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.

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