Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Clos du Soleil: Grand Cru winemaking in the Similkameen

Photo: Michael Clark at the Clos du Soleil winery

The latest releases from Clos du Soleil Winery show that winemaker Michael Clark has stamped his French-inspired sensibilities firmly on this Similkameen winery.

That is a very good thing, in my view. Most of us cannot afford the wines from Bordeaux’s classified growths, at least on a regular basis. The Clos du Soleil wines, while not always budget-priced, are much more affordable, with a quality rivalling classified growth wines.

French wine inspired this winery from the start, when a group of four couples headed by Spencer Massie began planting the vineyard in 2007. Spencer, a former officer in the Canadian navy, once told me: “I love everything classic French; my family roots go back to Normandy.”

There also was a more recent inspiration as well. Spencer and Bonnie Henry, his wife, ran the Marathon du Médoc in 2002. I doubt anyone would forget running a race with wine tasting stations en route.

Michael Clark joined the Clos partnership in 2012. Now he is the winery’s managing director as well as the winemaker. This is his second career. He was previously a banker and a bond dealer.

Michael, who was born in Cambridge, Ontario, in 1972, describes wine as “my number one passion literally before I could drink wine. When I was a kid, I was fascinated with wine. Champagne is for Breakfast – I read that book when I was probably 10 years old. I don’t know other children who love to read wine books.”

Initially, he set out on a career in theoretical physics with bachelor’s degree from Queens University and then a master’s degree from the University of British Columbia. Then he switched to finance with a master of business administration from UBC, where he also founded a campus wine tasting society.

“Then I worked in finance in Canada and in the U.S. and Switzerland, for about 15 years.” That included eight years with two Swiss banks where, while holding senior positions, he committed to winemaking by taking winemaking and viticulture courses there in 2010. He then gained experience by doing crushes at wineries in Switzerland and in Bordeaux.

In 2011, he enrolled in the rigorous winemaking program from the University of California at Davis. While still in Europe, he began researching British Columbia winemaking opportunities before making Clos Du Soleil his choice. Consulting winemaker Ann Sperling had made the first five vintages before handing over to Michael.

He provided the missing link at Clos Du Soleil. None of the four couples in the founding partnership lived in the Okanagan or the Similkameen.

“Anybody will tell you that I am a bit of a detail person,” he told a group tasting last year at the winery. “It served me well in finance and it is serving me well now. I think that plays well in winemaking, which is the sum of a million little details that add up to the final wine. Every single year with all of our wines, I am trying to tweak things to make it [the wine] better than the previous year.”

His approach, he says, is “in line with the overall philosophy of Clos – being based on a Bordeaux aesthetic – where the art of winemaking reaches it pinnacle in the art of blending. The whole magic of blending is that you take two barrels and they can work together synergistically, or not. So there are months of trialing; swapping out one barrel and putting in another to see how they work together. There are no magic formulas.”
The current releases all involve very effective blending. Here are my notes on these wines as well as on three earlier releases that were overlooked during my busy summer.

Clos du Soleil Estate Reserve White 2014 ($59.90 for 50 cases). This wine is 71% Sauvignon Blanc, 28% Sémillon, fermented in barrel with wild yeast and aged eight months in barrel on lees that were stirred occasionally. The minerality of the wine reflects that the grapes were grown on a small patch of stony soil. The wine begins with aromas of lemon that are repeated on the palate along with flavours of pears. The wine has an elegantly polished texture with a hint of vanilla on the finish. 91.

Clos du Soleil Capella 2014 ($$27.90 for 375 cases). This is 88% Sauvignon Blanc and 12% Sémillon. This austerely dry wine could fit easily in a lineup of good white Graves, with its aromas of grapefruit and flint. On the palate, there are flavours of grapefruit, under ripe nectarine, flint and herbs. This wine should be aged a few years so that it can develop its latent flavours of honey and nuts. Some 55% of this wine was fermented in French oak barriques and the rest was fermented in stainless steel. About half the wine was fermented with wild yeast. All the wine was aged in barrel on the lees for 10 months. 91.

Clos du Soleil Fumé Blanc 2015 ($20 for 311 cases; sold out). This is 88% Sauvignon Blanc, 18% Sémillon. Both were fermented separately in stainless steel, with just a light oak contact to broaden the texture and get the “fume” character. The wine begins with citrus aromas, leading to flavours of lime mingled with herbs and a hint of oak. It is crisp and refreshing. 90.

Clos du Soleil Growers Series Pinot Blanc 2015 ($19.90 for 206 cases). This is a textbook example of Pinot Blanc, a crisp and refreshing wine. It has aromas and flavours of apple, melon and nectarines that still taste fresh from the garden. 90.

Clos du Soleil Rosé 2015 ($19.90 for 589 cases; but sold out). This is made entirely with Cabernet Sauvignon, with the grapes getting between 24 and 48 hours of skin contact. It has aromas of cherry, raspberry and blackberry, leading to flavours of cherry and pomegranate. The mouthful of fruit flavours disguises the fact that the wine is dry. It is a very good food wine. 91.

Clos du Soleil Signature 2013 ($44.90 for 850 cases). The winery’s flagship wine, this is a blend of 51% Merlot, 34% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Cabernet Franc and 2% each of Petit Verdot and Malbec. The wine was aged 17 months in French barrels. The aromas explode from the glass – cassis, vanilla, black cherry and chocolate – followed by a burst of ripe flavours of cherry and blackberry with notes of coffee and chocolate. The toasty oak frames the rich, ripe fruit on the palate. 93.

Clos du Soleil Estate Reserve Red 2012 ($59.90 for 100 cases). This is 53% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 13% Cabernet Franc, 6% Petit Verdot and 1% Malbec, virtually all from a select block in the vineyard. The wine was aged 17 months in French oak. The wine begins with aromas of cassis, plum, mint, coffee and leather. On the palate, there are flavours of black currant, black cherry with a hint of cedar on the finish. The wine has ripe but firm tannins and has the structure to age toward a peak in perhaps 15 years. 94.

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