Photo: CheckMate winemaker Philip McGahan
CheckMate Artisanal Winery, which turned heads a year ago with five splendid 2013 Chardonnay wines from the South Okanagan, is setting out to do the same with four impressive Merlot wines, just being released.
CheckMate is a premium winery owned by Anthony von Mandl, the proprietor of Mission Hill Family Estate Winery, CedarCreek Estate Winery and Martin’s Lane Winery, all in the Okanagan.
At these wineries, the portfolios all include wines that set out to make a statement on the world stage about the quality of Okanagan wines. CheckMate underlined that a year ago by releasing the Chardonnays in New York City.
The CheckMate winery is midway between Oliver and Osoyoos, in the former location of the Antelope Ridge Winery. Von Mandl purchased the winery and a portion of its vineyard in 2012. More crucially, he also purchased a neighbouring vineyard. Here, the mature vines included a clone from which Mission Hill in 1992 made the legendary award-winning Chardonnay that put the winery on the map.
In its publicity, Mission Hill has always referred to that wine as the “world’s best Chardonnay.” More precisely, it should have been called the best Chardonnay in that particular competition. But to give Mission Hill credit, it was a good wine that deserved a major award – perhaps the most important international award ever won by a Canadian winery to that time.
These neighbouring Golden Mile vineyards seem to be good terroir for Chardonnay. Domaine Combret, as Antelope Ridge was called initially, won at least three awards for its wine at the Chardonnay du Monde competition in France.
Control of these vineyards with their 40-year-plus vines triggered the launch of CheckMate and the making of wines that eclipse anything made here before. The Antelope Ridge winery was refreshed with state-of-the-art equipment and Australian Philip McGahan was recruited to make the wines.
Born in 1969, Philip was raised on a wheat farm in Queensland. His first career was law.
“I did the old-fashioned articles, where you are an indentured servant,” he says. “I did my degree at night at the Queensland Institute of Technology, which is a very respected school, and worked full time. I was 18 when I started and I was admitted as a solicitor when I was 23. It’s quite a grind.”
A few years later, he joined a legal publishing company. “I worked my way up there, at one of the biggest publishing companies in Australia.” But city living did not appeal to him, so he enrolled in the winemaking program at Charles Sturt University.
He was able to take the course part-time while working, starting with a custom crush winery in the Hunter Valley. “I worked there four or five years while I finished my degree. It was a good place to learn because we had about 40 clients. We dealt with fruit from the highest quality to the worst.”
During that time, he worked the 2005 harvest at the prestigious Williams Selyem Winery in Sonoma. “Once I graduated, I came back [to California] as an assistant winemaker,” Phil says. He was soon promoted, become one of the winery’s three winemakers. Because he was the junior of the three, his career path was limited. He was ready to move to the Okanagan in 2012 when von Mandl recruited him, giving him the responsibility to redevelop the winery and craft world-class wines.
“I was at a point when I could have stayed in America, got my green card and hope to advance; or I could take chance,” Phil says. “For me, this has been an amazing experience.”
He was attracted by the opportunity to work with fruit from mature vines and he was struck by the quality of the Chardonnay. “I remember tasting the juice when it first came in,” he says. “You could tell the fruit here was very sound; and it has a bigger phenolic grip than in California, where the season is so long. Especially in Sonoma County, where you had a lot of disease pressure from the marine layer coming in all the time.”
Phil continues: “The fruit quality was good and the ferments were all clean. The ferments here, they go dry. I haven’t had a stuck ferment in the time I have been here. That really struck me. I attribute that to the fact that there are not many toxins in the fruit. It is such a short season here. You get five or five and a half months with Chardonnay and the skins are pristine when they come in. But if you get a longer season, like seven months in California, you have a lot of botrytis and black rot on the fruit when it comes in. I think that builds up toxins. Down in California, we get stuck ferments. Up here, we haven’t. When I do natural ferments, they just go through.”
And he is making his wines with minimal intervention. “There is definitely a style in the way we make the wines,” he says. “It is all natural ferments; extended maceration. In 2013, it was all around 50, 55 days on the skins [for the Merlot]. By the time you go to barrel, you are pretty much dry. We are virtually going to barrel straight from tank.”
Because Von Mandl owns vineyards throughout the Okanagan, Phil has access to superb blocks from a number of properties in the South Okanagan. His rows may be farmed differently from neighbouring rows in the same vineyard, and they are likely to be picked at different dates, all in a quest to achieve a singular style for the CheckMate wines.
Both the Chardonnays and the Merlots are named for chess pieces or strategies. Von Mandl explained this at last year’s New York launch.
“If you look at a chessboard and you think each of the individual squares being a block in a vineyard, it allows us to really dial in on specific blocks and make some very limited edition wines,” he said. “It will allow us to do interesting wines with interesting names. You could have all sorts of things to do with chess and it all dials back to the specific blocks the grapes are coming from, and the techniques we are using. There is a lot of expertise going in there.”
Here are notes on the Merlots. All aged 21 months in new French oak and all are priced at $85 a bottle. There are 25 cases in a barrel of wine.
CheckMate Opening Gambit Merlot 2013 (13 barrels produced). The fruit is from vineyards on the Osoyoos East Bench. The wine’s aromas of cassis and black cherry are echoed on the palate along with flavours of fig, espresso and dark chocolate. The texture is concentrated but the tannins are long and polished. 95.
CheckMate Black Rook Merlot 2013 (nine barrels produced). The fruit is from the Black Sage Bench. This wine is bold, even brooding, with aromas of blackberry and anise. The palate delivers flavours of blueberry, black cherry, spice and vanilla, with a lingering finish. 96.
CheckMate Silent Bishop Merlot 2013 (12 barrels produced). The grapes for this wine are all from benches on the western side of South Okanagan. The wine begins with aromas of red berries and spice leading to bright flavours of cherry and blueberry. The sweet berry flavours linger on the finish, with a brightness in significant contrast to the darkness of the Black Rook. 95.
CheckMate End Game Merlot 2013 (12 barrels produced). The grapes for this are from Osoyoos East Bench and Black Sage Bench as the winemaker wants to display the terroir of the hotter east side of the valley. The wine is rich and full-bodied with spicy aromas of plum. There is pure, sweet fruit on the mid-palate with savoury notes on the finish. 95.