Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Black Hills releases Nota Bene 2015

Nota Bene, the flagship red made by Black Hills Estate Winery since the 1999 debut vintage, has been anchored most years by Cabernet Sauvignon.

Nota Bene 2015, which is just being released, is a blend of 56% Cabernet Sauvignon – the second highest percentage since the 57% in the 2010 vintage.

The juxtaposition of those two vintages is fascinating. The 2010 vintage began with a cool and late spring, leading to a long, but cool, summer. The winery had to remove leaves to give the fruit more sun exposure; as well, there was some reduction in the crop to assure ripeness. Then a long autumn allowed for extended hang time, assuring ripe fruit at harvest.

The 2015 vintage “experienced record-breaking weather,” according to Black Hills viticulturist Steve Carberry. Spring was usually early; June was the driest on record, followed by a warm summer and, with the exception of a cool period in September, a long warm fall. The grapes for the 2015 Nota Bene were picked between September 16 (likely the Merlot) and October 22.

The 2010 Nota Bene had 14% alcohol while the 2015 has 14.8%. In fact, the 2011 Nota Bene, with 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, has 14% alcohol. The 2011 vintage was notoriously cool.

That data tells me that the key to producing a high quality Nota Bene in both tough vintages and big ripe ones is very disciplined grape growing. The wine is one of the most collectible reds from the Okanagan.

Here is an excerpt from my new book, Icon: Flagship Wines from British Columbia’s best Wineries. The book also has the specifications and tasting notes for all the preceding vintages of Nota Bene.

Nota bene suggests that a person should “take notice”. That is exactly what happened with the very first vintage of Nota Bene in 1999. The acclaim from critics and consumers gave it a cult status that the wine has enjoyed ever since.

The founders of Black Hills were two couples who had left city jobs in 1996 to plant 36,000 vines, mostly Bordeaux red varieties, in a vineyard on Black Sage Road. Senka Tennant, one of the quartet, was tasked with making the wine. She made the first three vintages of Nota Bene with advice from Rusty Figgins, a Washington state winemaker who had made numerous Bordeaux-style blends at prestigious Leonetti Cellars.

There was a jarring disconnect between Nota Bene’s image and the original winery. The production facility was a homely Quonset hut more appropriate for tractor storage than winemaking. The tasting room, when open, was a plank across two upended barrels. However, the success of Nota Bene enabled the partners to build a new and well-equipped winery in 2006.

To allow one of the founding couples to retire, Black Hills was sold in late 2007 to a group of investors called Vinequest Wine Partners Limited Partnership. Many of the investors were Nota Bene collectors who now had an even more compelling reason to buy the wine. Senka Tennant’s final Nota Bene was the 2007 vintage, and she has been succeeded in the cellar by Graham Pierce.

Vinequest has since expanded Black Hills with the purchase of a neighbouring vineyard in 2011 on which, in the following year, a $1 million wine shop was built. The winery at last had a tasting room commensurate with Nota Bene’s prestige.

Black Hills has the ability to produce more than 5,500 cases from its two vineyards. The volume of Nota Bene, however, is capped at 3,500 to 4,000 cases. The wine’s quality is consistent; it is always made with three estate-grown Bordeaux varieties. It was aged in oak for a year until 2014, when the winery extended barrel-aging to 16 months. The current oak regime is 80% French, 20% American; one-third of the barrels are new, one-third are a year old, and the remaining third are two years old. The red wines remaining after each Nota Bene blend is assembled go into a solid second label called Cellar Hand.

Here is a note on the new release:

Black Hills Nota Bene 2015 ($59.90 plus tax). The blend is 56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 38% Merlot and 6% Cabernet Franc and the wine was aged 16 months in barrel (90% French, 10% American and a third new). The richly dark colour and the generous 14.8% alcohol reflects a vintage that was among the warmest ever in the Okanagan. The wine begins with an enticing aroma of cassis and vanilla with hints of cherry and chocolate. The ripe flavours echo the cherry and cassis mingled with cedar, earthy minerality, leather and tobacco. The ripe tannins are firm but the texture is rich and elegantly polished. The wine is already approachable but will improve even more with time in the cellar – for at least to 2025. 94.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Blasted Church announces new winemaker

Blasted Church has just announced a change of winemakers.

That is not unusual for this Okanagan Falls winery. By my count, the winery has had seven winemakers since 2002.

The list starts with Frank Supernak, who died in November 2002 in an accident at another winery. The successors have been Marcus Ansems, Kelly Moss, Richard Kanazawa, Mark Wendenburg and, since 2010, Elaine Vickers.

Elaine’s departure was announced last week, to be succeeded by Evan Saunders, who has been at Blasted Church since 2014, initially as a cellar hand.

What strikes me, as I look at that list, is that the quality of Blasted Church wines has been consistent even as cellar personnel changed. There are other Okanagan wineries which have had significant turnover among their winemakers and quality has not missed a beat. Burrowing Owl Vineyards comes to mind.

That points to the old adage that 80% of a wine is made in the vineyard. Clearly, the vineyards at Blasted Church and Burrowing Owl are managed very well.

Here is a biographical note on Evan from the Blasted Church website:

“The perfect blend of Prairie charm and enological wit, Evan joined the congregation in 2014 as a cellar hand, rose to Assistant Winemaker, and recently promoted to Winemaker at Blasted Church.

“After completing a degree in microbiology from the University of Victoria, Evan moved to Ontario to study Grape and Wine Technology at Brock University. Applying his scientific background with wine was a perfect pairing. Returning to BC, Evan spent over three years learning the art of Bordeaux style reds at Osoyoos Larose, Oliver, BC, and traveled to Sonoma for a Pinot Noir harvest at Kosta Browne in Sebastopol, CA. Evan brings a wealth of red wine making experience to our winemaking team.
“Since joining our team three years ago, Evan has been a driving force in the pursuit of stellar quality in our wine program. His contagious enthusiasm in the cellar, along with his finely balanced artistic and scientific approach to winemaking have made Evan the natural choice to spearhead our wine operations into the future.” 

During Elaine’s time in the cellar, Blasted Church has become a much larger producer. From 2011 to 2013, Blasted Church production grew from 17,000 cases a year to around 25,000 cases. That is why, when consultant Mark Wendenburg moved on to his other Okanagan clients, the winery added Evans to the cellar staff.

As Elaine takes her résumé elsewhere in the wine industry, the current releases from Blasted Church should serve as excellent references. Here are notes on two.

Blasted Church Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($24 for 665 cases). Dry and tangy, this wine begins with aromas of lime, pineapple and herbal spice. On the palate, there are flavours of lime and lemon. The bracing acidity is moderate with the texture of the 10% that was fermented in French oak. 90.

Blasted Church Rosé 2016 ($20 for 336 cases).  The blend here is complex: 63% Merlot, 18% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Malbec  and 5% Pinot Noir. The winery’s notes do not disclose the winemaking method but one can assume some juice was bled from tanks of each of the varieties to make Blasted Church’s first rosé in six years. The wine presents with a vibrant rose petal hue in the glass. Aromas of strawberry and raspberry rise from the glass. On the palate, there is a rich fruit compote of flavours (strawberry, cherry). A hint of fruit sweetness adds to the lingering finish. 91.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Lieutenant Governor's 2017 wine awards

Photo: Winning wines in 2017

A total of 486 wines from 136 wineries were entered this year in the 2016 Lieutenant Governor’s Awards for Excellence in British Columbia Wines.

In keeping with the rigor in which the competition is judged, 12 wines were singled out for awards from among the 50 outstanding wines that made it into the final round. One winery owner has been quoted as saying this is like winning the Stanley Cup. It is an apt comparison, considering that award was established by a Governor General.

The wine award was established in 2003 by The Honourable Iona Campagnolo when she was Lieutenant Governor. It was continued by her successors, The Honourable Steven Point and the current incumbent, The Honourable Judith Guichon. All British Columbia producers of grape wines are eligible to enter.

This year, the winning wineries are all in the Okanagan. They include both repeat wineries and first-time winners. Burrowing Owl won a previous award also with a Cabernet Franc. As well, Noble Ridge won an award with an earlier vintage of its sparkling wine, The One.

Cassini Cellars, Gray Monk Estate Winery and Howling Bluff Estate Winery all have won awards in previous competitions. Cassini keeps winning with big reds while Howling Bluff is making is mark with Pinot Noir and Gray Monk with sparkling wine.

Kitsch Wines, a first-time winner, just opened last year. Their winning Riesling is from the first harvest at their Kelowna vineyard. Two other first-time winners occupy neighbouring vineyards beside Highway 97 south of Oliver: Maverick Estate Winery, which began sales in 2013, and Castoro de Oro, which had previously been named Golden Beaver by the current owners who bought the property in 2006.

Perseus Winery and The Hatch Wines, both first time winners, are owned by the Terrabella Wineries group. The Hatch opened in 2015 while Perseus opened in 2009.

Upper Bench Estate Winery formerly struggled under other names and owners. It was re-established in 2012 by Gavin and Shana Miller. Unique among the winners, it also incorporates a cheese-making facility operated by Shana.

The awards will be presented in September by the Lieutenant Governor, who visits each winning winery. She is accompanied by members of the Consular Corps of British Columbia. The consuls not only improve their knowledge of British Columbia wines but often make significant purchases.

Here are the winners.

Burrowing Owl Estate Winery Cabernet Franc 2014: ($Sold out). Winery tasting notes: “A ripe yet elegant nose showing a complex range of floral violet notes, five spice, sage, plum, black cherry and liquorice with a subtle hint of dark chocolate infused with orange zest. The palate is medium in body, elegant and refreshing with crisp acidity, soft round tannins and intense raspberry, plum, blackberry and spice on a long finish that shows some complex graphite minerality.” 

Cassini Cellars The Aristocrat Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 ($40). Winery notes: “The Aristocrat Cabernet Sauvignon is a big, rich, intense, voluptuous, seductive style showing supple plum, mocha, dates, cassis, vanilla toffee, chocolate and red wild berry fruit making it spicy and aromatic. Layers of flavour flood the palate, creating a long lasting and lingering finish.”

Cassini Cellars Nobilus Merlot Collector’s Series 2013 ($40). Winery notes: “2013 Nobilus is about balance, structure, character. This classy wine has intense aromas of black currant, raspberry jam, spice and hints of cedar and vanilla. Smooth silky tannins with long lingering blackberry and cocoa notes. A long velvety finish completes this elegant wine ….”

Castoro de Oro Estate Winery Crimson Rhapsody 2014 ($NA). Winery notes: “A Bordeaux style red with a kick from Syrah, this full-bodied red offers flavours of plum, currant and blackberry, and notes pepper and coffee. The blend is finished in French oak barrels for 18 months, adding to its sumptuous richness.”

Grey Monk Estate Winery Odyssey White Brut 2014 ($21.99). Winery notes: “Our Odyssey White Brut sparkling wine is made from a blend of Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay Musqué  grapes. The wine's second fermentation is in the bottle and is left on the yeast for 13 months. The bottles are then riddled and disgorged and the dosage is added. Served chilled in a Champagne flute, this pale straw-coloured wine provides a lively display of fine bubbles. The aroma is fruity and fresh. On the palate, the wine has a full creamy texture with flavours hinting of citrus fruits and apricots. The finish is crisply refreshing.”

The Hatch Crown + Thieves “The Broken Barrel” Syrah 2013 ($NA).  Author’s tasting notes: “The grapes were from a vineyard in east Osoyoos. The wine completed fermentation in American oak barrels and then was aged for two years in an American oak puncheon. Only 50 cases were made. The wine begins with aromas of deli meats, prunes and bacon fat. That is echoed on the robust palate, along with earthy flavours of plum and black cherry. A note of pepper punctuates the finish. The term, Broken Barrel, apparently refers to a forklift accident.”

Howling Bluff Estate Winery Century Block Pinot Noir 2013 ($75). Winery notes: “The Century Block is sited on a slight western facing slope on what was the stream bed of Three Mile Creek. Terroir: rocks, sand, gravel and silt with "river wash" from the action of Three Mile Creek as it carved the stream bed into the bottom of Lake Penticton. Vineyard size: 1,200 vines, clones: 667 and 777. In the 1980’s there were 100 different species of apples on the site, hence the name “Century Block”. Tonnage was 1,320 kilograms. The wine was aged in 100% new French oak puncheons for 12 months. Because 2013 was the first year, we decided to bottle the Century Block separately. We only bottled 2 puncheons under the Century block label and the rest of the wine was put into our Summa Quies label. Case production: 60.”

Kitsch Wines Riesling 2015 ($25.90).  Author’s tasting notes: “This wine begins with aromas of lemon and lime, echoed on the palate. The flavours are surprisingly concentrated for fruit from young vines, with a vibrant tension created by balancing nine grams of acidity with 15.4 grams of residual sugar. The wine has begun to show a note of the classic petrol that develops as Riesling ages.”

Maverick Estate Winery Bush Vine Syrah 2014 ($32). Winery tasting notes: “This expressive, terroir-driven Syrah is made from a single vineyard. [The vines are] grown in a traditional ‘bush vine’ style. It has a rich, velvety red colour and boasts a masculine bouquet with intense cranberry, cherry and tobacco leaf aromas…. This Syrah has an expansive palate that exudes decadent layers of Black Forest cake, yet it has a tailored tannin structure which captures aromas of black fruit, licorice and nuances of white pepper.”

Noble Ridge Vineyards & Winery “The One” Sparkling 2012 ($39.90). Winery tasting notes: “Elegant aromas of Granny Smith apple and refreshing pink grapefruit are complimented by hints of fresh biscuit and caramelized stone fruit. This medium bodied, traditional French style brut highlights our single vineyard estate grown Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.”

Perseus Winery Invictus 2013 ($49.99). Winery notes: “Inspired by the ‘Grande Vin’ of Bordeaux’s Right Bank, our 2013 Invictus showcases the true potential that Cabernet Franc can achieve here in the South Okanagan. This wine bursts out of the bottle with concentrated aromas of black cherry, truffle and shades of pencil lead which lead into an opulent yet well structured wine of impressive complexity. Flavours here straddle both old world and new, with boysenberry, anise and dark chocolate hints. The mouth-feel is all velvet with long, lingering tannins.”

Upper Bench Estate Winery Estate Chardonnay 2015 ($26). Author’s tasting notes: “This wine was 50% fermented and aged three months in new French oak; and 50% fermented and aged in stainless steel. The minimal oak treatment imparted a creamy texture to this fruit forward wine. The flavours mingle notes of marmalade with peach.”

Monday, June 19, 2017

Culmina doubles up on Grüner

Photo: Culmina winemaker Jean-Marc Enixon

If you cannot get enough of a good thing, you will delight in what Culmina Family Estate Winery has done this year with Grüner Veltliner.

Culmina, which is owned by the Triggs family, was the first Okanagan winery to release a wine from the Austrian white variety, Grüner Veltliner, in the 2013 vintage from its 2011 planting. The wine was released as Unicus, still the name on the label. The wine, at $29 a bottle, is available at the winery and to Culmina’s wine club members.

The 2016 released from the winery include both Unicus and a “Wild Ferment Grüner Veltliner” labelled as “No. 002.” The 42 cases of this wine are available at $37 a bottle, and just to members of the wine club. (The previous wine in this series was a Riesling released as No. 001.)

The latter wine is made from a specific block in the Culmina vineyard. Aside from that, there is no explanation in winery’s notes as to why winemaker Jean-Marc Enixon made two Grüner Veltliners and deliberately differentiated the styles. Just drink and enjoy.

Culmina appears to have triggered other Okanagan producers to plant Grüner Veltliner. Wineries currently releasing this white include Pipe Dreams, Bordertown Vineyards and Chase Wines. Elsewhere in BC, Fort Berens Estate Winery at Lillooet has made trial wines but not for public release; Singletree Winery in Abbotsford has just released its first Grüner Veltliner. And De Vine Vineyards on the Saanich Peninsula was the very first winery in BC to plant the variety in 2008.

The varietal has become popular with North American restaurants, which is why plantings have been increasing in Oregon, California and Washington.

“We were looking for a cool climate white, and some diversity,” Don Triggs told me a few years ago after Culmina planted about two acres. “You know the three standard varietals for cool climate are Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. We were looking for a variety that was winter hardy. And we were looking for a variety where there might have some consumer interest. We did see some interest in this in California wine bars; and in people planting it around the world.”

He gave some thought to Torrontes, the Argentine white, but was not sure how well it would handle hard winters. Grüner Veltliner has a good history of surviving continental climates in central Europe. And there was some anecdotal evidence from Ontario where Karl Kaiser, the Austrian-born founder of Inniskillin, planted a small block in the 1970s.

“It was a suitcase clone,” Don suggested. “They had one of those bad Ontario freezes and Karl’s Grüner Veltliner and Seyval Blanc were the two varietals that survived the best. So I knew it was winter hardy. The sad part of that story is that when Inniskillin expanded, they pulled it out to increase the parking lot.”

That will certainly not be the fate of Grüner Veltliner in the Culmina vineyard. It would take a mountain goat to negotiate some of the mountainous benches on this Golden Mile vineyard.

There is more to Culmina than Grüner Veltliner, of course, as the current releases show. Here are notes on the wines, include two under the winery’s second label, the R&D Series. The labels show a photo of two young boys. It is a family picture of the Triggs twins, Ron and Don.

Culmina R&D Series White Blend 2016 ($20). This is a blend of Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer and Viognier. The wine begins with orange blossom and citrus. It isa rich on the palate, with flavours of apricot, ripe apple and orange peel and with a hint of spice on the finish. 90.s is a blend of l end of estate grown Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, and Viognier from all three benches.
Culmina R&D Series Rosé Blend 2016 ($19). This is a blend of Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine has a pale rose petal hue. It has aromas and flavours of strawberry and cherry. The wine is crisp and refreshing. 90.

Culmina Decora Riesling 2016 ($23). This wine begins with aromas of lime and lemon and delivers a delicious mouthful of flavour, notably lemon with a suggest of peach and apple. Minerality adds to the wine’s disciplined structure and its dry finish. 91.

Culmina Unicus 2016 ($29). The wine was fermented in stainless steel (49%), in a concrete egg (28%) and in a concrete amphora (23%). The wine begins with lovely floral aromas that move on to notes of green melon and grapefruit. A generous dollop of fruit flavours hit the palate, including citrus, green apple and quince, with an herbal note on the crisp finish. 93.

Culmina No. 002 ($37). This wine was fermented slowly, for 59 days in stainless steel barrels with indigenous yeast. In the glass, there is a lovely and appealing perfume. The long ferment has imparted the pleasant yeasty note of rising bread while preserving aromas of yellow plum that are richly echoed on the palate. The flavours are seductively intense, subtly supported with a fine mineral backbone. 95.

Culmina Saignée 2016 ($24). The blend is 73% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc and 13% Malbec. The wine is fashionably pale in hue (salmon coloured, the winery says). It begins with aromas of strawberry and nectarine which are echoed on the palate. The finish is dry. 91.

Culmina Merlot 2014 ($31). Bold and dark in colour, this is a textbook Okanagan Merlot, with aromas of plums and black cherry that jump from the glass. On the palate, there is a juicy mouthful of black cherry, blueberry compote and dark chocolate. The 16 months the wine spent in French oak barrels (15% new) has imparted hints of vanilla both in the aroma and in the flavour. 92.

Culmina Cabernet Franc 2014 ($NA). This begins with aromas of red currant and blackberry, leading to brambly flavours with savoury notes of red berries and spicy oak. The wine is tight and brooding and benefits from decanting. 88.

Culmina Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($34). The great 2014 vintage has produced superb reds, among them this rich and concentrated Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine begins with aromas of cassis and vanilla and goes on to show flavours of black cherry, plum, fig and dark chocolate. The long, ripe tannins give the wine a satisfying elegance. This is a cellar-worthy Okanagan Cabernet Sauvignon. 93.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Township 7 hits home run with Cabernet

Photo; Winemaker Mary McDermott

Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the great red wine grapes in the world.

It is also a variety that needs a slightly longer season than either Merlot or Cabernet Franc. In some vintages, Okanagan Cabernet Sauvignon has been underwhelming because of a truncated autumn.

The 2014 vintage, however, was a fine, long season. Producers in the Okanagan and the Similkameen have begun to release much more satisfying Cabernets than in most, if not all, previous vintages.

At Township 7 Vineyards & Winery, winemaker Mary McDermott hit it out of the park with the winery’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2014. She made a robust wine with grapes from the excellent Vanessa Vineyard in the Similkameen. Unfortunately, she made only 148 cases and the wine is available only to the Township 7 wine club. I wonder if it is too late to join the club for this release?

Mary came to Township 7 in the fall of 2014 after six vintages in the Niagara wine region. In a note accompanying the recent releases, she explains that she was attracted by the opportunity to expand the Township 7 portfolio; and specifically, to make more premium and small lot wines.

“To accomplish these goals,” she writes, “I’ve worked closely with local growers to source grapes from premium sites throughout the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys. By developing sound long-term relationships with these growers, we are able to produce some of best wines from some of the best sites available.”

She joined Township 7 shortly after the winery was acquired by well-resourced new owners. New capital has meant substantial improvements both to the Naramata winery and to the Langley winery. The improvement’s enabled Mary to expand the winery’s small lot program.

The improvements included “increasing the size of our cellar to accommodate the new barrels and tanks we have purchased,” Mary writes. “In addition, we have expanded the crush pad and invested in premium equipment, which will improve our ability to treat the grapes with the care and attention required to constantly improve wine quality.”

All of this has been reflected in the rising quality of Township 7 wines during the past three vintages.

Here are notes on three current releases.

Township 7 Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($17.97 for 1,368 cases). The grapes for this wine are from the Rock Pocket and Blue Terrace Vineyards near Oliver, two of the winery’s long-term growers. This is a crisp and tangy Loire-style white. It begins with aromas of lime and lychee. On the palate, herbal notes mingle with lime and gooseberry. The wine was fermented in stainless steel at relatively cool temperatures, preserving the freshness in the flavours. 90.

Township 7 7 Blanc 2016 ($17.97 for 498 cases). This slightly off-dry white is a complex blend: 62% Gewürztraminer, 22% Pinot Gris, 6% Muscat, 6% Viognier and 3% Riesling. The wine pulls the consumer in with aromas of peaches, pears, lychee and spice. On the palate, there is a fruit salad of flavours including stone fruit, melon, apple and citrus. The texture is juicy but the acidity ensures a refreshing finish. 91.

Township 7 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($39.97 for 148 cases). This rich and full-bodied wine is the first reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from Township 7, but hopefully not the last. Dark in colour, this wine begins with aromas of cassis, black cherry and spice. It fills the mouth with flavours of black cherry, plum, vanilla and dark chocolate. I agree with the winery’s description that this is a “robust red with great structure and flavours.” It has 14.7% alcohol but the rich flavours and texture carry the alcohol seamlessly. The winery recommends aging this five to 15 years. Good luck – you will find it hard to keep away from this delicious wine. 93.

Monday, June 12, 2017

All Canadian Wine awards dominated by BC wineries

 Photo: Noble Ridge wins top sparkling award

The wineries of British Columbia did very well at the recently-completed All Canadian Wine Championships.

More than half of the wine entries came from BC. There were 873 BC entries in a total of 1,401 entries.

And 360 of the BC entries garnered awards, including all five of the trophy awards.

One surprise of the competition was the comparative paucity of entries from Ontario’s wineries. There were just 393 Ontario entries and just 136 garnered awards.

It is hard to understand the comparative lack of Ontario entries.  The All Canadian Wine Championships, now in its 37th year, has always been held in Ontario. The last five competitions have taken place in Prince Edward County. That happens to be where the organizers live, as well as the locale of a number of excellent Ontario wine producers (several of which did well in competition).

To complete the record, Quebec wineries entered 77 wines and took 24 awards; Nova Scotia wineries entered 33 wines and took 12 awards; New Brunswick entered 17 wines for two awards; and Alberta wineries entered 10 wines and won four awards.

The wines are judged by a panel of 20 drawn from across Canada. That includes 11 from Ontario and four from British Columbia. The results, therefore, do not reflect cellar palates.

Complete results are published on the competition’s website,

Here are the trophy winners.

Best Sparkling Wine of the Year: Noble Ridge Vineyard & Winery The One Sparkling 2012 ($34.70). This is a blend of 81% Chardonnay and 19% Pinot Noir aged 41 months on the lees.

Best Red Wine of the Year: Sandhill Howard Soon Red 2014 ($60).

Best White Wine of the Year: Crescent Hill Winery Glennallen Private Reserve Gewürztraminer ($15).

Best Dessert Winer of the Year: Gehringer Brothers Signature Riesling Icewine 2015 ($41.99).

Best Fruit Wine of the Year: Krause Berry Farms & Winery Cassis 2016 ($25).

The winners represent an mix of veteran and new producers. Gehringer Brothers, based on a vineyard south of Oliver, opened in 1986. It has a long history of making award-winning wines which, generally, offer the best value for money on the Okanagan.

Sandhill produced its first vintage in 1997 and is dedicated to making just single vineyard wines. The current owner of Sandhill is Andrew Peller Ltd. The winery has a large tasting room in Kelowna at the venerable Calona winery. The Howard Soon Red is a small production wine (73 cases), available just at the tasting room.

Noble Ridge, located just south of Okanagan Falls, opened in 2005 and produces a broad range of red and white wines. The One, as the sparkling wine is called, joined the portfolio several vintages ago. Earlier vintages have also been award winners.

Crescent Hill just recently opened its tasting room on Valleyview Road, at the south end of Penticton. The winery is operated by Teresa and Russell Wiseman.

Krause Berry Farms & Winery in Langley is a well-known berry farm. Owners Sandee and Alf Krause opened a fruit winery in 2012, one of many strategies to add value to the fruits they grow.

Hats off to these wineries, and to the other winners as well.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Howard Soon retires with a big wine

Photo: Master Winemaker Howard Soon

Howard Soon, the legendary winemaster at Sandhill Wines, retires July 24.

And he goes out on a high. Howard Soon Red 2014, an elegant and powerful Meritage with grapes from Phantom Creek Vineyards, is the red wine of the year at the 2017 All Canadian Wine Championships.

Craig McDonald, the senior winemaker at Andrew Peller Ltd., paid tribute to Howard in announcing the retirement.

“As a fellow winemaker, I will remain in awe at his depth of knowledge, dedication to the craft and unwavering passion toward never compromising wine quality,” Craig wrote in a statement.  “Indeed, Howard has served the wine consumer well and has touched so many industry professionals along the way it’s too numerous to count. Howard’s legacy continues on with Sandhill and with the many winemakers he has mentored over the years, all respecting his experience, wisdom and dedication to their learning.

Howard was born in 1952 in Vancouver, the grandson of a shopkeeper who emigrated from southern China in the 1880s. Howard graduated in biochemistry from the University of British Columbia in 1974. After five years in the brewing industry, he joined Calona in 1980 as a quality control supervisor, became assistant winemaker in 1981 and subsequently was promoted to chief winemaker.

Craig describes Howard as “the longest serving winemaker in Canada - amassing an incredible 37 consecutive vintages.”

Howard has been the winemaker for Sandhill Wines since that winery’s inception in 1997. Sandhill stands apart from most British Columbia wineries because it is dedicated to making single vineyard wines exclusively. Each year those wines put the spotlight on six to eight distinctive terroirs. Craig suggests this defined the idea of terroir in British Columbia.

Sandhill has won an impressive number of awards, including at least nine at the Lieutenant Governor’s Award of Excellence. Since 2004 Sandhill Wines have won about 100 gold or double gold medals in regional, national and international competitions. Just one example: double gold and best in category with a 2011 Small Lots Chardonnay at the Chardonnay du Monde Competition in France.

The BC wine industry gave Howard the Founder's Award in 1998. In 2015, he received the Vancouver Wine Festival’s 'Spirited Industry Professional' in 2015.

In his typically modest fashion, Howard did not claim complete responsibility for the Sandhill single vineyard strategy. He described the history to me in a 2005 interview:

“I can’t claim credit for it. I think it was collusion between us and marketing. Perhaps some wineries don’t have the communication channel between marketing and production. We do. We have always had that because we are brand focused.

“We had the Artist Series [at Calona]. I kept wanting to slip the grape growers in on the back label. It was important to me. I felt you’ve got to give credit to the guys who are growing the grapes. Marketing said, Howie, that’s not the right place for it.

“At the same time, Burrowing Owl Winery started up. We were partners with Jim Wyse. Ironically enough, in a parallel track, we made the first vintage, 1997, for Burrowing Owl in our winery [Calona], working with Bill Dyer.

“At the same time, marketing had the concept that we needed to push up into the premium area. Artist Series is more retail. We need something that is more premium, more aimed at restaurants. They asked what we could do. I said, one of the simplest ways of going premium is single vineyard. Let’s give credit to our growers.”

The first Sandhill wines were made with fruit from the Sandhill Estate Vineyard, then owned with Burrowing Owl Vineyards (a partner later dissolved). Over the years, other premium vineyards were also enlisted for Sandhill.

Arguably, the gem was Phantom Creek Vineyard, a seven-acre parcel on Black Sage Road planted and farmed by Richard Cleave. He is as iconic as a grower as Howard is legendary as a winemaker.
“I have known him for years, ever since he was growing grapes at Pacific Vineyards,” Howard told me in 2005. “That is now where Burrowing Owl is. Dick got through the free trade period [when most Pacific Vineyards was pulled out] by growing market vegetables. He was growing peppers and stuff. He said, ‘Howie, I’ve got my own vineyard.’ He had started growing grapes and selling them to home winemakers. They were pretty good grapes. Even I didn’t realize how good they were.”

Richard asked Howard to make wine for him.  “I said I’ll see what I can do,” Howard recalled. “His first fruit was 2000 – three years after the first Sandhill wine [from Burrowing Owl]. I made some Syrah, one barrel of Syrah, just under 20 cases. It was superb Syrah, but it was only one barrel. But we realized that Dick had something going.” Phantom Creek became the second single vineyard in the Sandhill portfolio and, ultimately, the vineyard that grew some of the best Sandhill wines.

The vineyard was acquired early in 2016 by a Richmond-based Chinese entrepreneur who also acquired Harry McWatters’s Sundial Vineyard on the other side of Black Sage Road. A new winery called Phantom Creek is now under development there.
“I believe terroir is a quest,” Howard said in 2005. “It is a process, which is the way we do our wines, too. We’re always trying to make better wines, so we focus on process, not outcome.  We are always doing the best with everything that we do, then the wine will take care of itself. Really to me, terroir is the expression of the fruit quality. What the grape is giving you, that’s what terroir is to me – a true expression of what is in the fruit.”

I was able to taste the Howard Soon Red 2014 earlier this year and wrote about in a blog in March on Sandhill wines. Here is my note on the wine:

Howard Soon Red 2014 Phantom Creek Vineyard ($60 for 73 cases). This is 71% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Petit Verdot, 8% Malbec and 5% Merlot. This wine displays the triumphal achievement of a veteran winemaker with grapes from a superior vineyard in the Okanagan’s best vintage (so far). It begins with seductive aromas of black currant, black cherry and vanilla. The palate is rich and intense, with ripe dark fruit, black cherry, black currant ands vanilla. The lingering finish has notes of dark chocolate and spice. 94.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Pender Island's Sea Star Vineyard releases fourth vintage

Photo: Sea Star proprietor David Goudge

With four vintages under its belt, Pender Island’s Sea Star Vineyards & Winery now has established a significant track record for producing quality wines.

Just before these wines were released this spring, I happened to be chatting with a Pender Island resident who was positively bouncing at the anticipation of going to the release event at the winery. I suspect if the islanders had their druthers, they would keep all of these wines for themselves.

It is a comparatively small winery. In 2015 it produced 3,800 cases, its target for full production. Production declined to 2,600 cases in 2016 because cool and wet weather at flower set reduced the yield from the estate vineyard. Sea Star was required to buy additional grapes from vineyards on Vancouver Island and the Okanagan to keep its output high enough not to disappoint its customers too much.

The winery is owned by David Goudge, who has lived on Pender Island for almost a decade years. He purchased Morning Bay five years ago after it had closed. The original winery, an attractive building set amidst the forest, was still there. So was the seven-acre vineyard that had been planted in 2002.

David resuscitated the property by investing in new equipment, a climate controlled barrel cellar and an updated wine shop.  To manage the vineyard and make the wines, he hired Ian Baker, who had formerly done the same duties at Mistaken Identity Vineyards on Salt Spring Island.

Ian is a one time Department of Fisheries employee and the former operator of a landscape business in Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island. More to the point, he was a long-time amateur winemaker with, as one of his former partners said, “a box of medals.” 

He came to Sea Star in 2013 after about four years with Mistaken Identity and has certainly added to his box of medals since. For example, his Provence-style rosé was “best of show” last year at the Canadian Culinary Championships.
The singular character of Ian’s wines is that they always express clean, refreshing fruit aromas and flavours. I have tasted all four vintages and the wines have always been flawless. It makes me want to move to Pender Island.

The Pender Island grapes in the winery’s whites are from the 5,000 vines at Sea Star’s vineyard and the 7,000 vines at the 5.5-acre vineyard at Clam Bay Farm on North Pender Island.

While the winery purchased Okanagan grapes in 2016 and in previous vintages, that is not the long-term plan. “We hope to never source grapes again from the Okanagan because we recognize it dilutes our brand,” David says.

 Here are notes on the current releases.

Sea Star Ortega 2016 ($20 for 503 cases). The wine begins with aromas of pink grapefruit and honeydew melon, followed by a rich display of fruit flavours on the palate – melon, grapefruit, pineapple – with spice on the crisp and dry finish. 90.

Sea Star Pinot Gris 2016 ($22 for 244 cases). This is the winery’s first Pinot Gris, made with grapes purchased from Cherry Point Vineyards. Winemaker Ian Baker did the vineyard proud by crafting a complex wine with aromas of citrus and flavours peaches, pears and melon. There is a touch of herbal spice that recalled oregano every so subtly. The texture is juicy and the finish dry. 90.

Sea Star Stella Maris 2016 ($24 for 384 cases). This wine is a blend of Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Ortega and Schönburger.  The grapes are all estate grown. The wine begins with aromas of pear, rose petal spice, apricots and honey. These are repeated with a lush, fruity palate; a medley of tropical flavours that linger on the finish. 92.

Sea Star Blanc de Noir 2016 ($24 for 819 cases). This wine is made with estate-grown Pinot Noir supplemented by organic Pinot Noir from the Okanagan. It presents in the glass with a delicate rose petal colour and aromas of strawberry. The wine has flavours of strawberry and rhubarb. The dry finish is tangy and refreshing. 91.

Sea Star Pinot Noir Reserve 2014 ($30 and almost sold out). This estate-grown Pinot Noir is seductive and feminine, with aromas of cherry and flavours of strawberry with a hint of vanilla and mocha. The silky texture is especially seductive. 91.

Sea Star Maréchal Foch 2016 ($23 for 72 cases). The wine, made in a nouveau style, is produced with estate grown grapes. The aromas burst with cherries and red plums which are echoed on the juicy palate. The striking fruity flavours are best revealed when the wine is slightly cool. The texture is silky. A great wine with summer salads. 90.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Tinhorn Creek refreshes its labels

Photo: Winemaker Andrew Windsor

The wines released this spring by Tinhorn Creek Vineyards come with refreshed labels.

If memory serves, this is at least the fourth update of labels since the winery opened 23 years ago.

Regular updates to labels are not unusual among New World wineries. Blasted Church Vineyards and 8th Generation Vineyard both have had two significant label overhauls since opening, to name just two wineries.

The usual motive is to create labels more likely to resonate with youthful consumers and sommeliers. The original 8th Generation labels were quite German in style because, after all, the winery owners are from Germany. German wines do not do that well in this market because the labels strike consumers are archaic and confusing.

8th Generation, with advice from a label designer, switched to a bold, clean design recalling Oriental calligraphy. The labels make the bottles jump out on the shelves of wine stores or on restaurant tables. The design’s timeless quality makes it one of the most effective label redesigns I have ever seen in the Okanagan.

Tinhorn Creek’s varietal series of wines now come with totally decluttered labels. The labels are crisp and clean and are quite effective.

The reserve labels - the wines are released as Oldfield Reserve – now look more regal, with some gold lettering, dark hues and a depiction at the base of each label of the creek sweeping down from the mountains. If memory serves, that creek has made an appearance on all generations of Tinhorn Creek labels.

Here are some of the previous labels.

The new reserve labels create a significant differentiation between the two tiers that Tinhorn Creek offers.

Whether that will matter as much to consumers as it does to the winery is another question. Tinhorn Creek already has a well-established reputation and such a large wine club that consumers would buy the wines even if the labels were brown paper.

The current releases are all made by Andrew Windsor, the winemaker who succeeded Sandra Oldfield in 2014 when she took over the president’s role at the winery. Judging from the wines, it has been a good hire.

Andrew was recruited from Andrew Peller Ltd. in Ontario where he has been involved in making wines for the VQA portfolio for three vintages.

“We have hired him to be a winemaker and to bring in new and creative ideas to the cellar in the same way that Andrew Moon did things to revitalize our vineyards,” Sandra told me at the time of Andrew’s recruitment.  (Moon is the Australian viticulturist that Tinhorn Creek hired in 2008.)

Born in Ontario, Andrew initially studied environmental science at the University of Guelph but got a taste for winemaking in 2005 at The Ice House Winery at Niagara-on-the-Lake. He completed his winemaking degree at the University of Adelaide in 2006.

In 2008, he joined the winemaking staff at Mollydooker Wines, a McLaren Vale winery that had been started in 2005 and has made a reputation for its big red wines. He left there to join EauVivre Winery & Vineyard in the Similkameen Valley in 2010. He was immediately impressed with the potential of that valley and the Okanagan for making fine wines.

Typical for young winemakers, he set out to pack in experience, starting with working the 2011 vintage at the Pernod Ricard operation in New Zealand.  From there, he moved to France and spent six months, and another 2011 vintage, at Cave de Tain, a producer of Hermitage. On returning to Canada, he joined Andrew Peller Ltd. in Ontario in mid 2012.

“Once he was back in Canada, he really did want to be back in B.C.,” Sandra told me when she announced his hiring. “He is going to be bringing a lot new to us. He is here to do what Andrew Moon did – bring a skill set from different locations and apply it here.”

Here are notes on Andrew’s wines.

Tinhorn Creek Gewürztraminer 2016 ($16.99 for 5,500 cases). The wine begins with aromas of lychee and spice. On the palate, there are honeyed tropical fruit flavours. The soft acidity and the residual sugar combine to leave a plump, off-dry finish with lingering spice notes. 89.

Tinhorn Creek Pinot Gris 2016 ($17.99 for 7,000 cases). The wine presents in the glass with a light golden glint. The appeal continues with aromas of pear and apple mingled with citrus and spice. On the palate, there is an absolute fruit salad of flavour – pear, nectarine and citrus. The wine has generous weight on the palate, with a finish that is both luscious and refreshing. 91.

Tinhorn Creek  Oldfield Reserve Chardonnay 2015 ($34.99 for 450 cases). The wine presents in the glass with a golden hue. The aromas begin with toasty oak, vanilla and orange marmalade. (For athletes, the winery’s tasting notes reach a new high for descriptors by suggesting the aromas even include “new tennis balls.”) Those notes, minus the tennis balls, are echoed on the rich palate. Love is not a great score in tennis but it certainly applies with this Chardonnay. 92.

Tinhorn Creek  Oldfield Reserve Rosé 2016 ($19.99 for 1,100 cases). Fashionably pale in colour, the Cabernet Franc rosé begins with aromas of strawberry that jump from the glass. On the palate, there are hints of strawberry and watermelon. Just a hint of sweetness enhances the refreshing charm of those wine. 90.

Tinhorn Creek Oldfield Reserve Pinot Noir 2013 ($31.99 for 850 cases). The wine presents in the glass with a dark cherry hue. It begins with toasty, herbal aromas of dried cherries, leading to classic forest floor flavours of leather, mushrooms and red berries. The texture is polished and the finish lingers. 90.

Tinhorn Creek Oldfield Reserve Cabernet Franc 2014 ($31.99 for 800 cases). This ruby-hued wine begins with an appealing aroma of blackberry and raspberry mingled with vanilla. Those brambly notes are repeated in the flavours of dark fruits framed subtly with oak. Notes of spice and black cherry persist on the lingering finish. 92.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Albariño finds a home in the Okanagan

Photo:  Stag's Hollow winemaker Dwight Sick

The 2016 Albariño from Stag’s Hollow Winery & Vineyard confirms the wisdom of Terravista Vineyards in planting that grape variety in 2009.

That is such a promising variety for the Okanagan that more producers are likely to plant it and also release lively, refreshing and elegant white wines.

The appeal of Albariño is alluded to in Wine Grapes, the invaluable 2012 tome by Jancis Robinson and companions, who use the Portuguese spelling for the name of the variety.

“Alvarinho is widely planted in north-west Portugal, having spread from its original heartland in the municipality of Monçao, right on the country’s northern border with Spain, where it is known as Albariño,” they write. “However, the quality of the variety and the wind of fashion have taken the variety from north-west Iberia as far as North America and the Antipodes.”

The reason for its spread? “The best varietal wines combine aromas and flavours that are both fruity and floral – from linden, orange and acacia blossom through lemongrass and honeysuckle to orange, dried orange peel, grapefruit, bergamot, peach, and in some cases, green apple.”

The two Okanagan Albariño wines certainly echo those descriptors if your palate or your imagination is alive to all of those elements.

Stag’s Hollow planted Albariño, among other varieties, in its Shuttleworth Creek Vineyard, just north of Okanagan Falls. That vineyard was planted five years ago, partly to pioneer new varietals, including Dolcetto, and partly to increase the winery’s self-sufficiency on estate-grown grapes. The winery now is 85% self-sufficient.

Stag’s Hollow winemaker Dwight Sick has taken pains with the Albariño grapes. Ninety percent of the juice was fermented in stainless steel while the remainder was fermented in a 500-litre French oak puncheon. Both lots aged six weeks on the lees, with periodic stirring, before being blended. The winery’s notes observe that the wine was not allowed to go through malolactic fermentation. There would have been no point: the wine’s natural acidity is just right and is crucial to the lively, refreshing character of the wine.

Here are notes on that wine and two other 2016s that have just been released.

Stag’s Hollow Albariño 2016 ($21.99). The wine begins with aromas of green melon and honeysuckle. On the palate, there are flavours of melon, green apple, grapefruit with an underlying hint of peaches. The finish is a crisp and refreshing as a spring morning. 91.

Stag’s Hollow Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($16.99). This wine announced itself with an assertive aroma of herbs, lime and gooseberry. On the palate, there are flavours of lime mingled with herbs. The finish is tangy and dry. 90.

Stag’s Hollow Syrah Grenache Rosé 2016 ($21.99). The wine catches the eye with its dramatic, jewel-like ruby hue. The blend of 70% Syrah and 30% Grenache gives aromas and flavours of cherry and strawberry compote. The wine has good weight on the palate, with a suggestion of white pepper on the dry finish. 91.