Monday, March 31, 2014

A vertical of Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin

 Photo: Mathieu Mercier of Osoyoos Larose

One of the most significant ownership changes in the Okanagan wine industry occurred quietly last November when Constellation Brands sold its 50% interest in the Osoyoos Larose winery to Bordeaux vintner Groupe Taillan.

That gives the French group 100% ownership of the winery, which had been launched in 1998 as a French/Canadian joint venture between Groupe Taillan and Vincor International. The latter company was taken over by Constellation in 2006.

The consolidation sets in train the eventual building of an Osoyoos Larose winery on its 80-acre vineyard west of Osoyoos Lake. The winery currently operates in a separate area of the sprawling Jackson-Triggs winery north of Oliver. The winemaking staff works independently from the Jackson-Triggs staff (aside from a shared public address system). Osoyoos Larose has never had a public tasting room.

Even as a joint venture, this has always been a thoroughly French winery. The intention of Donald Triggs, then the chief executive of Vincor, was to bring valuable French viticultural and winemaking knowhow to the Okanagan. The Bordeaux partners chose the vineyard site, sourced the vines in France, designed the planting method and recruited Pascal Madevon, a veteran French winemaker.

Pascal managed Osoyoos Larose from its first vintage in 2001 until he left in 2013 to join Culmina, the new winery that the Triggs family opened last year in the Okanagan. Groupe Taillan promptly sent another winemaker, Mathieu Mercier, who also has solid French and international experience.

Mathieu was born in 1988 in Cognac to a family of cognac producers. He has degrees in viticulture and enology from two of Bordeaux’s leading universities.

While going through university, he also did hands-on industry practicums. “I spent some time in Chile where I worked for Don Melchor, the premium winery of Concha y Toro,” Mathieu says. “Then I worked in Bordeaux for André Lurton at Château La Louvière and Château de Rochemorin.  Then I moved to California where I worked in 2010 for Swanson Winery in Napa. It was such a good experience that I went back in 2012 for six months, making wine for Cain Vineyard and Winery [in St. Helena].”

He returned to Bordeaux and worked at several of the estates owned by Groupe Taillan. (The most famous of the group’s properties is Château Gruaud-Larose, a distinguished Saint-Julien winery with a second growth classification.) Early last year, he jumped at the opportunity to move to Osoyoos Larose in the Okanagan.

“Taillan owns a lot of property in Bordeaux,” he says. These range from producers of medium-priced wines to “a very expensive one like Gruaud-Larose. When we did some tastings to compare Osoyoos Larose with some of the best Grand Cru in Bordeaux, it was obvious that we could compare it. Osoyoos Larose belongs among the famous good wines in the world. The quality of the terroir for Osoyoos Larose is unbelievable.”


Osoyoos Larose makes just two red wines: Le Grand Vin and, in the Bordeaux tradition, a lower-priced second wine, Pétales d’Osoyoos. In part, the wine is a home for the barrels judged to be less ageable, with lower tannin, that what is blended for Le Grand Vin. It is made in a different style so that the wine is fruitier and more accessible when young than Le Grand Vin. Pétales is by no means a lesser wine.


Le Grand Vin is a classically Bordeaux-styled red, deliberately structured to be cellared at least to its 10th birthday, if not longer. It is one of the premiere collector wines from the Okanagan. Unlike most other Okanagan icon reds, the production is large enough that any serious collector can find it and buy it.


The current release of Le Grand Vin is from the 2009 vintage. The current Pétales is from 2010.


Recently, a small group of us assembled to taste a vertical of every vintage of Le Grand Vin. We learned several things. Even though there is inevitable vintage variation, it never obscures the consistent style and personality of this wine. You always know you have Le Grand Vin in the glass.


Secondly, the wine develops magnificently as it ages, peaking somewhere between six and eight years and then holding at that level for another six to eight years. Le Grand Vin sells for $45. As Mathieu discovered, it can hold its own against many pedigreed Bordeaux reds.


Here are notes from the vertical tasting. The Pétales d’Osoyoos was tasted separately.

Le Grand Vin 2001: Total production 2,200 12-bottle cases. This is 66% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon and 9% Cabernet Franc. I had this wine two years ago from a magnum, which it still showed good fruit. The standard bottle ages faster and this vintage is fading. The flavours are drying out and the tannins, while not hard, seem somewhat dusty. However, my do not resuscitate judgment  was a bit premature. A third of a bottle remained in a carafe until the following day. The wine revived to show glimmers of fruit and reasonably full texture. We had no trouble finishing the wine at dinner.

Le Grand Vin 2002: Production 6,775 six-bottle cases. This is 57% Merlot, 19% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Malbec, 7% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot. The colour is darker and the texture still has some flesh. The cassis aromas and flavours mingle with hints of cigar box. While the wine will not get better, it is still very satisfying.

Le Grand Vin 2003: Production 19,700 six-bottle cases. This is 75% Merlot, 11% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Malbec, 5% Petit Verdot and 3% Cabernet Franc. This wine began with a glorious of cassis and red fruit and delivered rich flavours and a full weight to the palate. At its peak now, this is an impressive wine. This vintage and the 2007 were the favourite wines of the tasting.

Le Grand Vin 2004: Production 18,500 six-bottle cases. This is 68% Merlot, 21% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Petit Verdot, 4% Cabernet Franc and 2% Malbec. Bottle age has given this wine an alluring cassis perfume. There is concentrated fruit on the palate – blackberries and black currant – with a touch of chocolate and espresso coffee on the finish.

Le Grand Vin 2005: Production 20,950 six-bottle cases. This is 67% Merlot, 23% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Petit Verdot, 4% Cabernet Franc and 2% Malbec. This is an elegant wine with silky tannins. It seems to have less power than either the preceding or succeeding vintages, but the wine is more polished and rather pretty.

Le Grand Vin 2006: Production 20,250 six-bottle cases. This is 69% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Petit Verdot, 4% Cabernet Franc and 3% Malbec. This wine has a dense, chewy texture with ripe tannins supporting earthy notes of black currant and coffee. Some tasters thought there was a hint of bitterness – probably something that will disappear entirely with another year or two of age.

Le Grand Vin 2007: Production 15,000 six-bottle cases. This is 70% Merlot, 21% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot and 2% Malbec. In this vintage, the winery moved to aging the wine for 20 months, up from 16 months, in new and one-year-old barrels.  Once again, the tannins are silky and the texture is juicy. There are notes of cassis and mocha in the aroma and on the palate. The wine’s elegant balance impressed all of the tasters.

Le Grand Vin 2008: Production 18,000 six-bottle cases. This is 60% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Cabernet Franc, 5% Malbec and 3% Petit Verdot. This wine has just begun its development to a glorious future, with a bold and ripe texture and flavours that include blackberry, black currant and pepper.

Le Grand Vin 2009: ($45 for a production of 16,000 six-bottle cases). This is 58% Merlot, 26% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Cabernet Franc, 7% Petit Verdot and 2% Malbec. The wine was aged 20 months in French oak, with 60% of the barrels being new, 40% being one year old. Dark in colour and concentrated in texture, this wine still shows its youthful tannins. Decanting helps reveal aromas of sage, blueberry and cedar with lush layers of plum and black currant. 94+

Pétales d’Osoyoos 2010 ($25 for 10,100 six-bottle cases). This is 58% Merlot, 16% Cabernet Franc, 17% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Petit Verdot and 4% Malbec. The wine was also aged 20 months but in one and two-year-old French oak. It saw no new oak. The wine has generous aromas and flavours of black currant, blueberry sage and even a hint of chocolate. The tannins are relatively soft, giving this wine an early drinkability while waiting for Le Grand Vin to be ready. The winery advising drinking it within three years of its release. 91.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Buzet’s winery is a progressive co-operative

Photo: Buzet's Delphine Leuillet

Among the many French wineries at this year’s Vancouver International Wine Festival, chances are that the least known was Les Vignerons de Buzet.

Some of its wines are listed on Quebec and Ontario. Through local agents, the winery is making an effort to get into markets in western Canada.

There are at least a couple of reasons why it deserves to succeed. First, it is one of the most progressive co-operative wineries I have ever encountered. Secondly, it has a red wine with no added sulphur that will be a godsend to those who attribute headaches to sulphur in red wine.

The Buzet appellation is in southwestern France in the general region of such better known appellations as Cahors, Madiran and Armagnac. The appellation is only 2,000 hectares in size, about equal in size to the Oliver/Osoyoos vineyards in the Okanagan.

About 95% of the Buzet production goes to Les Vignerons de Buzet, the co-operative that was organized in 1953. “We are like a monopoly of the Buzet appellation,” says Delphine Leuillet, the Buzet export manager who represented the winery at the festival.

The growers began working toward appellation status shortly after forming the co-operative and won the AOC status (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) in 1973.

Since the appellation is south of Bordeaux, it is hardly surprising that the vineyards grow similar varieties. Merlot comprises about half of the red plantings; Cabernet Franc accounts for 26%, Cabernet Sauvignon for 22% and Malbec for much of the rest. The white varieties are primarily Sémillon (70%) and Sauvignon Blanc (30%).

The wines, however, often command much lower prices because the appellation is far less well known. “We have the Bordeaux quality at very attractive prices,” Delphine suggests. The Buzet co-operative produces between 12 million and 14 million bottles a year. The home market consumes 60% of those wines.

Buzet is worth supporting because of the winery’s growing commitment to sustainable viticulture. During the past five years, the growers have reduced significantly the use of chemicals to ward off diseases in the vineyards. No treatments are applied any longer as a matter of routine. Increasingly, natural and alternative methods are applied. In 2012, for example, they stopped using anti-botrytis chemical sprays, adopting instead vineyard practices that enable the growers to avoid botrytis (rot) in the first place.

Like a growing number of growers around the world, those of Buzet now make a conscious effort to foster biodiversity in the vineyards. Sometimes, that is a simple as letting grass grow between the vines to promote diverse flora and fauna in the vineyards. There are ongoing efforts to repopulate the vineyards with protected species, including birds. Of course, these keep the insect pests in balance, again reducing the need to spray chemicals.

In the winery, Buzet also has shown innovation. The wine with no added sulphur is an example. “This is a concept wine,” Delphine said while pouring it during a trade tasting at the wine festival. It contains a mere seven milligrams per litre of sulphur, which was a natural by-product of fermentation.

In conventional winemaking, sulphur is usually added to preserve wines from premature oxidation. The sulphur might range anywhere from 30 mg, when it would not be perceptible, to 100 mg where an experienced taster might get a whiff. Reducing the sulphur content is a general trend in winemaking, made possible by the cleanliness of modern winemaking. Buzet has removed a lot of sulphur from its other wines and claims to be somewhere between a third and a quarter of the industry average.

Sans, as Buzet’s no added sulphur wine is called, is a delicious, easy drinking red.

Here are notes the four other wines that Delphine also had at the festival.

Red Badge Merlot Cabernet 2010 (estimated $14.95). This wine, already a general listing in Ontario, is a soft fruity red with flavours of cherry and black berry. 88.

Le Lys Dry White 2012 (estimated $16.99). The name means lily. It is a blend of 60% Sémillon and 40% Sauvignon Blanc. It is a crisp and refreshing white, with appealing fruity aromas and flavours of citrus and tropical fruit. 89.

Baron D’Ardeuil Dry White 2012 (estimated $21.99). This is a 50/50 blend of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc aged eight months in oak. There is citrus in the aromas and on the palate, with a satisfying weight on the palate and crisp finish. 90.

Baron D’Ardeuil Red 2010 (estimated $21.99). This is a red Bordeaux blend from old vines, aged half in new oak and half in more neutral oak. There are notes of vanilla and red fruits on the nose, following with flavours of black berry and black currant and a touch of liquorice on the finish. 89.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Ten years of Rollingdale wines

Photo: Rollingdale's Steve Dale shows off back vintages 

Last September, realtors from RE/MAX Kelowna teamed up with Rollingdale Winery proprietors Steve and Kirsty Dale to host a reception at the winery for a delegation of Chinese investors.

At the time, the realtors had listed Rollingdale for $4.8 million. If ever there was a group of potential buyers of this or any other Okanagan winery, this group would have seemed to be it.

Zall Development Group, one of the five companies in the delegation, is said to have assets of C$4.9 billion. And that company is a minnow compared with the Dalian Wanda Group, with reported assets of C$64.8 billion.

This group was squired around the Okanagan by the British Columbia Ministry of International Trade which was facilitating introductions for potential investors in the British Columbia wine industry. To the best of my knowledge, no more Okanagan wineries have been acquired yet by Chinese buyers (aside from Lang Vineyards and First Estate Winery, both under Chinese ownership for several years).

If RE/MAX had clinched a deal last fall, there might not have been the remarkable wine tasting hosted this week in Vancouver by the Dales. They brought 52 wines spanning all the winery’s vintages, starting with 2004. The attendees were primarily restaurateurs and trade buyers.

Aside from Icewine, the older wines likely are no longer available. The Dales would have dipped into their stock of library wines. But even if one can’t buy the older wines, one had to be impressed by the longevity. The tasting settled the questions about whether BC wines can age: the Merlot “Rosebud” 2004 still shows lively sweet fruit flavours. The 2004 Chardonnay, while past its prime, still appealed with flavours of honey and marmalade.

You might think the realtors’ listing price a bit aggressive when you venture down Rollingdale’s unpaved driveway and find that the winery is in a large metal-clad industrial building. Of course, it is serviceable, with good winemaking equipment inside, just beyond the tasting counter. The friendly informality has its appeal. No doubt, the Chinese business people had a great time, even if no one wrote a cheque.

One feature should have impressed them: since 2007, Rollingdale has been a certified organic producer.  Steve and Kirsty have a long history in organic agriculture. “I prefer to consume products that are as clean as they can be,” he has said. “I like to taste the untouched terroir of a vineyard clearly in the wine.”

The Dales – she is his high school sweetheart - have had an interesting journey to this point. He was born in Owen Sound, Ontario, in 1971 and earned a degree in English literature at Carleton University in Ottawa. Kirsty studied communications at Queen’s University.

Surprisingly, given that background, they then moved to British Columbia to open a gardening shop in Port Moody, where they specializing in making organic preparations and giving organic advice to local gardeners and greenhouses. After three years, they were invited to join a horticultural consulting partnership in Switzerland. They spent four years doing projects around Europe, acquiring a taste for wine along the way.

Steve then sold his interest to his partners and, after a year in Spain, decided to return to Canada and open a winery. In the fall of 2003, he enrolled in the winery assistant course at Okanagan University College. His first practicum involved pruning a vineyard by the Hainle winery. By lunchtime, his employers had learned that Steve wanted a vineyard of his own and he discovered that they wanted to get out of their lease. “Within a day, I had taken over the lease on that vineyard,” he says. “It was just like that.”

The Rollingdale winery now occupies that vineyard because the Dales, after leasing for a year, bought the property.  The vineyard, then just a little over two hectares (five acres) was divided almost equally between Maréchal Foch and Pinot Gris, with a few rows of Pinot Blanc. He has since added other varieties, including Chardonnay.

His initial instinct had been to get rid of the Foch, a French hybrid then still sharing the negative reputations that attached to all the hybrids (perhaps unfairly). Steve changed his mind late in 2005 when he left some Foch grapes hang for a few litres of icewine, almost certainly the first time that variety has been used in this way. Steve was so impressed with the result, which he called Portage, that his very limited production of 32 bottles was priced at $840 a bottle. It is currently in the winery’s website at $199.90. Both it and the 2006 Portage were among the wines at this week’s tasting and showed very well.

Rollingdale has made Icewine something of its specialty since opening and has done very well. In a desert wine show in Spain in 2008, the winery’s 2006 Pinot Gris “Sweet Tooth Series” Icewine achieved a perfect score of 100. It is on the winery’s web site at $399.90.

The big Bordeaux and Burgundy reds in the winery’s portfolio have always been made with grapes purchased from South Okanagan vineyards (organic where possible).

In a nod to Bordeaux, Rollingdale has released several vintages of “La Gauche” Cabernet Sauvignon and “Le Droite” Merlot. The 2007 and 2008s are showing very well. Currently, the winery’s web site offers the 2011 vintage at $39.90 a bottle. I scored the 2011 “Le Droite” Merlot at 90 plus points – and the wine is still developing its potential.

While it is no longer listed for sale on the web site, the winery’s 2007 Pinot Noir Reserve is still quite impressive, showing why it has taken home a string of awards, including silver at the 2010 Canadian Wine Awards.

This was quite a tasting. I wonder whether offshore owners would have hosted it.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Serendipity by chance and with hard work

Photo: Serendipity's Judy Kingston and Katie O'Kell

Judy Kingston, the owner of Serendipity Winery in Naramata, is someone to whom, at various times in her life, fate has been unkind and then kind.

Several years ago, a major automobile accident ended her 25-year career as one of Canada’s pioneering practitioners of computer law.

After recovering, she took a short vacation to the Okanagan in late 2006 while considering what to do next. Her other passion, aside from law, is cooking but a career standing in a kitchen had to be ruled out. She cannot spend long periods on her feet, a legacy of the car accident.

She was driving from Osoyoos to Kelowna when a map-reading error took her to Naramata where she chanced to drive by an orchard for sale.

“I just stopped the car,” she recounts. “Sometimes things happen to you; that is what serendipity is all about. I was totally open for anything in my life at this point. This inner voice said, ‘this is it’. This is as close to cooking as I can get, because I will be making wine.”

She made an offer for the property before catching her flight to Toronto. “By the time I arrived in Toronto, I was the proud owner of an apple cherry orchard,” she recalled at one of her recent Vancouver wine tastings.

It was, perhaps, not quite that casual. She is a lawyer, after all. In a 2009 interview, she told me that the offer was conditional, giving her time to retain a consultant for assurance that the property could be turned into a vineyard. The condition was dropped within a month because the consultant’s answer was positive.

Judy threw herself into wine growing with fierce determination. While the orchard was being replaced with eight acres of vines, she took the viticulture courses at Okanagan College. “When I first started, I had to go to farming school to learn how to farm,” she says. “No one in my family were farmers.”

Soon, she was the talk of Naramata Road for her diligence in the vineyard, all of which is visible from the road.

Perhaps nothing caused more talk than how she dealt with the cutworms. Each spring, these insects emerge at night to suck the life from the buds on the vines. Growers generally apply sprays to kill the cutworms. Judy was determined to avoid sprays so as not to destroy beneficial insects which are predators against other pests later in the growing season. So she strapped on a miner’s lamp and went into the vineyard each night to squish the worms.

“Later, when I got some credibility because my farm looked nice and my wines were nice, [I heard] that people were telling stories about this crazy female Toronto lawyer who was out at night, crawling on her hands and knees with a light,” she laughs now.

The unusual technique worked. She has a balanced and sustainable vineyard without the need for chemical sprays.

When her determination to be totally hands-on was becoming too big a load, fate, or serendipity, came to Judy’s aid. Her daughter, Katie O’Kell, a biology graduate who had been accepted into law school, came to help Judy while waiting for law school to begin. Subsequently, Katie became as intrigued with wine growing as her mother. She has decided against law school and in favour of the University of California’s winemaking courses.

It is not that Judy has lacked in capable winemakers. Jason Parkes, now a busy consulting winemaker in the Okanagan, made the Serendipity wines from the initial vintage in 2009 through 2012. Last fall, veteran winemaker Richard Kanazawa moved into the Serendipity cellar, making Judy’s wines as well as those for his own Kanazawa label.

Selling wine was another skill that Judy has had to master. “I have never sold anything in my life because I’ve been a lawyer,” she explained. “I never had to.”

She has obviously become good at the cold call. Last year, she took part in a Naramata Bench Wineries Association tasting event in Calgary, looking to extend her market.

On a chance – serendipity again – she telephoned the Calgary Stampede and the telephone was picked up by the food and beverage manager who agreed to taste her wines. He liked them so well that several ended up on the wine lists at Stampede restaurants.

Even better, Judy was asked to be the Stampede’s winemaker in residence. That involved several public tastings and opportunity to do some staff wine training. She had a ball and, evidently, so did the Stampede. At least two Serendipity wines have been ordered for this summer’s Stampede and Judy will bring her infectious personality back for another season as winemaker in residence.

The wines she showed to her Vancouver audiences recently included both current and upcoming releases. Here are my notes.

Serendipity White Lie 2011 ($18). This is called White Lie because the blend may change from year to year. This vintage is Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer. It has an appealing herbal nose, flavours of lime and grapefruit and a crisp, tangy finish. 90.

Serendipity Viognier 2012 ($20). This is a bowl of tropical fruit – notes of pineapple, guava, apricot and lime, with a spine of minerals and acidity. 90.

Serendipity Viognier 2013 (tank sample). This wine is very expressive, with aromas of pineapple and lime that carry through to the palate. Again, there is a good backbone of minerals and bright acidity with a lingering finish. 90.

Serendipity Rosé 2012 ($18). This is a fine dry rosé, beginning with aromas of strawberry and rhubarb. Those continue to the palate, along with raspberry. 90.

Serendipity Red Handed 2010 ($18). This is a blend of Bordeaux grape varieties along with Pinot Noir and Syrah. There is probably not much Pinot Noir because, as is the case with all Serendipity reds, this is a fairly big red. There are aromas of vanilla and flavours of black cherry, vanilla and chocolate. 88.

Serendipity Devil’s Advocate 2010 ($25). This was one of the wines featured at the 2013 Calgary Stampede. In competition, it has also brought home four silver and three bronze medals. It is a blend of Bordeaux varieties with 30% Syrah. There are appealing cassis aromas. On the palate, the wine delivers black currant, black cherry and blueberry with a touch of espresso on the finish. 90.

Serendipity Reserve Serenata 2010 ($40). This is the winery’s flagship red, a blend anchored by Merlot and including the other four major Bordeaux reds. The aromas of cassis and blueberry charge forth from the glass. The wine delivers on that promise, with flavours of black cherry, blackberry supported by long ripe tannins. There is a touch of espresso on the finish. 92.

Serendipity Syrah 2010 (barrel sample). This wine is destined primarily for the Stampede. I can’t imagine a better wine with a good steak, medium rare. It begins with peppery and earthy aromas. On the palate, it is muscular, with flavours of dark plum and deli meats, finishing with a lovely dash of pepper. 92.


Monday, March 17, 2014

Champagne Blin's 80 million bubbles

 Photo: Champagne Blin's François Gigandet

Decanting Champagne seems like an absurd idea because, surely, you would squander bubbles.

Yet François Gigandet, the export manager of Champagne H. Blin, recommends decanting, or at least letting the wine breathe.

“We recommend decanting Champagne in general,” he said in an interview during the recent Vancouver International Wine Festival. “When you keep it in the cellar for so many years, there is a lot of carbon dioxide. So when I do a tasting, I let it breathe for five minutes. Don’t open the bottle and serve it. Let it breathe for five to ten minutes. The best would be to decant it. There is so much gas inside. If you don’t let it breathe, the first taste is carbon dioxide.”

I objected that one would lose bubbles, which are so critical to the enjoyment of Champagne.

“Do you know how many millions of bubbles you have in a bottle?”  François replied. “Eighty million.”

He was not making that up. His authority is Gérard Liger-Belair, a University of Reims professor of physics who actually has done a study of Champagne bubbles to come up with that number.

The professor also calculated that each standard bottle of Champagne contains an astonishing five litres of carbon dioxide, the product of the secondary fermentation in the bottle. The gas is compressed under a pressure of five bars (or five times atmospheric pressure), which is why so much volume can be squeezed into 80 million bubbles.

“The sudden liberation of this gas by the uncorking the bottle explains the force of the ejection of the cork,” the professor writes. “Its speed can reach 50 km/h!”

However, you are unlikely to experience a Champagne cork as a missile when the bottle is opened by a professional like François. He twists the bottle, easing out the cork with an almost inaudible pop. When a bottle is opened with what sounds like an explosion, the wine is likely to foam out – and that is squandering Champagne.

I would still have a hard time decanting Champagne, considering what the professor has to say about the importance of bubbles.

“The presence of bubbles doesn’t really play a role in the taste itself, but in the texture, the sensation in the mouth,” he writes.  “The mechanical effect [is] when the bubbles burst on the surface of the tongue. The chemical effect [is] when they release their gasses with aromas of hazelnut, bitter almond or other honey. 
It is highly probable that the sight of the bubbles increases the marvel that one feels when tasting Champagne.  Along with the senses of sight, taste and smell, the sound of the light crackling as the bubbles explode against the surface of the glass all serve to drive the pleasure of the experience.”

Just think: a chorus of 80 million. 

Champagne H. Blin was one of eight Champagne producers at the festival. It is a relatively unfamiliar producer to consumers in western Canada, currently with just one listing in the British Columbia Liquor Distribution Branch. The wines are top quality but the shelf space for Champagne is, alas, not unlimited.

Two things set Blin apart.

First of all, it specializes in Champagnes made with a high percentage, even 100%, of Pinot Meunier in the cuvée. The majority of Champagne is built around either Pinot Noir or Chardonnay with an occasional dash of Pinot Meunier.

Secondly, Blin is a family co-operative, in the sense that most of its 100 growers are related to the family of Henri Blin, who founded the winery in 1947 at Vincelles in the Marne Valley. Organizing growers into a cooperative making its own wine was strictly a defensive measure. The Champagne market had been devastated by two wars, the Russian Revolution (Russia had been the biggest market) and the Depression. As a result, the big Champagne houses reduced grape purchases from independent growers.

“You have to understand that Champagne started to sell in big volumes again only in the 1970s,” François says. “From 1945 to 1970, the growers were poor … poor to the point that they had to have another job.”

Henri Blin rallied the Vincelles growers into a cooperative just so that they could survive by making and selling their own Champagne. Today, his grandson, Simon, heads the company, which produces 600,000 bottles a year.

“Our identity is the terroir of Vincelles, which is cool and has very good soil,” François says. “And Pinot Meunier. Champagne Blin owns 120 hectares of vineyards – 70% in Pinot Meunier, 20% in Chardonnay, and 10% in Pinot Noir.”

In the 19th Century most of the vineyards were planted to Pinot Meunier, a good variety to produce the sweet fruity Champagnes the Russians loved. When drier palates developed in the British market, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir displaced a lot of Pinot Meunier.

“Today, of 32,000 hectares in Champagne, 30% is Pinot Meunier,” François says. “The rest is divided between Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.”  And most of the Pinot Meunier grows in the Marne Valley. Blin’s growers also have modest plantings of the other varieties, usually to allow the winery to produce blends.

“We can produce a good quality Chardonnay but our identity is Pinot Meunier” Francois says. “That is why there is a lot of Pinot Meunier in most of our cuvées.
The Pinot Meunier brings a lot of fruitiness and roundness to the Champagne. The Pinot Noir is the structure and the power and body, and the Chardonnay is freshness.”

It is his belief that “Pinot Meunier is becoming very trendy in Champagne. People start to rediscover Pinot Meunier because this is a blending variety you find only in Champagne. You find it almost nowhere else in the world.”

At the Wine Festival, he poured four of his company’s Champagnes and, hopefully, impressed the trade enough to get orders. The wines, with approximate pricing if listed:

Brut NV ($55). The cuvée is 80% Pinot Meunier, 20% Chardonnay. The wines in the blend – 73% are from the 2010 vintage – spent two to three years on the lees. This wine shows classic brioche notes on the aroma and palate, with a hint of apple on the palate. The lively bubbles give it a creamy texture. The finish is crisp. 90.

Brut 2005 ($70). This is 50% Pinot Meunier, 50% Chardonnay. The additional time in bottle has added a nutty note to the flavours. The finish is crisp and dry. 91.

Blanc de Blancs ($60). This is 100% Chardonnay, with 80% of the cuvée from the 2010 vintage and the rest from 2008.  It is crisp, with flavours of apples and with a toasty note from time on the lees. 89.

Rosé NV ($60). There is something especially festive about pink Champagne. This wine, more than half of which is Pinot Meunier, has fruity aromas and flavours of strawberries and red berries. Once again, it is crisp and dry, but with a generous texture. 90.

The one currently on the BCLDB list is Blanc de Blancs Edition Limitée  Extra Brut, a Chardonnay from the 2005 vintage selling for $90. Since there are only four bottles in the LDB, perhaps the listing is transitioning to another Blin wine. It should be a Pinot Meunier-based Champagne, allowing consumers to experience the comparatively characteristics of the variety.


Thursday, March 13, 2014

Wines from Okanagan Falls neighbours

 Photo: Noble Ridge's winery seen from a next door vineyard

The picturesque Blue Mountain vineyards are perhaps just two miles east of the equally picturesque vines at Noble Ridge Vineyard & Winery.

However, the terroir in the Okanagan Falls region is remarkably complex and that can be illustrated by recent releases from both wineries, including two Pinot Noirs. The Noble Ridge wines suggest the site is hotter than Blue Mountain’s vineyard. As well the winemaking style is quite different.

Blue Mountain grows Burgundy varieties exclusively (except the recent addition of Sauvignon Blanc). Noble Ridge has both the Burgundy varietals and Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

If this were France, growing those varieties in such close proximity would seldom happen. But this is the Okanagan. There are no rules on where to plant varietals. Viticulturists are free to do that they think will work. Eventually, the consumers will decide what has worked.

I don’t think these four wines will resolve the argument, however. None of them disappoint.

Blue Mountain Chardonnay 2012 ($21). This winery’s understated Chardonnay is designed to accompany food. It is an elegant wine with hints of citrus in the aroma and on the palate, and with a mouth-filling polished texture. The Blue Mountain style is to ferment 40% of the wine in stainless steel and 60% in a mix of new to three-year-old barrels. The wine in barrels ages there for seven months, with minimal battonage of the lees. Only 10% has gone through malolactic fermentation. The fruit flavours remain fresh, supported by a fine skein of minerals. 90.

Blue Mountain Pinot Noir 2012 ($25). This is a seductively pretty wine, silky in texture, with notes of strawberry, cherry and a spicy toast gained from 10 months aging in French oak. This is a very complex wine, involving six clones of Pinot Noir – the vines are between six and 28 years old. The lightly crushed grapes, along with some whole clusters, were given 16 to 20 days maceration on skins in open top fermentation tanks. Half the wine was fermented with wild yeast native to the vineyard. The winery suggests this vintage will age six to seven years. 91.

Noble Ridge Pinot Noir 2010 ($25 for 568 cases). In style, this wine is darker and more muscular than the Blue Mountain. Noble Ridge says it will age gracefully another five or six years. I would not hesitate to leave it even longer. The grapes for this wine, after a cold soak on the skins, were fermented cool in stainless steel. The wine then was racked into French oak. It aged there a year and then spent another two years aging in bottle before release. The wine begins with aromas of cherry and raspberry, leading to a medley of red fruit flavours against an underlying earthiness. The wine benefits from being decanted. 89-90.

Noble Ridge Meritage Reserve 2009 ($30 for 538 cases). This is 80% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon – and from one of the Okanagan’s best recent vintages. The wine was aged 15 months in French and American oak (40% new) and then bottle aged 14 months. I would be surprised much is still available because this wine picked up two golds and two silvers in competition last year. It is a bold, satisfying red, beginning with aromas of black cherry, vanilla and spice. That leads to flavours of black cherry, vanilla, chocolate and coffee. The long ripe tannins give it accessibility now as well as ageability. 91.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Tinhorn Creek, JoieFarm and 8th Generation begin releasing 2013 wines

Here is a sign of spring: wineries are  releasing some 2013 wines.

I have been able to taste two examples, Tinhorn Creek’s 2013 Pinot Gris and 8th Generation’s 2013 Pinot Meunier Rosé.

As well, JoieFarm has announced the release of six of its 2013 wines – five whites and a rosé. These mark the winery’s 10th anniversary release. In another example of a maturing industry, Tinhorn Creek is marking its 20th anniversary this year.

When the early 2013s show up, don’t be in too much of a rush in opening them.

The Tinhorn Creek Pinot Gris 2013 ($18.99 for 7,943 cases) was bottled in January and still was suffering bottle shock when I opened it on March 5. The aroma and the flavours were somewhat muted. It would be unfair to score the wine now. I will pick up another bottle in April and I am confident that it is at least a 90 point wine when it knits in the bottle.

The devastating impact of bottle shock was demonstrated perhaps five years ago when CedarCreek Estate Winery came to Vancouver to show off three aromatic whites that had just been bottled. Tom DiBello, who was the winemaker then, also brought tank samples of the same wines, anticipating bottle shock might have happened.

Because the hand-bottled tank samples had not been beaten up in the filling line, the wines all were expressive on the nose and palate. But the recently bottled examples, especially a Gewürztraminer, were almost dead in comparison.

Depending on the variety, newly bottled wines usually need a month to three months to get over being bottled.

The other thing I have learned about Pinot Gris over the years is that it is often better in the fall after the release. Maturing in bottle takes the wine to the next level. Since Tinhorn Creek is releasing 8,000 cases (at a good price), why not buy half a dozen bottles and open one every month between May and October.

The 8th Generation Pinot Meunier Rosé 2013 ($20) was shown by the winery at a February 6 tasting in Vancouver, hosted by Icon Fine Wine and Spirits, the agency now representing this Summerland winery.

I think the wine was a tank sample because it was far too expressive to have been recently bottled. The rhubarb and strawberry aromas just exploded from the glass. On the palate, it is a delicious fruit salad. The touch of residual sweetness is perfectly balanced with lively acidity, resulting in a refreshing rosé. 90.

While I have not had a chance to taste the JoieFarm wines, I am indebted to JoieFarm owners Heidi Noble and Michael Dinn for comments on the 2013 vintage in their release announcement.

“A note about the vintage itself,” they wrote. “The 2013 growing year was long and flavourful. It was our second bumper crop in a row and the vines have really outdone themselves in terms of quantity and quality.  The vintage shows our regional trademark of excellent acidity and reasonable alcohols as well as great intensity of flavour, the benefit of a nice long growing season and a cool dry October.”

Mind you, the vintage was not quite the walk in the park that implies. There is a more detailed vintage report with the specifications of each JoieFarm wine:

“The 2013 vintage presented a different set of challenges with each season. Spring arrived at its normal time and bud break occurred during the first week of May. May and June were cool and wet, encouraging very little growth until early July when the vines took off in earnest. This rapid growth had us running in the vineyard, shoot positioning constantly and managing rapid canopy growth.

“Flowering in the central part of the Okanagan occurred in early July and, fortunately, fruit set went uninterrupted by heavy rains or wind. Above average temperatures continued through until the first week of September. Veraison was even and … completed in mid-August and ripening continued on like a freight train.

“A warm early September, coupled with heavy rain, had us starting to panic. We began harvesting thin-skinned varieties like Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir extremely early and had to work quickly in order not to lose quality crop to rot.

“After an early beginning to harvest, with all red varieties harvested by late September, we had a 10-day pause for more rain. From there, the weather dried up, staying cool and dry and we finished up at out usual time, with the last vineyard picked by October 25.

“A warm dry August and a dry October allowed for extended hang times, producing very flavourful grapes with full phenolic ripeness and complex flavour development. Overall, we saw higher than normal brix levels, achieved early due to the summer’s heat, but fresh acidity and ripe flavours that came with the benefit of our normal long harvest period.”

JoieFarm has released six wines from 2013. They are:

JoieFarm A Noble Blend 2013 ($24 for 6,236 cases, 486 magnums and 90 double magnums).

JoieFarm Un-Oaked Chardonnay 2013 ($23 for 901 cases).

JoieFarm Muscat 2013 ($23 for 483 cases).

JoieFarm Rosé 2013 ($21 for 2,838 cases).

JoieFarm Pinot Blanc 2013 ($23 for 438 cases).

JoieFarm Riesling 2013 ($23).

Monday, March 3, 2014

Meyer champions Pinot Noir, Chardonnay

 Photo: JAK Meyer with 2012 Micro Cuvée Pinot Noir

From time to time, a debate emerges about whether the Okanagan needs a signature grape variety.

If you ask Chris Carson, the winemaker for Meyer Family Vineyards, he will make the case for Pinot Noir.

I am inclined to agree, especially after tasting the winery’s yet-to-be released 2012 Micro Cuvée Pinot Noir from its McLean Creek Road vineyard. Here is a rich and intense wine that makes a statement both of the varietal and for the winery.

Of course, there are qualifications. South of McIntyre Bluff and in the Similkameen Valley, there are varieties that perform better than Pinot Noir. My favourite red from Oliver and Osoyoos vineyards is Syrah.

North of McIntyre Bluff, however, there are solid to spectacular Pinot Noirs grown in vineyards all the way from Okanagan Falls to Lake Country. We are talking world class Pinot Noirs that stack up well against top examples from Burgundy and Oregon and New Zealand.

Mission Hill, after all, took home a best in class award at a London last fall for its Martin’s Lane Pinot Noir 2011. At the recent Vancouver International Wine Festival, winemaker John Simes had a bottle of the Martin’s Lane 2012 under the table. It is an even better wine.

Mission Hill proprietor Anthony von Mandl is in the early stage of planning a dedicated Pinot Noir winery. He also agrees with Chris on the potential of the variety for the Okanagan.

“One of the challenges [of positioning the Okanagan in the world of wine] is that we have to be known for something,” Anthony told me recently. “I think what is very exciting about this is that, while great Pinots are so challenging to grow and so challenging to make, I do think that this is the promise of the future for the valley.”

During the recent Vancouver International Wine Festival, Meyer had its Pinot Noirs at numerous events and tastings – along with its equally stunning Chardonnays.

Now based near Okanagan Falls, Meyer actually started as a Chardonnay-only house, and something of a 600-case hobby winery at that. JAK Meyer, who was beginning a gradual transition from a career in finance, bought a three-acre Chardonnay vineyard near Naramata and produced the first wines in 2006.

Once he started selling the wine in early 2008, he recognized he was never going to make money at 600 cases a year. He commissioned a design for a larger winery to expand his production. Before that year was out, two things happened to change his focus.

First, he saw Chris Carson’s resume. It was so strong that JAK, knowing he would need a winemaker when the winery was built, snapped him up. Born in Edmonton, Chris was attracted to winemaking while backpacking in New Zealand and working in vineyards. He promptly earned a winemaking degree there and polished his credentials with winemaking jobs in California and France.

“Chris’s background was exactly what we are doing – Chardonnay and Pinot Noir,” JAK recalled in an interview last year. “He spent a few years in Montrachet. It was a really good fit. You are not going to find that kind of fit easily.”

Secondly, JAK was able to buy the assets of a stillborn winery near Okanagan Falls late in 2008, in a court-ordered sale. He scrapped plans for the Naramata winery in favour of refurbishing the Okanagan property and its 16 acres of vines. That included pulling out Gamay, Cabernet Franc and Merlot and replacing them primarily with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

“We would like to be known as specializing,” JAK says. The winery makes a little Gewürztraminer and Riesling and will release a sparkling wine next year. However, the majority of its production – between 5,000 and 8,000 cases a year – is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, from estate grapes and from select contract growers.

And Chris Carson is a happy winemaker. “Pinot Noir has been my focus for 15 years,” he says.

JAK Meyer recently showed the winery’s principal products to London wine guru Steven Spurrier. He was clearly impressed. Spurrier’s notes include quite favourable comparisons to French Burgundy – the kind of accolades that Canadian wineries are getting increasingly often from leading British critics.

Here are my notes and scores on the wines currently available from Meyer.

Meyer McLean Creek Road Gewürztraminer 2012 ($18). This light-bodied wine begins with appealing floral and spice notes in the aroma, leading to grapefruit flavours and a dry finish. 87.

Meyer Okanagan Valley Chardonnay 2012 ($20 for 555 cases).  This is a crisp and refreshing wine. It was fermented in stainless steel and left on the lees for four months to add texture. It has citrus aromas and flavours, with a lively tangy finish. 88.

Meyer McLean Creek Road Chardonnay 2011 ($30 for 340 cases). This winery designates single vineyard wines to showcase the terroir. The winery believes that the hallmark of the McLean Creek Road vineyard – where the winery is located – is “a slight ginger spice flavour.” My own notes also identify citrus and tropical fruit aromas and flavours, with a touch of the buttery character imparted naturally by malolactic fermentation. The bright acidity will give this wine good cellaring potential. 91.

Meyer Tribute Series Chardonnay 2011 ($30 a bottle for 394 cases). The fruit for this wine are from the 16-year-old vines in the winery’s Naramata vineyard. Fermentation began in stainless steel and finished in French oak, with 10 months lees aging. This technique ensures that the wine has bright fruit – citrus, green apple with very subtle oak – and a rich texture. This is an elegant wine. Spurrier said it is like “a good St. Aubin 1er Cru. 91.

Meyer Micro Cuvée Chardonnay 2011 ($65 for 105 cases). Also made from the Naramata vineyard, this wine is the four best barrels from that vintage (actually two barrels and a puncheon). The wine is packed with intense tropical fruit flavours in a richly textured wine. The bright acidity will allow this wine to develop even great complexity in bottle. 93.

Meyer Okanagan Valley Pinot Noir 2011 ($25 for 930 cases). This is a drinkable and pretty Pinot Noir with cherry aromas and with flavours of cherry and plum. The texture is both silky and juicy and the finish lingers. 89.

Meyer Reimer Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011 ($40 for 219 cases). The Reimer Vineyard overlooks the Harvest Golf Course in Kelowna. The wine shows best if decanted. It begins with cherry aromas. On the palate, the cherry flavours are vibrant. The texture at first is firm but, with breathing, it begins to show fleshy textures, with a touch of spice and earthiness on the finish. “Very expressive and impressive,” Spurrier wrote. 90.

Meyer McLean Creek Road Pinot Noir 2011 ($40 for 323 cases). The low tonnage harvested in the 2011 vintage – a mere two tons an acre – result in excellent concentration in this wine. It begins with those earthy notes in the aroma that a Burgundian might want to call barnyard (it’s a compliment). There is also cherry in the aroma and flavour along with a touch of toasted oak from the 10 months the wine spent in French barrels. 91.

Meyer Micro Cuvée Pinot Noir McLean Creek Vineyard 2012 ($65 for 110 cases). This wine is primarily Pommard Clone 91, which is turning out to be the best performing of the four clones planted at McLean Creek. The wine is dark in colour with aromas and flavours of cherry and strawberry. While the texture is silky, this is a wine with power and with longevity. Spurrier said it is “in the Vosne-Romanée style, lots of character and a good future.” The winery advises cellaring this wine eight to 10 years. It will be released later this year. 94.