Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Naramata Bench tasting 2014 and ownership changes

Photo: Lake Breeze winemaker Garron Elmes

 At the recent Naramata Bench Wineries Association tasting, it was not only the wines that created a buzz. There was also the news that two of the wineries have new owners: Township 7 Vineyards and Bench 1775.
There is not much more detail to report because the new owners, who are leaving the current management and winemakers in place, are secretive. Subject to confirmation, I am told that both sets of owners are Chinese.

 The ownership at Township 7 has been in transition for several months. John Tietzen, one of the partners, sold his interest early this year. At the time, I was told that Mike Raffan, the other partner, had retained his interest. I have been unable to reach Mike to determine whether he also sold his shares now. However, I have been able to confirm that Mike remains the general manager at Township 7 and Bradley Cooper remains the winemaker.

 The ownership change at Bench 1775 was more unexpected. The sale involves both the Naramata Road winery, formerly known as Soaring Eagle, as well as the sister company, Icewine producer Paradise Ranch. Both were controlled by Vancouver lawyer and real estate businessman Jim Stewart. Last year, he brought viticulturist Valeria Tait on board as a partner at Bench 1775. The new owners are keeping her in place as the general manager.

 Little is known about the new owners, who prefer to remain private. Of Chinese origin, they have lived in Vancouver for about eight years. They have been involved in exporting British Columbia wine and bring a serious knowledge of the industry to Bench 1775.

 These are not the only wineries on the bench with Chinese ownership. Lang Vineyards was acquired in 2011 by Yong Wang, said to be a Chinese mining executive. He has also a very low profile. The winery is managed by Mike Lang, the nephew of the founder, and Lawrence Herder is the current winemaker.

 From the point of view of the wine consumer and wine tourists, these three wineries all are operating as business as usual. If I were investing in an Okanagan winery, I might also consider the Naramata Bench. The association has 24 member wineries and there are perhaps another six, all concentrated within 20 miles of each other. This is an absolute magnet for wine touring. Some wineries are so close to each other that it is easy to walk from one to another.

 It helps that every tasting room is good wine. Here are notes on some of those I was able to sample at the recent tasting.

Black Widow Gewürztraminer 2013 ($22). This is a deliciously dry Gewürztraminer, with spice, herbs and grapefruit on the palate. 90.

Black Widow Spiderling Red 2013 ($22). The wine is named for very young spiders, getting across the message that this fruity Merlot is meant to be soft and drinkable early. The black cherry flavours are appealing. 88.

Black Widow Phobia 2012 ($27). This is 80% Syrah and 20% Merlot. The Syrah’s rich plum and earth flavours blend well with the bright flavours of the Merlot. A touch of pepper on the finish ties it up nicely. 91.

Black Widow Red Back 2012 ($32). This blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah had 17 months of barrel aging before being bottled. The wine has notes of vanilla, black cherry and plum. 91.

D’Angelo Winery Tempranillo Miscella 2010 ($18). This is a blend in which the Tempranillo is supported by Merlot and Cabernet Franc. It is a delicious wine, with notes of cherry and blueberry. 88.

D’Angelo Winery Sette Coppa 2010 ($25). This Bordeaux blend is the winery’s top red. It is a concentrated wine with notes of black currant, plum and cola flavours. 90.

Hillside Winery Gewürztraminer 2013 ($18.99). Slightly off-dry, this wine begins with spicy aromas. On the palate, there are flavours of pink grapefruit and kiwi fruit, with hints of ginger on the finish. 90.

 Hillside Winery Rose 2012 ($18.99). This is a tasty blend of Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc. Winemaker Kathy Malone calls it “a dangerous rosé” because it is so easy to drink. There are aromas of blueberry and plum, leading to a fruit bowl of flavours: cherry, blueberry and raspberry. 90.

Hillside Winery Cabernet Franc 2012 ($24.99). This wine has the varietal’s classic brambly aromas and flavours, including raspberry, cranberry and cherry, with a touch of pepper on the finish. 89.

Hillside Winery Pinot Noir 2011 ($24.99). Made with Naramata Bench fruit, this is a fine, concentrated, yet silky Pinot Noir with notes of cherry and strawberry that are framed by spice on the finish. 90.

Howling Bluff Summa Quies Sémillon 2013 ($25 for 23 cases). This delicious white likely will be available only at the winery because of its limited production. It has lime and grapefruit in the aroma and palate, with herbal notes. The wine manages to be crisp and refreshing but also to be unctuous. 91.

Howling Bluff Sauvignon Blanc Sémillon 2013 ($18.90 for 300 cases). This is a 74%/26% blend of the varietals. The wine has aromas and flavours of lime with a crisp, refreshing finish that lingers. 91.

Howling Bluff Reserve Pinot Noir Summa Quies Vineyard 2011 ($35 for 411 cases). The aromas and flavours have an appealing kiss of strawberry and raspberry subtly framed with oak. The texture is silky and full on the finish. 90-92.

Howling Bluff Sin Cera 2010 ($28.90 for 575 cases). This is the final vintage of this Bordeaux blend because most of the Bordeaux varietals have now been replaced with Pinot Noir (some Merlot remains and will be released on its own). This is terrific way to end this label. The wine is concentrated, with flavours of cassis, pomegranate and black cherry. The ripe tannins give this a long, long finish. 91.

Lake Breeze Vineyards Pinot Blanc 2013 ($19). Lake Breeze winemaker Garron Elmes has elevated this varietal to an absolutely first class white wine. This wine is crisp and refreshing, with green apple flavours and with the mineral backbone reflecting the mature vines. 90.

Lake Breeze Spice Jar 2013 ($19). This is a blend of Gewürztraminer (55%), Viognier (30%) and Schönburger (15%). “I decided there is too much Gewürztraminer out there,” says Garron, who stopped making it as single varietal in 2012. This aromatic wine has spicy aromas and flavours of grapefruit and apricot. Viognier adds a focussed and firm texture. 90.

Lake Breeze Meritage 2011 ($20). This good value red has all five Bordeaux varieties in the blend. The wine has aromas and flavours of black currant, blackberry and raspberry, with an easy drinking texture. 89

Lake Breeze Tempest 2010 ($40). This is the winery’s red icon. This is 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot and 5% each Malbec and Cabernet Franc. It is a bold, full-flavoured red with notes of black currant, coffee and chocolate. The wine, which aged 15 months in new French oak before bottling, is definitely worthy of aging at least five more years. 91.

La Frenz Winery Sauvignon Blanc 2013 ($22). This wine rivals some of New Zealand’s best, with its zesty aromas and flavours of lime and grapefruit. 91.

La Frenz Winery Viognier 2013 ($22). This wine delivers a fruit bowl of aromas and flavours, including apricots, peaches and mangoes. 91.

La Frenz Winery Pinot Noir 2012 Amos Vineyard ($21.90). There is no information on this yet on the winery’s website. I suspect is from young vines that are delivering terrific feminine charm in this wine, with its aromas and flavours of strawberry, raspberry and cherry. 90

La Frenz Winery Montage 2011 ($22). This blend of Shiraz, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon aims to serious but immediately drinkable. This wine shows flavours dark cherry, blueberry and plum, with chocolate and vanilla on the finish. 90.

La Frenz Winery Merlot 2011 ($26). Juicy and supple, the wine delivers black currant, blueberry and plum with a long finish.

Moraine Estate Winery Viognier 2013 ($16.50). This crisp but concentrated white has aromas and flavours of pineapple and stone fruit around a spine of minerality. 89.

Moraine Estate Winery Cliffhanger White 2013 ($15.50). The label is for an ever-changing blend. In 2013 the varietals in the blend are Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer. The wine has a generous texture, with aromas and flavours of pear, apple and peach. There is an appealing spice on the long finish. 90.

Moraine Estate Winery Pinot Noir 2012 ($22.59 for 582 cases). Made from relatively young vines, this is Moraine’s first Pinot Noir. The varietal is a specialty with New Zealand-trained winemaker Jacqueline Kemp. This is a pretty wine, with notes of cherry framed by lightly toasty oak; the silky texture is just beginning to develop. 88-90.

Moraine Estate Winery Cliffhanger Red 2013 ($17.50). A blend of Merlot and Malbec, it was made to be easy to drink. Juicy in texture, it has flavours of black cherry and chocolate. 89.

 Moraine Estate Winery Malbec 2012 ($22.50 for 200 cases). Medium-bodied and juicy in texture, this wine has plum and cherry flavours with pepper and spice on the finish. 89.

 Moraine Estate Winery Syrah 2012 ($23.50). This wine is surprisingly soft and quaffable, with hints of plum, mulberry and chocolate and a light touch of pepper. 89.

Upper Bench Estate Winery Pinot Gris 2012 ($19 for 483 cases). The wine begins with aromas of pear and honeydew, leading to flavours of pear and cantaloupe. 88.

Upper Bench Estate Winery Pinot Blanc 2012 ($19 for 433 cases). Let me quote my review from last year: “This has a freshness that recalls Sauvignon Blanc, with lightly grassy aromas, flavours of apples and limes and a lively, refreshing acidity. 90.”

Upper Bench Estate Winery Chardonnay 2012 ($25 for 302 cases). This wine delivers buttery aromas and citrus flavours, along with papaya and mango. 88.

Upper Bench Estate Winery Riesling 2012 ($22 for 225 cases). This wine has intense aromas and flavours of lime, lemon and gooseberry, with a developing note of petrol in the aroma. 90.

Upper Bench Estate Winery Rosé 2012 ($19 for 332 cases). This is a rare (for the Okanagan) Zweigelt rosé. The appeal begins with a dark colour and aromas of rhubarb and rose hip. On the palate, there are juicy flavours of strawberry and cherry. 89.

Upper Bench Estate Winery Pinot Noir 2012 ($27.90 for 331 cases). Fourteen months on oak have begun to burnish the texture of this wine. It has aromas and flavours of strawberry and cherry. This vintage is almost sold out. 89.

Upper Bench Estate Winery Upper Bench Red 2012 ($19 for 640 cases). This is an intriguing blend of Zweigelt (70%), Merlot (20%) and Pinot Meunier (10%). It is an easy-drinking red with aromas of blueberry and cherry that are echoed on the palate. 89.

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