Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Tasting 12 vintages of Oculus

In 1997, Mission Hill Family Estate launched its flagship wine by making about 500 cases of Oculus, a Bordeaux blend.

It was an audacious move because the wine was priced at $35. The average price of a VQA wine then was about $12. Only one other Okanagan winery, Sumac Ridge, had a $50 red blend. Called Pinnacle, that wine struggled in the market and ultimately was discontinued by Constellation Brands, the current owner of Sumac Ridge.

Mission Hill proprietor Anthony von Mandl, with a grander vision of the place of  Okanagan wines on the world stage, has persisted.  Mission Hill made 660 cases in 1998, 1,000 cases in 1999 and 1,330 in 2000. Since then, the winery has not always released production figures but the volume of the 2012 (not yet released) at 76 barrels or 1,900 cases, is typical.  

“It is not huge but it is not tiny either,” winemaker John Simes told me in 2005. “I don’t like making really small quantities. If we make a wine, we want to be able to have enough that you can realistically develop a sales and marketing platform behind it and make it grow into something. If you make 50 or 100 cases, as some people do, what are you going to do with it?”

And now, with the track record of 17 vintages, Oculus sells for $100. It is generally regarded as one of the finest Bordeaux-style reds from the Okanagan. In 2002, when Oculus still was $40, I asked Anthony when the winery would make its first $100 wine. "I would think it's in the offing," he replied. ""When we do release our $100 bottle, it has to over-deliver at that price. That's what we are working toward. This is one of the reasons why have another cellar under construction, specifically for red wines."

Oculus has provided leadership to the industry. A growing number of other producers have added icon wines to their portfolios and a growing number of consumers are collecting them.

Leaving aside the price, wines like Oculus are not the sort of bottles that savvy consumers buy for immediate drinking. Oculus in particular is structured   like a Right Bank Bordeaux wine. It will have a lot of tannic grip until it is at least five years old, revealing the qualities that justify the price over the next five to 10 years.

Almost the only way to taste a mature Oculus (or another icon wine) is to buy some each year on release and lay it down. You might find into a 10-year-old Oculus in a high-end restaurant – at double to quadruple the initial retail price.

Recently, the British Columbia Wine Appreciation Society dipped into its cellar (and the winery’s cellar) to offer a rare 12 vintage vertical tasting of Oculus.

It is no surprise that Oculus is a far better wine today than it was in the 1990s. The 1997 vintage was made with grapes purchased almost totally from a Black Sage Road vineyard (which Mission Hill bought the next year). The 1998 was made from Osoyoos grapes, Mission Hill having planted a vineyard there.

Since 1998 Oculus has been made entirely with estate-grown grapes, mostly from the Osoyoos Lake Bench. The steady improvement in Mission Hill’s viticulture and the growing maturity of the vineyards generally is reflected in the wine’s improved power and concentration.

There was a noticeable jump in quality that started with the 2005 Oculus. Michel Rolland, the legendary Bordeaux consultant who now helps with blending Oculus, first visited Mission Hill in 2004 and recommended crucial cellar upgrades.

“In the winery, starting in 2005 and 2006, we effectively built a small winery inside the big winery,” John Simes told me in 2013. “There was significant investment in equipment that allowed us to really elevate what we could do as winemakers with those premium red grapes.” That included sorting tables that allow individual berry selections, oak fermenters and gentle basket presses. The impact is evident in the wines from 2005 onwards.

The quality of the 2012 Oculus (to be released in 2016) indicates continuing improvement, especially in the vineyards.

“I think the future is tremendous,” John told me in 2013. “We are just starting really. Our oldest vines that go into Oculus were planted in 1997 in Osoyoos. That is like 12 or 13 harvests that have come off that vineyard. That is nothing. In terms of what we can do into the vineyard and how we turn it into wine here, there are tremendous opportunities ahead of us. We don’t even know what they are yet.”

Here are notes from the Oculus vertical. Some vintages were absent because the wines are no longer available.

Oculus 1999. The vintage was cold and difficult. And the blend had 58% of Cabernet Sauvignon even though the variety must have struggled to ripen. The wine is lean and the fruit is drying out. It did not help that the time in French nd American barrels was just 12 months. Since then Oculus has had 14 to 16 months of barrel aging (always in French oak only since the 2002 vintage). The 1999 Oculus is well past its prime.

Oculus 2002. The blend was 50% Merlot, an earlier ripening variety that has anchored Oculus ever since. It also included Petit Verdot for the first time, adding a touch of spice. This is a silky wine at its peak.

Oculus 2003. This was a hot vintage and there were massive forest fires in the Okanagan. This wine is dense and brooding with just the tiniest hint of smokiness in the aroma. It is past its peak.

Oculus 2004. In a relatively cool vintage, the blend had 74% Merlot, the most so far in any Oculus vintage. It also was aged 16 months in French oak, of which 71% were new, accounting for a firm texture and a whiff of cedar. The wine has peaked but is holding.

Oculus 2005. This elegant wine is from an outstanding vintage accentuated by the cellar improvements. The wine tastes of black currants and figs, with a spicy finish. Five years of life are ahead of it.

Oculus 2006. This was my favourite wine of the vertical – a wine with aromas of cassis and dark fruits and flavours of black currants, black cherry and cola. The texture is plush with lots of power. This will also last five more years.

Oculus 2007. This was a great vintage in the Okanagan, producing a svelte and polished wine tasting of a fruit compote with Christmas spices. Drink this within the next five years.

Oculus 2008. This was another excellent vintage, delivering a wine with power (“fat ripe tannins” I noted) and rich flavours of plum and black cherry. The winery recommends drinking it by 2020.

Oculus 2009. By this terrific vintage, Okanagan growers began to believe great vintages could be counted on forever. This is a rich and concentrated wine with aromas and flavours of dark fruit. Drink by 2022.

Oculus 2010. Talk about a wake-up call! The only wineries that made good wine in this miserably cool year were those who were brutal in dropping fruit so the remaining bunches would ripen. The volume of Oculus was small and the wine is lean, but with the brightness of fruit typical of the year. The winery recommends drinking this by 2020.

Oculus 2011. The year was almost as challenging as 2010 but was salvaged by a long warm autumn. This Oculus, to be released in the spring, is more generous than the 2010 with bright cassis aromas and flavours. This will age well for 10 to 12 years.

Oculus 2012. Finally, a vintage comparable to 2005 or 2008 in quality. This wine is already juicy in texture with aromas of cassis, black cherry and red liquorice, leading for flavours of red and black fruits. You should be able to cellar this until 2025.

The 2013 wine is still to be blended; but it was another strong vintage.

As for 2014, Ingo Grady, Mission Hill’s director of wine education, calls it “the vintage of the century.” That should be a stunning Oculus – when released in 2018.

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