Wednesday, November 28, 2018

CheckMate releases 2015 Chardonnays

 Photo: CheckMate's Phil McGahan

CheckMate Artisanal Winery has now released five Chardonnays from the 2015 vintage.

It was a challenging year because it was a hot year. However, Phil McGahan, the winemaker at CheckMate, achieved very well-balanced wines of remarkable freshness, with a quality that supports the prices.

“It was quite a warm year,” Phil says of 2015. “It was very important to pay attention to the picking. You had to balance the fruit flavours and ripeness against the acidity, and pick accordingly. It was one of those years with Chardonnay that if you waited until it tastes good on the vine, you have left it too late. We had to make a call predicated on the acidity as well as the fruit character. By doing that, we managed to keep freshness in the wine.”

These wines are the third vintage of Chardonnay released by CheckMate and cement the winery’s reputation as one of the best, if not the very best, producer of Chardonnay in the Okanagan. The winery makes just two varietals, the other being Merlot.

The CheckMate winery is midway between Oliver and Osoyoos, at the location of the former Antelope Ridge Winery. Mission Hill proprietor Anthony 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 the Dekleva clone from which Mission Hill in 1992 made the legendary award-winning Chardonnay that put the winery on the map.

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. This summer, a further expansion enlarged the cellar and completed the necessary renovation.

Phil McGahan, the winemaker, is a soft-spoken Australian. Born in 1969, he initially became a lawyer before getting his winemaking degree at Charles Sturt University. During his studies, 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. 

He was ready to move to the Okanagan in 2012 when von Mandl recruited him, giving him the responsibility to redevelop the Antelope Ridge winery and to 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.”

At CheckMate, he is able to work with a range of cooperage that includes concrete, barrels (all French oak) and larger French oak foudres. He uses the latter for aging Attack, one of CheckMate’s most appealing Chardonnays.

“The foudres give that more reductive environment for the wines, so you get reductive notes – gunflint and a sea salt character on the nose,” Phil says during a tasting at the winery. “More Asian fruits, like lychee and tropical fruit characters. On the palate, I get a mixture of Indian and Asian spices, almost a cardamom character and then that salinity as well.”

He adds: “I have a soft spot for The Attack. It is quite unique. It is a wine that begins reductive in style but, when you have it in bottle, it opens up to be quite rich.”

Here are notes on Attack and its friends.

CheckMate Queen Taken 2015 ($125). The intensity of this wine reflects that the grapes are from vines that are 43 years old. The wine begins with aromas of citrus and peach. The palate is generous, with flavours of orange and stone fruit around a spine of minerality. Bright acidity gives the wine a vibrant personality. 94.

CheckMate Queen’s Advantage 2015 ($85). The fruit for this wine comes for the Combret Vineyard adjacent to the winery, with vines believed to have been planted in the early 1970s. The wine begins with intense aromas of tropical fruits that are echoed on the rich and satisfying palate. Some 43% of the grapes were fermented with indigenous yeast. The wine was aged 16 months in French oak (48% new). 94.

CheckMate Knight’s Challenge 2015 ($85). The fruit for this wine comes from a vineyard on the Black Sage Bench. The wine has complex aromas that mingle brioche and citrus. On the palate, there are herbal notes and flavours of mandarin orange with buttery notes. There is minerality on the dry finish. 93.

CheckMate Attack 2015 ($115). This marvelous Chardonnay was aged in a foudre which perhaps accounts for its mouth-filling fruit. The wine begins with aromas of citrus and spice. On the palate, the spice mingles with tropical fruit and leads to a long, savoury finish. 96.

CheckMate Capture 2015 ($90). The grapes for this wine, all Dijon Clone 76 Chardonnay, are from the Border Vista Vineyard on the Osoyoos East Bench. Some 64% of the wine was fermented with indigenous yeast. The wine was aged 16 months in French oak (34% new). Production: eight barrels. The wine begins with aromas of citrus and orchard blossoms. On the palate, flavours of apple, citrus and peach mingle with a buttery note. The finish is fresh and lingering. 94.

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