aromas and flavours of apples and grapefruit. The crisp finish is refreshing. 88.

Mission Hill Five Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2012 ($14.99). This unoaked wine is an excellent expression of the varietal’s notes of herbs, grapefruit and lime. The finish is bright and zesty. 89.

Mission Hill Five Vineyards Cabernet Merlot 2011 ($16.99). This is a blend of 47% Merlot, 29% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc and 4% Petit Verdot. The wine was aged 11 months in French and American oak – probably used barrels because the wine explodes with fruit. There is red cherry and black currant on the nose; that carries through to the lively palate, where there also are notes of black berry and sage. 89.

Mission Hill Five Vineyards Pinot Noir 2012 ($18.99). Juicy and silky in texture, this wine has aromas of cherries and strawberries, with flavours lightly recalling plums. The wine is straight forward and easy to drink. 87.

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