Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Geneviève Janssens: veteran Robert Mondavi winemaker

Photo: Mondavi chief winemaker Geneviève Janssens

Geneviève Janssens, the chief winemaker at Robert Mondavi Winery, and I share a common experience that had a profound impact on our careers.

We both first visited the Mondavi winery as tourists and has the good fortune of meeting Zelma Long, then a Mondavi winemaker and subsequently a legend in California winemaking. Geneviève told me of her encounter in an interview during the Vancouver International Wine Festival, where she represented the Mondavi winery.

My experience preceded hers by two years. In March, 1975, after a trip with my children to Disneyland, I decided to spend a day visiting wineries in the Napa Valley. My wife and I arrived, three children in tow, at the Mondavi winery without an appointment. It was not needed at that time because wine tourism in the Napa was in its infancy.

We were offered a tour led by Zelma Long, whom I had never met. Such was her charisma and enthusiasm that we were positively aglow when we left the winery. While I had previously visited wineries in Australia, her tour fired a new interest in wineries. I began visiting Okanagan wineries the following year. There were just a handful and the wines were a far cry from the excellent Mondavi wines. Nevertheless, it was the start of my romance with Canadian wineries that led me to write 17 books championing a dramatically improving wine industry.

“I had a similar approach to the Robert Mondavi winery,” Geneviève told me. “I came there just as a tourist in 1977. I was an enologist, of course. The world knew the winery and Mr. Mondavi for his innovation and leadership and his desire to put Napa on the map among the world’s best wines.”

She continued: “I had a tour – not with Zelma, but with a tour guide. I was so impressed by the tour that I asked to talk to the winemaker – and Zelma Long came. I had a good hour of chat about winemaking. I thought it was so special and wonderful I said, ‘If you have a job for me, I will come.’ Two months later she called me, and here I am, 40 years later.”

From the Mondavi website, here is a biographical note on Geneviève:
Born to a French family in Morocco and raised in France, Geneviève’s formal wine education began under the tutelage of the legendary “three fathers” of modern enology – Jean Ribereau-Gayon; his son, Pascal Ribereau-Gayon; and Emile Peynaud – with whom she studied at the University of Bordeaux, France. After receiving her National Diploma of Enology 1974, she returned to her family’s vineyards in Corsica and France, which she managed from 1974 to 1977. Concurrently, she also owned and operated her own enology laboratory in Provence and served as consulting enologist to many French chateaux in the mid-seventies.

Working for Mondavi appealed to her for at several reasons.

“The Napa Valley is where I thought it would be the best for my passion,” she says. Robert Mondavi treated employees, including women, with respect.
“In Bordeaux [in the 1970s], my only career would have been in a lab,” she suggests. “Now, it is changed, but in 1977, it was better for my career to come and work in the Napa Valley, and for Robert Mondavi because of his vision. It was a big vision.”

Another attraction was the opportunity to make wine with grapes, notably Cabernet Sauvignon, from Mondavi’s To Kalon Vineyard, one of the most storied terroirs in the Napa Valley.

To Kalon – Greek for “place of highest beauty” - was planted originally in 1868. In the 1890s, a winery called To Kalon was producing and selling highly regarded wines nationally. Then the Napa’s first phylloxera infestation devastated vast areas of vineyard. To Kalon went bankrupt in 1899 but struggled on until Prohibition in 1920 forced its closure. The winery was revived briefly in 1933 but was destroyed by fire in 1939.

The area called To Kalon was part of a 2,000-acre estate that very nearly became a housing development. The Mondavi family, which operated the Charles Krug Winery, bought 325 acres in 1958; and more subsequently.

Robert split with his brother and father, who were producing bulk wines, to build his own winery in 1966 for the production of world-class wines. The litigation went on for years but Robert eventually ended up in control of about 550 acres of To Kalon. Today, Mondavi’s parent company, Constellation Brands, owns about 450 acres of one of the Napa’s finest vineyard sites.

“Constellation maintained our traditions,” Geneviève says. “They are supporting the winery to make the best wine. They know it is very important for their portfolio.”

Constellation acquired control of Mondavi in 2005 and has since invested significantly in replanting the vineyard, to correct plant virus issues and to get absolutely the best varieties growing here. Zinfandel, Syrah and Pinot Noir were removed. The vineyard now grows just Bordeaux varietals, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.

The finest red from the To Kalon Vineyard is the Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, a wine structured to age. “The Reserve can age 60 years,” Geneviève says. “We had our 50th anniversary recently and we opened bottles of 1966, 1968, 1970 and they were still delicious – all the Reserve.”

The Cabernet Sauvignon being tasted at the Mondavi tasting during the Wine Festival is the 2015 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($40), a wine that shows the ability of To Kalon grapes to make more “popular” wines.

“The beauty of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is the fruit and the texture,” Geneviève says. “The wine is not made to age more than 10 to 15 years.” 

During some of the tasting sessions, the winery also will pour another outstanding example of To Kalon fruit, the 2016 Oakville Napa Valley Cabernet Franc. Grab this wine if it is also in the festival’s on-site wine store.


Friday, February 22, 2019

CheckMate wines: are they worth it?

Photo: Winemaker Phil McGahan

The question I get all the time about aggressively-priced Okanagan wines is: “Are they worth it?”

Phil McGahan also gets that question. He is the winemaker and general manage for CheckMate Artisanal Winery, a winery on the Golden Mile Bench that produces just Chardonnay and Merlot. The wines are priced between $85 and $125 a bottle.

“People have to taste the wines,” Phil says. “Once they do, they don’t worry about the price point so much.”

These are world-class wines that deliver what consumers should expect from wines in that price range. For those needing re-assurance, the winery has a tasting room. The fee is $20 for four tastes, $30 for six (refundable if you purchase a bottle). That is not outrageous for sampling wines in this price range.

And yes, I think the wines are worth it, even if humble wine writers are not the target market for $100 wines.

It takes a considerable investment to make wines like these, starting with practises in the vineyard and carrying through to the winemaking. The current releases, two Chardonnays and two Merlots from the 2015 vintage, have all had prolonged aging (three years plus) in barrels and bottles before release. It costs money to inventory wine that long before release. However, CheckMate wines, while very age-worthy, are ready to drink on release.

The winery produces seven Chardonnays. Five from the 2015 vintage were released last fall and the others are just being released. 2015 was one of the hottest vintages so far in the Okanagan. “What the year drove me to do was pick quite early,” Phil says. “Picking early maintains the freshness of the wine.”

The CheckMate project began after Mission Hill proprietor Anthony von Mandl in 2012 purchased the vineyard from which Mission Hill made its legendary award-winning 1992 Chardonnay. At the same time, he acquired the neighbouring Combret vineyard with the mothballed Antelope Ridge Winery.

“I happen to love Burgundian Chardonnays,” Anthony has remarked. “I believed we could produce Chardonnays of similar sophistication.”

The Antelope Ridge facility has been renovated in stages. The final stage, which will be completed this summer, includes two tasting rooms and a hospitality area with a terrific view over the Okanagan Valley.

A worldwide search ended with the recruitment of Australian Phil McGahan to make the wine. The trial lots of wine made at CheckMate in 2012 were not released; the debut vintage was 2013.

Phil is a former lawyer who had become a winemaker and was working at the prestigious Williams Selyem Winery in Sonoma when von Mandl recruited him. He is a 2006 bachelor of applied science (wine science) from Charles Sturt University. He grew up in Queensland and worked in the Hunter Valley before joining Williams Selyem about 2010.

“When I came to the Okanagan, to me it was an area ready to take the next step,” Phil told me a few years ago. “You could see the potential here. There was a lot of pioneering work done in vineyard establishment. You have the next generation of winemakers coming through now who are building on what was done. And there are a lot of people coming in with fresh ideas, too.”

He would be too modest to say it, but he is one of those people with fresh ideas.

Here are notes on the current releases.

CheckMate Little Pawn 2015 ($110). This is a single vineyard wine, with fruit from the Jagged Rock (formerly The Barn) vineyard on the Black Sage Bench. There two Chardonnay clones blended in this wine – Dijon Clone 76 and the so-called Dekleva Clone that produced the prizewinning 1992 wine. The wine begins with floral notes recalling citrus, orange and vanilla. The bright acidity gives the wine a lifted freshness, a lovely purity of fruit on the palate and a lingering finish. It is impossible to find anything negative about this wine. 100.

CheckMate Fool’s Mate 2015 ($80). This Chardonnay draws fruit from five vineyards – two on Black Sage Bench, one on Osoyoos East Bench and two on the Golden Mile Bench. Eighty per cent was aged in Burgundy barriques and 20% in concrete. The wine begins with aromas of citrus fruits, caramel and coconut. The texture is full. The flavours are complex, with herbal and citrus notes and hints of wet stone and sea salt on the finish. 95.

CheckMate End Game Merlot 2015 ($85). This wine is made with Black Sage Bench and Osoyoos East Bench fruit. It begins with aromas of cassis, blackberry and spice. The palate delivers dark fruits mingled with a hint of root beer. The tannins are ripe and the texture is approachable. 94.

CheckMate Silent Bishop Merlot 2015 ($85). This wine is made with fruit from the Golden Mile Bench, a slightly cooler terroir on the west side of the Okanagan Valley, with more diverse soils. This wine has aromas of cassis and blueberries; those notes mingle in the palate with an array of dark fruits. Good acidity gives the flavours a pleasant freshness. The firm tannins suggest this is a wine to cellar for the next 10 years. 96.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Tinhorn Creek's current releases celebrate Sandra Oldfield's legacy

 Photo: Winemaker Andrew Windsor

Sandra Oldfield’s last year as president of Tinhorn Creek Vineyards was 2017, the year in which Andrew Peller Ltd. purchased this pioneering South Okanagan winery.

Her legacy still informs the portfolio. The six recent releases from Tinhorn Creek are all top notch wines from Sandra’s watch.

Sandra turned over the winemaking (after making the wines for 20 years) in 2014 to Andrew Windsor. He may have been one of her best recruitments. Significantly, he is the only winemaker who has not moved on since Peller acquired this and two other wineries in the Okanagan just before the 2017 vintage.

In the era before Peller, Andrew and Sandra had launched several important additions to the Tinhorn portfolio. One was the creation of a wine called The Creek, a flagship Bordeaux red that raised the bar on the winery’s previous flagship red.

Another was the launch of wines under a new label, called the Innovation Series. Andrew was turned loose to make experimental wines or wines from rare blocks of fruit beyond the Tinhorn Creek estate vineyards. These are small lot wines. Very likely, Tinhorn Creek’s massive wine club has the first crack at buying them.

Tinhorn Creek’s success is due to the consistent quality of the wines since the first vintage in 1994. More importantly, there has been a consistent improvement in quality over the years due to improvements in viticulture and in the cellar (which is true for many Okanagan and Similkameen wineries).

Andrew’s winemaking is arguably a little more daring than Sandra’s was. For example, he is fermenting many of the wines with indigenous yeasts. To the best of my knowledge, Sandra relied on the cultured yeasts she had trained with in California.

It is, I think, a generational change. More and more of the Okanagan winemakers now rely on natural yeasts as a way to make wines that are more complex. Not every winemaker agrees with that strategy – but it clearly doing no harm to the quality at Tinhorn Creek; and may be raising the bar.

The latest releases are among the most interesting wines yet from Tinhorn Creek. Here are notes on the wines.

Tinhorn Creek Chardonnay 2017 ($20.99 for 3,022 cases). This wine benefitted from quite complex winemaking: a portion was fermented in stainless steel with selected yeast and another portion was fermented in barrels (30% new) with indigenous yeast.  The wine was then aged one third each in barrel, stainless steel and concrete until May 2018 when it was lightly fined and bottled. The result is a wine with aromas and flavours of citrus, apple and peach. The subtle oak lifts the flavours. The texture is rich but good acidity retains the freshness. 90.

Tinhorn Creek Merlot 2016 ($23.99 for 7,899 cases). This wine was fermented with natural yeast and aged 12 to 14 months in oak barrels. At this stage in its evolution, the wine still shows youthful grip and benefits from being decanted. It begins with aromas of cherry, plum and cassis. There is dark fruit on the palate with a touch of dark chocolate and hazelnut on the finish. 90.

Tinhorn Creek Oldfield Reserve Pinot Noir 2014 ($31.99 for 1,060 cases). With this wine, Tinhorn Creek has raised the bar for the winery’s Pinot Noirs. The wine is dark in colour, with aromas of cherries and spice. The silky palate delivers intense flavours of bright cherry and cranberry notes with classic forest floor notes on the finish. Again, the winemaking was complex – a portion was fermented in open top tanks with wild yeast while the other portion was fermented whole berry in closed tanks with selected yeast. The wine then aged 14 months in barrel and a further 18 months in bottle before release. The result – a wine of considerable elegance. 91.

Tinhorn Creek Oldfield Reserve Merlot 2015 ($28.99 for 1,525 cases). The winery sys this is “one our best Oldfield Reserve Merlots in years” and I agree entirely. This is a bold and exuberant wine, beginning with intense aromas of black cherry, cassis and figs. On the palate, layer upon layer of flavour unfolds – black cherry, black currant, dark chocolate and spice. Long ripe tannins give the wine a luscious texture and a finish that will not quit. 94.

Tinhorn Creek Innovation Series Cabernet Franc 2016 ($45 for 536 six packs). The grapes for this wine are from the Red Brick Vineyard on Anarchist Mountain near Osoyoos. The wine was made by fermenting whole clusters with wild yeast – a long, slow fermentation that extracted excellent color and flavour. The wine was then aged 16 months in barrel before bottling. The wine begins with brambly/blackberry/raspberry aromas. There is great vibrancy on the palate, with flavours of cherry and raspberry jam. Leading to notes of licorice, chocolate and cherry on the spicy finish. 92.

Tinhorn Creek The Creek 2015 ($55 for 1,959 six packs.) The winery also has released 149 six packs of magnums. The blend is 53% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Merlot, 17% Cabernet Franc, 9% Malbec and 2% Petit Verdot. The wine was aged 24 months in oak (40% new), accounting for the elegant and polished texture. However, the structure is firm because the wine is built to age 15 to 20 years. Decant it for drinking now. The wine has aromas of black currant, blackberry and chocolate. Dark fruits mingle subtly on the palate with chocolate and leather. 93-95.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Hester Creek wines: textbook consistency

Photo: Winemakers Robert Summers and Mark Hopley

These wines were released in two tranches last fall. It was my intention to review them while Hester Creek still was celebrating its 50th anniversary of growing grapes. Other tasks plus the holidays got in the way.

The limited volume wines may now be hard to find. However, Hester Creek makes many of these wines in good volume and distributes them widely. However, the very small lot wines under the Terra Unica label are available only to Hester Creek wine club.

The consistently high quality of the Hester Creek wines is attributable to several factors beginning with the very good estate vineyard. Some of the blocks of vines are 50 years old. Most of the plants are at least 10 years old.

Secondly, the winery, which was built 10 years ago to produce 35,000 cases a year, was so well designed that the capacity is closer to 60,000 cases. It is equipped with Italian-designed fermentation tanks (no other Okanagan winery has them) that enable making red wines with soft tannins and generous textures. There is a clear house style to Hester Creek reds.

Thirdly, the winemakers – Robert Summers and Mark Hopley – have decades of experience between them. And they have a clear-headed approach to winemaking. For example, they avoid wild ferments, a trendy winemaking technique much in fashion elsewhere.

They do, however, have a few secrets up their sleeves. For example, they add 15% of the previous vintage to the blend of The Judge, the winery’s flagship Bordeaux blend. That is just enough to ensure a continuity of style from vintage to vintage without obscuring any particular vintage.

“Also, it makes the wine a little more approachable for the consumer,” Rob says. We like to stay away from the game of asking you to take it home and age it for five years. We want it to be approachable when we offer it to the consumers. The Judge does age but it is drinkable when we release it.”

Here are notes on current releases.

Hester Creek Late Harvest Pinot Blanc 2017 ($18.95 for 200 ml; 460 cases made). This luscious wine was made with fruit from the estate’s old vines Pinot Blanc. The grapes were picked on December 19, 2017, and probably had a touch of frost to further concentrate the sugars. This is a dessert wine for those who find Icewine too sweet. It begins with a lovely aroma of ripe apples and spice.  It is luscious in the mouth, with apple pie flavours. The lively acidity gives the wine an excellent balance and a lingering, fresh and fruity finish. 92

Hester Creek Select Barrels Merlot 2017 ($19.95 for 3,400 cases). Here is a delicious wine made for early drinking. It was aged just eight months in barrel. It begins with aromas of black cherry leading to flavours of plum, black cherry and vanilla. The texture is soft and juicy, giving the wine a pleasing richness on the palate. 91.

Hester Creek Select Barrels Cabernet Merlot 2017 ($19.95 for 4,000 cases). This is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, aged just eight months in barrel. An easy-drinking red, it has aromas and flavours of black cherry, black currant, blackberry and spice. 90.

Hester Creek Character Red 2017 ($20.95 for 3,780 cases). This is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Syrah, Malbec and Cabernet Franc. The wines were aged six to eight months in barrel. The wine begins with dramatic aromas of spice and dark fruits. The palate is equally exuberant, with flavours of black cherry mingled with licorice, spice and vanilla. Long ripe tannins give the wine a soft, quaffable texture. 90.

Hester Creek Reserve Merlot Block 2 2016 ($28.95 for 780 cases). This wine, made from the oldest Merlot block on the Hester Creek estate, was aged 16 months in barrel (75% French, 25% American). A concentrated wine, it begins with aromas of cherry, plum, mocha and spice. It delivers flavours of plum, cherry, black currant, vanilla and chocolate. 92.

Hester Creek Syrah Viognier 2016 ($28.95 for 1,100 cases). Adding a small quantity of Viognier, usually during fermentation, is a traditional Rhône technique to lift the aromatics. This wine begins with aromas of raspberry, cherry and pepper, with a floral lift. On the rich palate, there are flavours of plum and blueberry with a touch of pepper. This is an elegant wine with a long finish. 93.

Hester Creek Cabernet Franc Reserve 2016 Block 3 ($28.95 for 1,675 cases). This wine shows the depth and complexity than can be achieved with old vines (about 50 years old). The wine, which was aged 18 months in oak (75% French, 25% American), begins with what the winery calls a “heady” aroma – blackberry, black cherry and vanilla. The palate shows richly layered fruit – blackberry, raspberry – with notes of leather and tobacco on the long finish. 92.

Hester Creek Terra Unica Cabernet Syrah 2016 ($32.95 for 110 cases). This exceptional wine was available just to Hester Creek’s wine club. It is a blend of two-thirds estate grown Cabernet Sauvignon with Syrah from a Black Sage Bench vineyard comprising the other third. The varietals are blended early in the winemaking process and then aged 18 months in oak (70% French, 30% American). The wine begins with aromas of black currant and spice. The dark fruit on the palate has layers of flavour, including black cherry, plum, blackberry mingled with dark chocolate. 93.

Hester Creek The Judge 2015 ($49.95). This is Hester Creek’s iconic Bordeaux blend, which has been made in every vintage since 2007. This vintage is a blend of 38% Cabernet Franc, 29.5% Merlot, 28.5% Cabernet Sauvignon and two per cent each of Petit Verdot and Malbec. The wine was aged 24 months in 75% French and 25% American oak. A powerful yet elegant wine, it begins with aromas of black currant, black cherry and vanilla. The palate delivers savoury flavours of dark fruits, vanilla, mocha and spice. 95.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Gold Hill Wines at 2019 Vancouver International Wine Festival

Photo: Gold Hill Winery

It is good to see Gold Hill Winery among the Okanagan wineries at the Vancouver International Wine Festival later this month.

This winery, located beside the highway north of Osoyoos, deserves a higher profile than it has, considering how good the wines are. There is a house style here: every wine is bursting with flavour. The red wines frequently have 15% alcohol (sometimes 16%) but seldom are “hot” because the fleshiness and the flavour more than carry the alcohol.

These are bold ripe wines because the winery’s owners, Gurbachan and Sant Gill, deliberately grow grapes to achieve that objective.

Last October 26, I tasted most of the wines with Gurbachan. He still had some grapes on the vine at a time when most of his peers had picked their fruit.

“My winemaker says the grapes are ready to pick,” he told me. “I still wait because I think the grapes need more flavour. I will start picking tomorrow. There is a good heavy flavour.”

For some background, here is the profile that appeared in the most recent John Schreiner’s Okanagan Wine Tour Guide.

Gold Hill Winery arrived on the scene with a bang, winning a Lieutenant Governor’s Award with a 2009 Cabernet Franc, one of the four wines with which it debuted. Numerous awards have followed, a credit to how well brothers Sant and Gurbachan Gill farm their 26 hectares (65 acres) of grapes.

Theirs is the classic immigrant success story. Sant, born in India in 1958, arrived in the Okanagan in 1984 with $6. Younger brother Gurbachan, born in 1967, followed him in 1989, in the same year that Sant bought his first house in Osoyoos. After a few years of orchard work, the brothers in 1991 began a decade of work in vineyards owned by Kal Gidda, one of the [former] principals at Mt. Boucherie Estate Winery. They became so adept at viticulture that they farm not just their own land today but take contracts to plant and manage vineyards for others.

The gold-hued adobe style winery, visible on the access road just beside the highway, is on an orchard that the brothers have owned since 1995 and which they converted to grapes in 2007. The award-winning Cabernet Franc came from that vineyard’s first harvest.  It is a variety in which Gold Hill now specializes. However, the brothers are growing all of the mainstream varietals, including Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Malbec, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Viognier and Gewürztraminer. They also own or lease smaller vineyards in Osoyoos, Okanagan Falls and Kaleden; the latter produces Pinot Noir for the winery. They have developed a high-elevation vineyard on the mountainside above the winery, planting Tempranillo and Sauvignon Blanc, among other varieties.

The winemaker for Gold Hill is consultant Philip Soo. Formerly a winemaker with Andrew Peller Ltd. in Port Moody, Phil since 2006 has become of the Okanagan’s busiest consultants with a client list that includes Dirty Laundry, Noble Ridge and Cassini Cellars. He crafts wines that are distinctive for each client, reflecting both individual vineyards and client preferences. The Gill brothers see him as a mentor. “Phil is a really nice guy,” Sant says. “He explains lots of things to me when he comes here.”

The Gill brothers sell most [75%] of their grapes to other wineries, currently producing about 2,500 cases at Gold Hill. The target is to cap Gold Hill at 5,000 cases a year.

Since that was published in 2014, Gold Hill has won a second Lieutenant Governor’s Award, along with numerous other awards.

The portfolio is relatively small, compared with most Okanagan wineries. The quality, however, is top notch.

Here are notes on the wines that I tasted with Gurbachan. Most will be available at their wine festival table and for purchase in the onsite wine store.

Gold Hill Charisma White 2017 ($17.99). This is a blend of Gewürztraminer, Viognier, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc. It is an appealing dry white, with spice aromas and flavours mingled with pear and quince. 91.

Gold Hill Merlot 2014 ($34.99). This is a powerful wine, with intense aromas and flavours of plum, black currant, blackberry and chocolate. The alcohol is 16.1% but that is nicely balanced by fullness of the body and flavour. The wine was aged in oak for 18 months, which helped polish the long, ripe tannins. 94.

Gold Hill Cabernet Franc 2014 ($34.99). This was also aged 18 months in French oak. And the alcohol is 15.4%. The wine is bold and rich, with aromas of raspberry, blackberry, cherry and cassis. There are layers of brambly fruit on the palate, with pepper and spice on the lingering finish. 92.

Gold Hill Syrah 2014 ($34.99). This wine was aged 18 months in French oak. The alcohol is 15.6% - but the wine once again is rich in texture, with notes of black cherry, plum and pepper in both the aroma and the flavour. There are earthy and meaty flavour notes as well. The finish is long. 92.

Gold Hill Meritage Family Reserve 2013 ($49). There are three Bordeaux varietals in this blend, which has 15.2% alcohol. The wine is at the peak of its maturity, but has the structure to live another five years in the cellar. It begins with aromas black cherry, plum, cassis and chocolate, all of which is echoed on the palate. The silky tannins add to the elegance and long finish of the wine. 93.

Gold Hill Grand Vin 2014 ($64.99). The blend is Merlot 33.4%, Cabernet Franc 22.2%, Cabernet Sauvignon 22.2% and Malbec 22.2%. The alcohol is a robust 15.9%, once again signalling that this is a full-flavoured red. It has aromas of spice, black currants and cherries, leading to flavours of black cherry, black currant, chocolate and vanilla. 94.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Mission Hill raises profile of its reserves

Photo: Mission Hill's Darryl Brooker

Mission Hill Family Estates has recently released four wines in its reserve tier, perhaps to draw attention to the rising profile of its reserve wines.

“Our Reserve wines are handcrafted on the premise of ‘Selection’,” the winery explains. “Selection in the vineyard and in the cellar. We source our fruit from the top 15% of our estate vineyards; and 75% of the same vineyard blocks are used to ensure consistency vintage to vintage.”

The winery’s currant portfolio has several tiers: the Legacy Collection (which includes Oculus); the Terroir Collection (super premium wines in the $50 range); the Reserve tier ($20 to $35 table wines); and the value-priced the Estate Collection and the 5 Vineyards tiers.

The value-priced wines are no longer available through the Mission Hill website. Clearly, the winery is moving up market.

That is not to say value-priced wines are being discontinued. The winery is just trying to figure out how best to distribute them as it burnishes the Mission Hill image.

A very successful value brand, Prospect Winery, has been produced at the Mission Hill winery since 2006. It is the largest ‘virtual’ winery in the Okanagan – that means a winery without a license of its own or a wine shop of its own.

Prospect wines are not sold in the Mission Hill tasting room; nor is the any effort to associate the Prospect brand with the Mission Hill brand. The exception is that Prospect’s wines are sold alongside most Mission Hill wines in the two Artisan Wine Shops owned by Mission Hill proprietor Anthony von Mandl. The wines are also available in other trade channels including the Liquor Distribution Branch and Everything Wine.

Mission Hill’s reserve tier is also widely available and is moving into national distribution. There are currently nine white wines and five reds under the reserve label (with a slot reserved for a rosé). Prices range from $22 to $36, still affordable but offering a little extra when the occasion calls for something special.

Here are notes on the four releases.

Mission Hill 2017 Reserve Chardonnay ($21.99). This is a disjointed wine, somewhat over-oaked and a shock, given Mission Hill’s usually excellent Chardonnays. The winery provided me an explanation for why there is more oak than usual. Typically, about 30% of the reserve Chardonnay is aged in stainless steel. In the 2017 vintage, because of a small crop, it was all aged in oak. And then it has been released three months earlier than planned because the 2016 Reserve Chardonnay sold out sooner than expected.

Winery president Darryl Brooker says: “Overall, I believe the 2017 will prove to be a very good wine. It just needs time to settle down, given the higher oak percentage than normal.”

I am not scoring this wine until I have a chance to taste one that has “settled down.” If you have bought it, just set it aside until the end of March. It will still show a fair amount of oak but knit much better with the fruit.

Mission Hill 2017 Reserve Pinot Noir ($27.90). This is an elegant wine, with aromas and flavours of cherry and raspberry enhanced by the silky texture and the spicy, savoury finish. 91.

Mission Hill 2016 Reserve Merlot ($26.99). There is 10% Cabernet Franc in this wine, no doubt revving up the appealing fruit flavours. The wine begins with aromas of black currant, black cherry and vanilla. On the palate, there are flavours of plum, black cherry and blackberry. There is a lingering, spicy finish. 92.

Mission Hill 2016 Reserve Meritage ($24.99). Mission Hill will pour this wine at the Vancouver International Wine Festival (along with examples from its Legacy, Terroir and Sparkling tiers). The blend is 35% Cabernet Franc, 32% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot and 2% Petit Verdot. This is a delicious wine with a fleshy texture and with aromas and flavours of blackberry, cherry and cassis. 92.