Thursday, December 26, 2019

Dark Horse Vineyard emerges

Photo: Dark Horse Vineyard winemaker Derek Kontkanen

During the past several years, Arterra Wines Canada has been raising the profile of its choice Okanagan vineyards by releasing vineyard-designated wines.

The first was Black Sage Vineyards. The wines from that historic Bordeaux block on Black Sage Road, formerly released under the Sumac Ridge label, now are a stand-alone brand.

The second was SunRock Vineyards, spun off last year from Jackson-Triggs Wines. This recognizes the exceptional terroir of the SunRock Vineyard north of Osoyoos.

The third is Dark Horse Vineyard, emerging from Inniskillin Okanagan also as a stand-alone brand with four outstanding wines, including the legendary Meritage.

The winery explains: “Dark Horse Vineyard was formerly a tier within the Inniskillin Okanagan VQA portfolio. This tier represented some of the best wines made from grapes grown on a very special site found on the golden mile: a site known for complex soils with sun-baked slopes facing south and southeast.… In 2019, we recognized that this small portfolio of exquisite wines deserved their own identity and the chance to tell their own story and our tenacity to rise to the top.”

In my 2017 book, Icon, I singled out the Dark Horse Vineyard Meritage as an eminently collectible red wine. The winery became producing the wine as early as 1995. I could not find the specifications for every vintage, but that did not surprise me. In those early years of the B.C. wine industry revival, record-keeping seemed to have had a low priority when producers were not sure of their longevity. That is no longer the case.

Here is an except from Icon that profiles Dark Horse Vineyard.  

Inniskillin’s Dark Horse Vineyard is one of the best terroirs in the South Okanagan for big red wines. “Cabernet Sauvignon loves this place,” says Sandor Mayer, the winemaker who unlocked the potential of the site.

The 9.3-hectare (23-acre) vineyard was first planted with hybrid varieties in the 1970s for a winery called Vinitera, which opened in 1979. It failed twice before it was taken over in 1987 by Alan Tyabji, who promptly uprooted the hybrids in the 1988 grape pullout and then hired Sandor to replant with vinifera varieties.

Born in Hungary in 1958, Sandor had grown up on a farm with a modest vineyard. That led him to study horticulture and ultimately earn a degree in oenology and viticulture from a leading Hungarian university. He immigrated to Canada and the Okanagan in 1988 (he had relatives there), superbly equipped for the nascent wine industry, which had few jobs because two-thirds of the vineyards had just been pulled out.

Reviving the Dark Horse Vineyard was one of the few jobs available. Sandor arrived in 1989 to find that he first had to clean up a tangle of dead vines, trellis posts, and wire. He accelerated the work by setting fire to the dead vines. The blaze was only prevented from incinerating nearby hillsides by the arrival of the Oliver fire department. Sandor feared he would be fired. He was retained to replant the vineyard. He made his first vintage there in 1992 and spent almost all of his Canadian winemaking career at Inniskillin, as the winery has been known since 1996. When Sandor returned to his native Hungary in 2014, he was succeeded by Derek Kontkanen, a Brock University graduate whose career had focused on making white wines at Jackson-Triggs, a sister winery to Inniskillin (Inniskillin also has an Ontario branch in the Niagara region). He is also an authority on icewine (his university thesis was on that topic). Inniskillin’s icewine is as renowned as the reds from Dark Horse Vineyard.

Several factors make Dark Horse Vineyard special. The soils are complex and laden with volcanic minerals. The vineyard is nestled slightly in a bowl, with sun-bathed slopes facing south and southeast. In the early years, Sandor discovered the vineyard was too hot for a few of the varieties planted there, notably Gewürztraminer. But the heat units are ideal for the Bordeaux red varietals now dominating the vineyard. The wines invariably have ripe flavours of dark fruit, with an earthy structure and firm tannins that make them ideal for aging. The technical notes indicate a shift in style, with more robust alcohol levels since 2002 that suggest riper, fuller flavours.The lower alcohol level in early vintages was due to above-average crop [yields] and a vineyard that was still young,” Sandor explains. With the exception of 1995 and perhaps one other vintage, he made every wine through the 2013 vintage.

Sandor’s Dark Horse Meritage was selling for $25 a bottle. With the 2016 Dark Horse Meritage, Derek’s wine now sells for $60 – and is worth it. The specifications as well as the taste suggest that, as good as Sandor’s wines were, the winery has since raised the bar. For example, the Meritage now gets 16 months of barrel-aging, up from 12 months. No doubt, there have been other tweaks in both viticulture and winemaking.

Here are notes on the wines.

Dark Horse Vineyard Chardonnay 2018 ($40 for 500 cases). This wine was fermented in barrel (20% new French oak) and aged sur lie for 11 months. The wine aromas of apple and pineapple mingles with citrus and a hint of oak. The palate offers flavours of apple with a note of butter and vanilla. The oak is very well integrated and frames bright fruit. The finish lingers. 92.

Dark Horse Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017 ($45 for 300 cases). This wine was aged eight months in French and American oak. Dark in hue, it begins with aromas of spice and cherries that are echoed on the palate. There are rich flavours of dark fruits, vanilla and cloves with a silky texture. The lingering finish has touches of mocha. 91..

Dark Horse Vineyard Cabernet Franc 2016 ($45 for 450 cases). The wine was aged 16 months in French and American oak barrels. Dark in colour, the wine begins with aromas of blackberry and plum mingled with savoury herbs. On the palate, the wine delivers bright brambly berry flavours on a firm structure. A wine this delicious deserves to be decanted. 92.

Dark Horse Vineyard Meritage 2016 ($60 for 250 cases). This wine is 65% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Cabernet Franc. It was aged 16 months in French and American oak. The deep colour signals that this is a bold, concentrated wine. It begins with aromas of black cherry, vanilla and spice. The palate delivers flavours of plum, black currant, tobacco and spice. The finish is long and the texture is generous; a very elegant wine. 94.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Little Engine's no-compromise wines

Photo: Little Engine's Steven and Nicole French

This article about Little Engine Wines is the first of several year-end blogs on memorable wines tasted in 2019.

Located on Naramata Road, Little Engine opened in 2016. The wines are among the most expensive offered by the Naramata Road wineries – but the quality is definitely there to back up the prices.

The quality reflects the uncompromising standards of Little Engine’s viticulture and winemaking. Invariably, the tonnage per acre is low, enabling the winery to produce fruit with intense flavour. Merlot will easily produce five tons of fruit per acre. In the Little Engine vineyards, Merlot is limited to two and a half or three tons an acre. The same is true of Pinot Noir.

The benefit of low crop loads is ripe, full flavoured fruit. The downside, perhaps, is that wine prices will necessary be higher so that the winery owners can still earn a living in spite of dropping crop during the season.  That is basic wine economics. Little Engine is not that drops some crop and thus prices quality wines aggressively.

Here is an excerpt about Little Engine from the sixth edition of John Schreiner’s Okanagan Wine Tour Guide, which will be published in the spring of 2020.

The wines of Little Engine have three designated quality tiers: Silver, Gold, and Platinum. In the winery’s first vintage, 2014, owners Steven and Nicole French elevated just 10% to Platinum and left 60% as entry-level Silvers. The intention, however, is to get to 60% Platinum as quickly as viticulture and winemaking can support that quality. “Our family motto is ‘Dreams don’t come true—dreams are made true,’” Steven says. After all, the winery’s name was inspired by the 1930 children’s story The Little Engine That Could.

For Steven and Nicole, Little Engine is a career change from the energy business in Alberta. Both were born in 1969: Nicole in London, Ontario, and Steven in Winnipeg. “We finished university [in London] and moved to Calgary and stayed there for over 20 years,” Steven says. In 2011, they bought acreage near Penticton, where their sons attended hockey school. The following year, when the fruit trees were removed, they began planting Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Merlot.

Deciding to launch a winery, they made Little Engine’s first two vintages at another winery until Little Engine’s production facility was completed in 2016, amid about 2 hectares (about 5 acres) of vines right beside Naramata Road. To make the wine, they recruited Scott Robinson.

Scott, who was born in New Westminster, earned a degree in kinesiology and worked in that field for several years while his interest in wine grew. By 2005, he began juggling that with part-time work at Township 7. When he decided to commit to winemaking, he went to the University of Adelaide in 2008 and worked at leading wineries in New Zealand and Australia. He returned to the Okanagan to become the winemaker at La Frenz Winery and then, with a partner, to launch Stable Door Cellars in 2014. When that partnership ended, he was snapped up by Little Engine. The owners describe Scott as an “absolute perfectionist.”

That fits Steven and Nicole’s philosophy. “We won’t compromise anything,” Steven says. Perfectionism has its price. Little Engine wines are expensive, reflecting the cost of keeping yields very low to produce intensely flavoured wines. The big and bold house style, especially with the red wines, has found such a strong following that many are sold out by the end of the season. Little Engine will be challenged by its customers to increase the annual production beyond 6,000 cases.
Here are my notes on the wines. Since my tastings were done at two different times during the summer, some of the wines may be sold out. Many are still on the winery’s website.

French Family Chardonnay 2017 ($30). Fermented and aged in stainless steel, this is very much a Chablis style Chardonnay; bright and crisp with aromas and flavours of apple and peach. 91.

Little Engine Silver Sauvignon Blanc 2018 ($30). This is one of the winemaker’s favourite varietals to produce. Scott employs a number of techniques in the vineyards (leaf removal, low tonnage) to develop the tropical flavours in the grapes and wine. He ferments the Sauvignon Blanc in stainless steel, adding three percent of barrel-fermented Sémillon for complexity. The wine has aromas and flavours of lime, guava and grapefruit, with a crisp finish. 92.

Little Engine Silver Chardonnay 2018 ($30). This is a blend of 53% stainless steel fermented Chardonnay with 47% fermented in second-use oak barrels. It is still a fruit-forward Chardonnay with aromas and flavours of apple and lemon. The wine is full on the palate, yet crisp on the finish. 90.

Little Engine Gold Chardonnay 2017 ($55). This is a barrel-fermented Chardonnay that was aged 15 months in French oak (20% new); a portion was allowed to undergo malolactic ferment. The wine is rich on the palate, with aromas and flavours of citrus, apple and peach mingled with well-integrated oak. 93.

Little Engine Platinum Chardonnay 2016 (Wine club only).  This wine was fermented in barrel. There is toasted new oak in the aroma and on the palate, along with rich flavours of fine orange marmalade. The persistent finish is incredible. The flavours still were on the palate 90 seconds after swallowing the wine. 95.

Little Engine Silver Pinot Noir 2017 ($40). The wine was aged in oak, but only 22% was new. The wine has bright and appealing fruit, with aromas and flavours of cherry and raspberry. The texture is silky. 92.

Little Engine Gold Pinot Noir 2017 ($62 but sold out). The wine has intense aromas and flavours of dark cherry and plum with a touch of spice and very subtle oak notes. Most of the wine was aged in new oak puncheons. The firm texture suggests that is wine can age well. 94.

Little Engine Platinum Pinot Noir 2017 ($95 for 109 cases; wine club only). This is a dark and concentrated wine with flavours of dark cherry and plum. There is plenty of grip in the texture, suggesting the wine can age for 10 years. 95.

Little Engine Silver Merlot 2017 ($35). With a production of three tons of fruit an acre, the winery has achieved a dense, concentrated texture. Flavours of blueberry and black currant linger on the palate. The wine was aged 15 months in oak (50% new). 92.

Little Engine Gold Merlot 2017 (Sold out). A bold, ripe wine, it was aged for 16 months in oak puncheons (63% new). There are aromas and flavours of black cherry and plum mingled with hints of chocolate and tobacco. The finish is very long. 94.

Little Engine Platinum Merlot 2017 (Wine club only). There are layers and layers of dark fruits mingled with vanilla and chocolate. The wine is so concentrated that one almost wants to spoon it from the glass. A tour de force! 95.

Little Engine Union 2016 ($45 for 550 cases). This is the winery’s first Bordeaux blend. It is 48% Merlot, 27% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc and 5% Malbec. The wine is aged in 25% new French oak, 75% used oak. The wine begins with aromas of cassis and black cherry. The palate is redolent with ripe berries: black cherry, blueberry, black currant with a touch of chocolate on the finish. 93.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Quails' Gate Winery at 30

Photo: Quails' Gate winemaker Ross Baker (courtesy Quails' Gate Winery) 

Quails’ Gate Winery has been celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. It started as a farmgate winery but soon evolved into one of the most successful of family-owned  wineries in the Okanagan.

The Stewart family, owners of Quails’ Gate, have been pioneers in Okanagan agriculture since their forebears emigrated from Ireland in 1908. Viticulture began with Richard Stewart, who planted grapes in what was then called Mount Boucherie Vineyards in 1961.
The winery was founded by his two sons. Ben was president initially; when he went into politics, his younger brother, Tony, succeeded him. They hired a succession of winemakers trained in Australia and New Zealand, starting with Jeff Martin, who had 20 years of experience making wines in Australia when he arrived in 1994. It was his inspiration that vintage to launch Old Vines Foch Reserve, now one of the cult wines in the Okanagan.
Quails’ Gate has had Canadian-born winemakers since 2003. The current winemaker is Ross Baker.

Here is his biography from the Quails’ Gate website:
“Ross has been an integral part of our winemaking team since 2013 and was the protégé of former Winemaker Nikki Callaway. A native of Kelowna, Ross completed his Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry (Wine and Plant option) at the University of British Columbia Okanagan.

“Prior to starting at Quails’ Gate, he previously worked at Villa Maria Estates in Marlborough, New Zealand and also held positions locally at both Red Rooster Winery and Kettle Valley Winery.

“Over the past 5 years working at Quails’ Gate, Ross has learned the amazing nuances to every block of our vineyards and is the perfect candidate to maintain the consistency and quality that Quails’ Gate wines are known for.”

The current releases reflect the consistency of both the viticulture and the winemaking at Quails’ Gate. Here are notes.
Quails’ Gate The Bench Pinot Gris 2018 ($24.99 for 741 cases). This wine is so named because the fruit comes from a single site in East Kelowna called The Bench. The wine was barrel-fermented 40% neutral French oak barrels. It is a textbook Pinot Gris with pear and apple aromas that are echoed, with a touch of spice, on the palate. The texture is rich and the finish lingers. 92.

Quails’ Gate B.M.V Riesling 2018 ($32.99 for 480 cases). BMV is an abbreviation of Boucherie Mountain Vineyards, the home vineyard for Quails’ Gate. In the 1980s the Jordan & Ste-Michelle winery bought this fruit and made a legendary Riesling. Quails’ Gate intends this wine as a tribute. Everything about this wine sophisticated wine is intense: citrus aromas and tart lemon/lime flavours with a spine of minerality and also racy acidity. The finish is dry. This is a great Riesling with potential to age for 10 more years. 92.

Quails’ Gate Late Harvest Botrytis Affected Optima 2018 ($34.99 for 375 ml; 789 cases). This is a legendary Sauternes-style wine. Quails’ Gate has a block of mature Optima grapes at the bottom of its vineyard, close to Okanagan Lake. Because of that site, the block often is infected with so-called Noble Rot, just like vineyards in Sauternes.  It has aromas and flavours of nectarine and peach mingled with the classic sweet tobacco of botrytis. The palate is rich and complex, even decadent in its lush flavours.  The wine is sweet but very well balanced. The finish goes on and on and on. 94.

Quails’ Gate Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($29.99 for 1,237 cases). This wine was aged in barrel for 20 months (40% new French oak). It begins with aromas of black currant and cherry; that is echoed in the palate, along with notes of vanilla and chocolate. The texture is full and the finish lingers. 90.

Quails’ Gate Merlot 2017 ($29.99 for 3,785 cases). This is a big, ripe wine (15% alcohol) that was aged 20 months in barrel (15% new French oak). It begins with aromas cherry, cassis, blackberry and vanilla. Full on the palate, it delivers flavours of plum, cherry, chocolate and licorice. 91.

Quails’ Gate Pinot Noir 2018 ($29.99 for 3,400 cases). This wine, a blend of 93% Pinot Noir and 7% Gamay, was aged in barrel for 10 months. Although it was bottled in August, it still showed signs of bottle shock, with a mute nose and little flavour. Pinot Noir can do that. But after the bottle had been open for two days, the great varietal aromas and flavours had emerged. Either decant the wine or put a few bottles away until next spring. When my sample came around, there were aromas of cherry and savoury flavours of cherry and spice. 90.

Quails’ Gate The Allison 2017 ($24.99 for 1,700 cases). This wine is named for John and Susan Allison, the first European settlers on the west side of Okanagan Lake. Their original cabin once served as the Quails’ Gate tasting room. This wine is a blend of 61% Syrah and 39% Cabernet Franc. It was barrel aged for 20 months. The wine has aromas and flavours of black fruits mingled with leather, spice and pepper. 91.

Quails’ Gate Old Vines Foch 2017 ($25.98 for 2,956 cases). Three weeks of skin contact have given this wine an intense dark colour. Aged 20 months in neutral oak, the wine has aromas and flavours of cherry, fig and chocolate. The sweet fruit, mingled with oak, even suggests maraschino cherry – but the robust wine finishes dry.  90.

Quails’ Gate Old Vines Foch Reserve 2017 ($46.99 for 361 cases). The Stewart family, owners of Quails’ Gate, planted Marechal Foch vines in the estate vineyard in 1963. This wine, an intense and concentrated tour de force, validates the benefit of old vines. Thirty days of skin contact and 20 months of barrel aging have amplified the power of the wine. The aromas – plum, fig, chocolate – explode from the glass and are echoed on the rich palate and the persistent finish. 93.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Blue Mountain releases three premium sparklers

Photo: Blue Mountain's Matt Mavety

Blue Mountain Vineyard & Cellars has produced excellent sparkling wine every year since the winery was founded in 1991. For many of those years, the production volume was too limited (or sold too quickly) to allow the winery to hold back a portion each vintage for extended aging on the lees.

In recent years, the winery has been able to do that. The resulting R.D. sparkling wines stand side by side with Champagne.

R.D. means recently disgorged. The two 2011 R.D. wines reviewed here spent 6 ½ years on the lees and were not disgorged until the fall of 2018. Then they spent another year in bottle before being released.

Any Champagne producer would do the same with premium sparkling wines as Blue Mountain winemaker Matt Mavety is doing. The reason: prolonged lees aging allows the wines to develop complex flavours and creamy textures that are the hallmark of top bubblies.

The R.D. wines necessarily are more expensive, reflecting the additional years these wines are aged. The reward for tying up capital for five years to eight years is remarkably sophisticated wine.

These Blue Mountain wines are special occasion wines, released for Christmas or New Year’s.

Here are my notes:

Blue Mountain Brut Rosé 2015 R.D. ($40). This wine is 60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay. The wine presents in a Champagne flute with a delicate pink hue and active bubbles. In the aroma, there are notes of brioche and raspberry that are echoed on the palate. The wine is creamy on the palate but crisp and fresh on the finish. A very elegant wine. 92.

Blue Mountain Reserve Brut 2011 R.D. ($50). This is 55% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Noir. The extended lees aging has given the wine a fine mousse and great complexity in the aroma and flavour. There are hints of brioche and red fruit. The texture has been polished by the time on lees so that the wine dances on the palate and has a long, elegant finish. 94.

Blue Mountain Blanc de Blancs 2011 R.D. ($50). This is 100% Chardonnay. Once again, the wine has a fine mousse with toasty aromas and flavours mingled with touch of citrus. On the palate, the wine leaves an impression of richness that is offset by the crisp and elegant finish. 93.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Bordertown's quartet of big reds

 Photo: Bordertown's Mohan Gill

Located immediately north of Osoyoos, Bordertown Vineyards & Estate Winery has a such a substantial presence (6,500 square feet) beside the highway that it cannot be overlooked.

A recent release of four reds confirms that it is just not the winery that is big. So are the wines.

The winery brochure provides a quick bit of background on the winery: “For Mohan Gill and his family, the opening of Bordertown … in May 2015 was the culmination of a lifetime dream. The Gills built their reputation with over 20 years experience as growers, supplying some of the Okanagan’s best fruit to a select few wineries and winemakers.”

Bordertown’s Osoyoos vineyards occupy choice terroir just north of the community. The expansive tasting room looks out over some of those vineyards since the winery sits at a high point beside the highway.

The Gills grow all of the mainstream Okanagan grapes, along with a few – like Grüner Veltliner – that are less familiar in the valley.

The current releases include several limited production reds – meaning about 100 cases of each variety in the series.  The wines are made with fruit from select vineyard parcels and vines with a disciplined crop load. The objective: “robust, intense, rich luxurious reds.”

It is worth noting that these wines still are more reasonably priced than many limited production wines from Bordertown’s peers. Mohan Gill is treating his customers well.

Here are notes on four recently released reds.

Bordertown Malbec 2017 ($26.50 for 129 cases). This wine begins with intense aromas of black currant and raspberry, leading to dark fruits on the rich and robust palate. 91.

Bordertown Syrah 2017 ($26.50 for 113 cases). This wine, aged in American oak barrels, begins with delicatessen aromas (meat and spice and pepper). The palate is full, with flavours of fig and plum. Earthy notes on the finish underline the robust character of this Syrah. 92.

Bordertown Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($35). The wine begins with appealing aromas of cherry, black currant and mint. The palate delivers flavours of black currant and blackberry with the note of mint so classic with this varietal. The wine will benefit from being decanted. 92.

Bordertown Living Desert Red 2016 ($27). This is a blend of 60% Cabernet Franc, 30% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine was aged in French oak. It begins with aromas of dark cherry and fig mingled with chocolate and raspberry jam. On the palate, the dark fruits mingle with herbs and cedar, leading to a savoury finish. 93.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Burrowing Owl: a family success

Photo: Burrowing Owl's Jim Wyse

In an era of winery ownership change in the Okanagan, Burrowing Owl Estate Winery stands out as a very successful family winery.

“We’re lucky,” says Midge Wyse, the wife of founder Jim Wyse. “We still have interested kids [in the business].”

She refers to Chris Wyse, their son, who is now president of Burrowing Owl; and to daughter Kerri McNolty, now a senior marketing executive at the winery. Jim, who still plays hockey at age 81, and Midge both continue to be active in the affairs of the winery.

In a previous career, Jim had been a developer of residential properties in Vancouver and the Okanagan. While working on a Vernon project in 1991, he became interested in the wine industry, initially considering buying a winery in Peachland. Then, with the help of a real estate agent, he began looking at property on Black Sage Road where there had been several large vineyards prior to the 1988 pullout.

In 1993, Jim began assembling vineyard property to plant Bordeaux varieties in partnership with Calona Vineyards. Calona used the grapes for its premium Sandhill wines. The success of those wines spurred Jim to build the Burrowing Owl winery, which opened in 1998 with wines that won immediate acclaim.

“We went into this knowing we knew nothing about the business,” Jim once told me. “I compared it to real estate development. If you want to ‘play’ in the real estate game, you go and buy yourself a duplex and run it yourself. But if you want to do it on a businesslike basis, you get a big enough building that you can hire professionals. You buy a 20-storey apartment building with a manager’s suite. That’s my analogy. We bought a 20-storey apartment building.”

Burrowing Owl’s first seven vintages were made by Bill Dyer, an experienced winemaker recruited from the Napa Valley. He established a house style that has survived to this day, even though Burrowing Owl has changed winemakers several times since. One reason is the institutional memory of the cellar hands, some of whom have been there almost from the beginning. The other reason has been the consistency of the winery’s well farmed vineyards.

“The Okanagan is infamous for its thin reds,” Jim once told me. “Well, I wanted to be the opposite of that and Bill also wanted to be the opposite of that. Wine writers talk about big extracted wines. I like them, quite frankly. To me, that’s the name of the game -- to get everything out of those grapes that’s in there.”

Today, Burrowing Owl farms about 220 acres primarily on Black Sage Road and on the Osoyoos East Bench. The winery also has a small Similkameen vineyard that supports its Calliope brand and produces Burrowing Owl’s Sauvignon Blanc. And the wines still deliver all the flavours that the vineyards produce.

Here are notes on current releases.

Burrowing Owl Pinot Gris 2018 ($24). This is textbook Pinot Gris, fermented and aged in stainless steel and bottled early to preserve the fruity aromas and flavours. It begins with aromas of peach, pear and citrus. Crisp and vibrant on the palate, the wine has flavours of pear and green apple. 91.

Burrowing Owl Sauvignon Blanc 2018 ($28). There is eight percent Sémillon in this blend. A quarter of the juice was fermented and aged in barrel, primarily new French oak. The rest was fermented and aged in stainless steel.  The wine begins with herbal aromas. On the palate, there are flavours of citrus and nectarine mingled with spice. The wine has a bright, tangy finish. 90.

Burrowing Owl Chardonnay 2017 ($30). Fermenting 85% of the juice in French oak and 15% in stainless steel has resulted in a fruit-driven wine with well integrated oak. The hint of oak on the nose and palate adds complexity. The wine has flavours recalling a fine marmalade with good acidity to keep the fruit flavours fresh. 91.

Burrowing Owl Pinot Noir 2017 ($35). This is the classic Burrowing Owl style, a Pinot Noir with South Okanagan ripeness and richness. The wine, which was aged nine months in French oak (30% new), begins with cola and cherry aromas, leading to flavours of dark cherry and spice. 90.

Burrowing Owl Merlot 2017 ($32). This wine was aged 14 months in a complex selection of barrels: 57% French, 19% American, 17% Hungarian and 7% Russian (of which 22% was new). The winery explains: “The selection of barrels helped round out the tannins, and contributed to complex notes such as smoky, savoury and spice.” It made for a delicious wine, with aromas and flavours of cassis, black cherry and spice. The finish lingers. 92.

Burrowing Owl Cabernet Franc 2017 ($35). Burrowing Owl has been a leading exponent of this variety from the start. This vintage was aged 18 months in barrel – 90% French, 10% Hungarian – of which 20% was new. This is a generous wine with aromas of blackberry, black cherry and spice. The palate delivers flavours of black cherry, blackberry, raspberry mingled with a hint of chocolate and sage. 92.

Burrowing Owl Meritage 2016 ($50). This is a blend of 44% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Franc and 1% Malbec. The varietals were vinified and aged separately in barrel (75% French). When the components for the Meritage were combined, the wine was aged another four months in oak. The wine begins with aromas of black currant, vanilla and cedar. The structured palate delivers flavours of dark fruits, leather, black olives and dark chocolate. 94.

Burrowing Owl Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($38). The 2016 vintage produced many fine Cabernet Sauvignons in the Okanagan and this is one of the best. The wine was aged 18 months in oak (30% new). It begins with aromas red fruit and spice. The palate delivers flavours of black currant, raspberry, leather, chocolate and sage. The long ripe tannins add to the elegance and lingering finish of the wine. 93.

Burrowing Owl Syrah 2017 ($35). This wine was aged 16 months in French, American and Hungarian oak barrels (35% new). This is a classic meaty Syrah, with aromas and flavours of dark cherry, fig, plum mingled with pepper, backing spices and vanilla. 92.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Township 7 wins best Canadian sparkling wine

Photo: Township 7's  Mary McDermott

When Township 7 Vineyards & Winery recruited winemaker Mary McDermott several years ago, her experience in making sparkling wine in Ontario likely was one reason she was hired.

Those skills are now paying off. Earlier this fall, Seven Stars Polaris 2016 sparkling wine was judged the best Canadian sparkling wine at the Champagne and Sparkling Wine Championships in London.

Even more impressive, the wine was a finalist in two categories – including Supreme World Champion. Those trophies went to venerable Champagne producers. The champion was Dom Pérignon. It is a great accomplishment for Township 7 to be competitive against producers that have been making benchmark Champagnes for centuries.

I reviewed the wine earlier this year. I liked it but perhaps my score was a touch low.

Township 7 Seven Stars Polaris 2016 ($35.97 for 3,588 bottles). This is a Blanc de Blancs made from 100% Chardonnay. The wine spent about 18 months en tirage. This is also a sophisticated sparkling wine, beginning with aromas of citrus, Granny Smith apples and brioche which are echoed on the palate. There is a very active mousse which, again, gives the wine a creamy attack. However, the bright acidity gives the wine a crisp finish. 92.

Township 7 has been making sparkling wine since 1999. However, it has been expanding its bubbly portfolio considerably since Mary came aboard.

These are by no means the only appealing wines from Township 7. Four excellent table wines were released this fall.

Here are notes on the wines.

Township 7 Pinot Gris 2018 ($18.97 for 348 cases). The wine, which was fermented in stainless steel, begins with aromas of apple, pear and citrus. It is crisp and focussed on the palate with flavours of citrus and pear. There is five percent Viognier blended into this wine. 90.

Township 7 Viognier 2018 ($24.97 for 598 cases). The fruit for this wine is from the Raju Vineyard in Osoyoos, close to the U.S. border. The fruit was fermented in stainless steel and in three barrels. This wine seduces with perfumed aromas of pineapple and stone fruit. The promise of the nose is delivered with intense fruit flavours – apricot and peach. This is a delicious Viognier with bright and expressive fruits. 92.

Township 7 Merlot 2017 ($24.97 for 1,105 cases). The fruit comes from the winery’s two estate vineyards, primarily from Blue Terrace at Oliver. The wine was aged 18 months in French and American oak. Decanting helps unlock the aromas of cherry, plum and spice as well as the flavours of cherry and black currant. 91.

Township 7 Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($27.97 for 875 cases). There is 11% Merlot blended into this wine. The wine was fermented in 4,000-litre oak fermenters. It also aged there for 10 months before being transferred to French and American oak barrels for eight more months of aging. The wine begins with aromas of black cherry, black currant, blueberry and cedar. There are dark fruits on the palate. There are firm tannins on the texture. The wine also benefits from decanting. 91.

Friday, November 29, 2019

CedarCreek's home vineyard and winery are now organic

 Photo: CedarCreek winemaker Taylor Whelan

CedarCreek Estate Winery has, as usual, enjoyed a strong run of awards this year, capped with being named “Winery of the Year” at the 2019 InterVin Wine Competition.

Two of its current releases (reviewed below) won gold medals: the 2017 Platinum Haynes Creek Syrah and the 2018 Platinum Block 3 Riesling.

This reflects well on the skills of winemaker Taylor Whelan. It also reflects on the winery’s efforts to identify the superior sites in its vineyards. The wines from these sites often are designated “Platinum,” the reserve tag for CedarCreek wines.

In his technical notes on the wines, Taylor says: “Block 3 is one of our favourite blocks because of its age (planted in 1991) and the interesting flavour profiles it can display.”

The current releases include a Block 7 Pinot Gris. That site at the winery vineyard is a low vigour site because the soil is more stony than other parts of the vineyard. The low-yielding vines produce fruit and wine of considerable intensity. The resulting wine is quite exceptional.

The vines at the Haynes Creek vineyard near Osoyoos are now 10 years old. This is the winery’s first Platinum Syrah from this site.

In addition to winning awards, CedarCreek’s Home Block Vineyard and the winery were both certified organic in 2019. This completes a three-year of viticulture and winemaking practices at CedarCreek. Taylor writes that CedarCreek will be releasing its first organic wines next spring.

“The transition to organic continues to influence our philosophies and practices in the vineyard and the winery,” Taylor writes. “One highlight of our harvest this year was the fruit integrity we were able to achieve, despite higher-than-average rainfall. Our hands-on approach in the vineyard helped produce fruit with thick skins and open bunches, which in turn afforded us the opportunity to let the fruit hang through the rain undisturbed so we could pick when we wanted to, now when the weather forced us to.”

Here are notes on the current releases.

CedarCreek Platinum Block 3 Riesling 2018 ($29.99 for 863 cases). Half of this wine was fermented with wild yeast; half with organic yeast. Ninety percent was fermented in stainless steel, 10% in barrel. The wine was aged six months on the lees. The wine has appealing aromas and flavours of lime, lemon and peach. The fresh, bracing acidity is balanced with residual sugar, leaving the impression on the palate of a dry and tangy Riesling with a very long finish. This wine has scooped up gold medals at both national and international competitions. 92.

CedarCreek Platinum Block 7 Pinot Gris 2018 ($29.99 for 648 cases). This wine takes the Okanagan’s most widely grown white to another level. The texture, the aromas, the residual sugar and the flavours that include a note of botrytis recall the sophisticated Pinot Gris wines of Alsace. The wine was fermented 78% in oak puncheons, 22% in a concrete egg and spent six months on the lees. The aromas and flavours present a medley of tropical fruits mingled with tobacco. The 35 grams of residual sugar give the wine a rich mouthfeel and a very long finish. Pair the wine with cheese or savoury pate. 93.

CedarCreek Chardonnay 2018 ($18.99 for 3,195 cases). This wine was fermented slowly (115 days) and aged 10 months in French oak (76% barrel, 24% foudre). The oak is very well integrated and is subtle in the aroma. On the palate, the flavours of citrus and apple mingle with just a hint of oak. 90.

CedarCreek Pinot Noir 2017 ($26.99 for 1,350 cases). This wine was fermented 85% in stainless steel, 15% in concrete and aged 12 months in French oak. The wine’s appeal begins with its deep ruby hue and appealing aromas of cherries. Medium-bodied and silky, the wine has dark fruit flavours. 90.

CedarCreek Platinum Haynes Creek Syrah 2017 ($49.99 for 747 cases). The Haynes Creek vineyard is in Osoyoos. This wine, which has 1% Viognier, was fermented in concrete with wild yeast and aged 14 months in French oak. In the glass, the colour is so deep that it is almost opaque. The wine begins with meaty delicatessen aromas mingled with figs, plums and a hint of pepper. That is echoed on the full palate. The long, ripe tannins give the wine a polished roundness. On the finish, there are notes of leather, licorice, dark fruits and pepper. This is a robust and satisfying Syrah. 94. 

CedarCreek Platinum Riesling Icewine 2017 ($57.99 for 547 cases of 375 ml bottles). This wine was harvested on the night of December 27, 2017, at -10◦C. It was fermented in large oak vessels (47% German, 53% French). The residual sugar is 229 grams per litre. The wine begins with intense aromas of ripe apple, citrus and stone fruit mingled with a hint of oak. The palate is luscious with intense honeyed flavours of marmalade and ripe pineapple. The finish lingers and lingers. 95.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Wayne Gretzky scores with wine

Photo: Wayne Gretzy winemaker Sydney Valentino

In 2008 Wayne Gretzky, the Canadian hockey star, went into a celebrity winemaking venture with a Niagara winery. When the project struggled, it was taken over in 2011 by Andrew Peller Ltd. It has since become a major success there and now includes both a winery and a distillery.

As soon as the success seemed apparent, Peller launched the Wayne Gretzky Okanagan label with a 2011 vintage red and 2012 vintage white. Gretzky is one of four major brands made at the Peller-owned  Calona winery in downtown Kelowna. In style and in price point, the Gretzky wines occupy a position between the premium Sandhill wines and two value labels, Conviction and Peller.

“The whole idea with the Wayne Gretzky brand is that you could drink it at a hockey game,” says Sydney Valentino, who took over in 2019 as the winemaker for Wayne Gretzky Okanagan. “I don’t sit and watch hockey, but hockey is in my DNA, being Canadian. Everybody around me is into hockey. It just runs through your blood as a Canadian. It is such a cool brand to be part of.”

She is the third winemaker to make the Gretzky Okanagan brand. Born in Winnipeg, she grew up in Kelowna. She majored in chemistry and mathematics at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, graduating in 2010 and intending to be a science teacher. She did teach for a year. “I was not motivated and it did not appeal to me,” she says now. She worked briefly in a wine shop. Finding that winemaking did appeal, she joined the team at Calona Vineyards. Her university degree provided a solid technical foundation which she augmented by taking winemaking courses and mentoring with Howard Soon, the legendary winemaker then working there.  

The Peller group launched the Conviction label in 2015 to replace the Calona label. Sydney became the lead winemaker for Conviction until she was promoted to Gretzky. While the wines are made in the same cellar, the Gretzky wines are generally made from selected premium fruit. The Gretzky reserve tier, is called Signature. In style, the wines express varietal fruit and not much oak. The exception are two wines partially aged in whisky barrels. A recent trend in winemaking, the whisky barrel-aged fraction adds complexity to the finished wines.

Here are notes on the current portfolio from Wayne Gretzky Okanagan.

Wayne Gretzky Estates Chardonnay 2018 ($14.99). Fermented in stainless steel, this is a wine with aromas and flavours of apple, pear and citrus. The finish is crisp with lingering fruit. 90.

Wayne Gretzky Estates Pinot Grigio 2018 ($14.99).  The wine has appealing aromas and flavours of apples, pears and stone fruit. On the palate, the wine is crisp and refreshing, with a lingering fruity finish. 91.

Wayne Gretzky Estates Merlot 2017 ($16.99). The wine begins with aromas of cherry. On the medium-bodied palate, there are flavours of cherry and raspberry mingled with cassis and hints of chocolate. 88.

Wayne Gretzky Estates The Great Red 2018 ($16.99). The wine is a blend of Merlot, Malbec and Syrah. It begins with aromas of plum and fig mingled with earthy and gamey notes. On the palate, there are flavours of cherry and plum with deli meat and spice. 90.

Wayne Gretzky Estates Cabernet Franc Syrah 2018 ($16.99). The wine begins with ripe raspberry aromas, leading to flavours of blackberry, with a hint of chocolate and tobacco on the lingering finish. 90.

Wayne Gretzky Estates Signature Series Chardonnay 2017 ($23.99). The wine begins with aromas of citrus mingled with buttery oak. The palate is rich with flavours of citrus and butterscotch, with a hint of oak. 90.

Wayne Gretzky Estates Signature Series Riesling 2016 ($22.99). The wine begins with classic petrol aromas mingled with grapefruit rind. It is rich on the palate, with flavours of lemon and lime mingled with hints of petrol. The finish is persistent. 92.

Wayne Gretzky Estates Signature Series Cabernet Merlot 2016 ($24.99). This is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, aged 14 months in American and French oak barrels. Dark in colour, the wine begins with aromas of black cherry. On the palate, the red fruit flavours are supported by notes of oak, tobacco and spice. 91.

Wayne Gretzky Estates Signature Series Pinot Noir 2017 ($24.99). Delicate in colour, the wine begins with aromas of cherries, which are echoed on the palate. The wine is light in body and the flavours are also delicate. 88.

Wayne Gretzky Estates Signature Series Shiraz 2016 ($24.99). Dark in colour, the wine begins with aromas of black cherry and plum mingled with white pepper. The palate delivers flavours of fig and pepper mingled with notes of deli meats. The texture is firm but rounds with decanting. 90.

Wayne Gretzky Estates Whisky Oak Aged Chardonnay 2018 ($17.99). This was fermented 52% in stainless steel and 48% in oak barrels. While 90% of the barrels are new and one-year-old French oak, 10% are whisky barrels. The wine begins with aromas of ripe apple, ripe pineapple and vanilla. On the palate, there are flavours of ripe apples and ripe peaches, with a touch of vanilla and spice on the finish. 91.

Wayne Gretzky Estates Whisky Oak Aged Cask Red 2018 ($18.99). This is a blend of 47% Merlot, 34% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Malbec and 4% Cabernet Franc. Some 63% was aged in barrel of which 15% were whisky barrels, 30% was French oak and 55% was American oak. The remainder was aged in stainless steel. Dark in colour, the wine begins with a rich and jammy aroma of black cherry. On the palate, the cherry and plum flavours mingle with black pepper and the toasty notes of the whisky barrels. 91.