Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Niche releases first unfiltered Pinot Noir

Photo: Niche's James and Joanna Schlosser

In December, Niche Wine Company of West Kelowna, which has been open since 2011, released its first unfiltered Pinot Noir.

Other Okanagan wineries have been releasing unfiltered wines routinely but James Schlosser, the co-owner of Niche, is a risk-averse winemaker despite his degree from Brock University, Canada’s top wine making school.

“Filtering has always been a de facto winemaking style at Niche Wine Company,” the winery said in its release announcement. “The winemaker loves the clarity and sparkle it brings to his wines and he sleeps better at night knowing his wines are nice and stable. That being said, there are two sides to every coin. Filtration by its very nature, removes things from the wine (the good and the bad).” 

Only 50 cases of unfiltered Pinot Noir have been released. More may be made, depending on the reception. I predict the reception will be good. This is one of the best Pinot Noirs so far from Niche.

 As the name implies, this is a small winery that currently produces about 1,500 cases a year. But James and his wife, Joanna, are planning to increase that production to 3,000 cases within the next five years.

For a little more background, here is an excerpt from the 2014 edition of John Schreiner’s Okanagan Wine Tour Guide.

The vineyard is off the beaten path, well up a mountain side at an elevation of 706 meters (2,316 feet), with only one other vineyard nearby. “The property appears to be an ecological niche at certain times of the year,” says James as he waxes lyrical about the colourful dragonflies in August.

And the winery is small enough that two people can fit it in together with other careers. “When you look up the definition of niche, it is about fit,” Joanna says. “We feel this business fits with our life, and our wine fits with everything we do.”

The four-hectare (ten acre) vineyard is on a farm owned since 1978 by James’s parents, Jerold and Kathleen Schlosser, both of them Kelowna lawyers. Jerold began planting vines about 1997, starting with two clones of Pinot Noir, now the dominant variety grown here. James, who was born in Vancouver in 1975, began working in the vineyard after completing a science degree at the University of Victoria. His father seized on this apparent aptitude for grapes by enrolling James in the winemaking program at Brock University, which he earned a master’s degree in enology.  Since James returned to the Okanagan in 2002, the selection of varieties in the vineyard was increased to include Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Riesling and Maréchal Foch and he began making trial lots of wine. At the same time, his background in science has taken him to a parallel career as a technology development officer with the British Columbia Cancer Agency.

Joanna, who was born in North Vancouver, is equally adept at juggling several interests at once. During a 13-year career as an Air Canada flight attendant, she also earned a communications degree from Simon Fraser University. More recently, she has studied graphic design, equipping herself to develop websites for Niche and for other wineries.

James makes the Niche wines in a rustic former stable, a charming wooden building constructed entirely without nails. The building underlines the artisan ideals that James brings to winemaking. He declares on the website: “Our wines are made without fancy equipment, and instead benefit from gravity, smarts, and a few strong hands.”

Several years after that was written, the couple adjusted their careers and moved to the Okanagan. “In the five years that we have been in the Okanagan now, we have built a lot of connections with the wine industry that we didn’t have when we were not living here,” Joanna told me recently. “If there is one thing we can say about the Okanagan wine industry, it is that it is very collaborative. Wineries support each other and we have benefited greatly from that, in terms of where to source things.”

They have taken advantage of consulting services from Sandra Oldfield, the former president of Tinhorn Creek Vineyards. In fact, she may have put James at ease about making unfiltered wine by offering a simple stability test: drive around with a bottle of the wine in the trunk of the car for a month or two. If it referments, the wine is not stable.

Of course, she was not serious. As a graduate of the University of California Davis, she is aware – as is James – that samples can be tested for stability in a professional wine laboratory. It is what James will do if he ramps up production of this wine.

The other change since the 2014 profile was written is that James and Joanna are designing an addition to the former stable. They need more space to accommodate increasing production.

They also want to open a wine shop at the winery, subject to the approval of the District of West Kelowna. Currently, they reach the public with tastings at selected Save-On Foods VQA stores and with direct sales to selected restaurants.

“The building we are looking at designing right now could so somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 cases,” James says. “We are going to try to stick with gravity [for handling wine] and all the things we currently do. We still don’t have a must pump.”

The three wines recently released are two Pinot Noirs and a Maréchal Foch. “It is my dad’s favourite wine,” James says of the Foch. The dark-fleshed grape is so versatile that James has even made a rosé and a sparkling wine with the variety. (Both are currently sold out.) In the 2018 vintage, he supplemented the small Foch planting in the Niche vineyard with grapes purchased from Monte Creek Winery near Kamloops.

Here are notes on the wines.

Niche Pinot Noir 2018 ($25.15 for 110 cases). This wine is a blend of clones 115 and 667. This is a bright, fruit forward Pinot Noir with minimal oak aging. It begins with aromas of cherry and flavours of red currant and strawberry. The texture is silky. 90.

Niche Pinot Noir – No Filter 2018 ($31.15 for 50 cases). Select blocks of fruit was picked for this wine and was treated very gently, coming into the winery in 20-pound boxes and, after crushing, was fermented in small lots with several commercial yeasts. The wine has a significantly more fleshy texture and a darker colour than its filtered brother. The cherry aromas and flavours mingle with notes of spice. The finish lingers. 93.

Niche 2018 ($27.99). Big and bold, the wine is dark in colour. In the mouth, there are aromas and flavours of blackberry, plum, dark cherry and chocolate. 91.  

Friday, January 24, 2020

Lunessence winery changing focus

Photo: Lunessence general manager Cameron Walker

This spring, Summerland’s Lunessence Winery & Vineyard intends to plant about four acres of Pinot Noir, beginning a modest change of direction for a producer previously known more for bold reds and elegant whites.

There are two reasons for planting Pinot Noir. First, Lunessence relies on growers elsewhere in the Okanagan for most of its red varieties at a time when there is a general shortage of red fruit. Planting its own red varieties is a prudent defensive move.

Secondly, the Summerland terroir is well suited for Pinot Noir. Three of the acres to be planted is new vineyard contiguous to the existing Lunessence vineyard. In the fourth acre, Pinot Noir replaces Syrah, which always struggled to ripen here (even though it produced a good rosé). The Syrah and a block of Merlot were planted in 2003 by the previous owners of the property.

The increasing emphasis on Pinot Noir, and to a lesser extent Chardonnay, began already in the 2019 vintage. According to Cameron Walker, the winery’s Australian-born general manager since 2018, Lunessence last fall purchased 10 tons of Pinot Noir from the Palo Solara vineyard in Kelowna. That should produce about 550 cases of wine.

The other reds purchased in 2019 were four tons of Merlot and three tons of Cabernet Sauvignon, sourced from an Oliver grower. The estate Merlot and Syrah were harvested to produce 150 cases of Blanc de Noirs.

The portfolio recalibration at Lunessence coincides with the arrival last summer of Maxime Legris (below). He takes over from Michal Mosny who left to focus on his own winery, Winemaker’s CUT, under development beside highway 97, midway between Oliver and Osoyoos.

Maxime, who was born in Ottawa, decided to become a winemaker after training as a sommelier. He earned a bachelor of science in enology from Brock University in St. Catherines and worked for several vintages at the Malivoire Wine Company.

“I always had it in mind to move out to British Columbia,” he says. “I came to the valley in 2014 after having done a couple of vintages in New Zealand” with Babich Wines in a new Marlborough winery. He did the 2014 and 2015 vintages there but came back to the Okanagan to work the same vintages at Pentâge Winery near Penticton. He became assistant winemaker at CedarCreek Estate Winery in 2017, where he did two vintages before joining Lunessence.

His arrival at Lunessence coincides with the winery’s decision to apply for organic certification of its vineyards. “We have been farming organically here since 2014 but had never pursued certification,” Cameron says. “We have now started that process.”

Maxime came with first-hand organic experience because CedarCreek and all the other producers owned by Anthony von Mandl are committing his vineyard holding company, Sebastian Farms, to organic viticulture.

“It is an interesting opportunity for the valley,” Maxime believes. “When you have a large producer like Sebastian Farms transitioning 1,300 acres, it immediate puts us on a global stage. Our total organic production is quite high, relative to the world. It creates an interesting marketing opportunity for wines from the valley, to distinguish ourselves on the world stage. Thirty per cent of the valley is certified organic fruit. The climate is hospitable for that.”

Lunessence emerged in 2015 on the site of a winery formerly known as Sonoran Vineyards. The former operators, the Smits family, sold the winery in 2014 to businessman Zhizhong Si, a China-born environmental consultant who was educated in Canada. He is now based in Vancouver.

Fans of Lunessence wines need not worry that the portfolio changes will be abrupt of jarring, if only because some of the grape sources will remain constant. For example, the popular Sauvignon Blanc Muscat white blend is from a Naramata Bench vineyard which is now managed (but not owned) by Lunessence.

“This is a vineyard we have been working with since 2014 when we took over” [from the Smits], Cameron says.  “It is Jeff Harries’s vineyard in Naramata. He has about five acres. It is about 70% Sauvignon Blanc, 20% Muscat. And he has a couple of rows of Chardonnay, Viognier and Sémillon. We pick the whole lot together and co-ferment it. It goes in as a field blend every year.”

A modest change in style will reflect Maxime’s decision to age the red wines a little longer in barrel, softening the tannins and leaving the wines less grippy on release. The exception will be the Pinot Noirs where barrel-aging is limited to eight to 10 months, keeping the fruity aromas and flavours fresh.

Since I tasted through the wines in August (I was working hard on a book all last year and wine reviews lagged), some of these wines will be sold out. But if you have the wines in your cellar or find them in a restaurant, you might be interested in my notes.

Lunessence Quartet 2018 ($19.99). This is a blend of 60% Riesling, 37% Gewurztraminer, 2% Muscat and 1% Pinot Blanc. All of the estate vineyard’s grapes go into this blend and are supplemented with purchased fruit from Oliver vineyards. . Fermentation is entirely in stainless steel. The wine is crisp and fresh despite having a touch of residual sugar. It has citrus, green apple and melon aromas and flavours. 90.

Lunessence Viognier 2018 ($20.99). The fruit is from an Oliver vineyard. The wine has aromas of peaches and apricots with subtle floral notes, leading to flavours of stone fruits, honeydew melon and honey. The viscous mouthfeel adds to the weight and the long finish of this delicious wine. 91.

Lunessence Sauvignon Blanc Muscat 2018 ($21.99).  This field blend is 70% Sauvignon Blanc and 20% Muscat Canelli; the remaining 10% includes Viognier, Chardonnay and Sémillon. The wine was fermented entirely in stainless steel and finished with 20 grams of residual sugar. It begins with aromas of lime and pineapple. It has flavours of lime, lemon, guava and orange. The finish is long and luscious. 92. 

Lunessence Reserve Riesling 2017 ($27.99). Only 10.5% Alcohol. The winemaking protocol was designed to produce an orange wine. The crushed juice fermented with indigenous yeast on the skins for 20 days. It then was aged four months in neutral oak barrels, where the orange hue from skin contact deepened. The wine begins with complex aromas, including orange peel, leading to flavours of ripe nectarine and cantaloupe. 91.

Lunessence Blanc de Noirs 2018 ($19.99). The blend is 69% Merlot and 31% Syrah (mostly estate fruit). This is a juicy, refreshing rosé with aromas and flavours of strawberry and watermelon. 91.

Lunessence Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($34.99). The winery describes this as a “grippy” and youthful Cabernet Sauvignon which needs to be decanted and aerated. It was aged just eight months in Hungarian and American oak and then spent 10 months aging in bottle before release. It has aromas and flavours of  black currant mingled with vanilla. 90.

Lunessence Merlot 2017 ($29.99). This wine was also aged eight months in Hungarian and French oak and then 10 months in bottle before release. But Merlot is seldom as grippy as Cabernet Sauvignon. This is a full-bodied red with aromas and flavours of plum, black cherry and chocolate. 92.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Upper Bench's Cabernet and friends

Photo: Upper Bench's Gavin and Shana Miller

Cabernet Sauvignon is not the easiest grape to get ripe in the Okanagan. However, Gavin Miller, the co-owner and winemaker at Upper Bench Winery, has the variety figured out.

Over a succession of recent vintages, Upper Bench Cabernet Sauvignon has never disappointed. The latest releases from the winery included an excellent 2016 estate-grown Cabernet Sauvignon.

Keep in mind that the estate is on the Naramata Bench, not on the sun-bathed Osoyoos East Bench or Black Sage Road. It takes good viticulture to produce ripe, full-bodied Cabernet on the Naramata Bench.

For some background on this winery, here is an excerpt from the 2014 edition of John Schreiner’s Okanagan Wine Tour Guide.
There is divine symmetry at Upper Bench. Gavin Miller currently has eight wines in the portfolio while Shana, his wife, has eight cheeses in her portfolio. Both are available in the tasting room.

The winery has undergone a profound transformation since 2011 when Gavin, backed by a silent partner, businessman Wayne Nystrom, acquired what was then known as Stonehill Estate Winery in a bankruptcy court auction of the winery and its three hectare (seven acre) vineyard. The partners started almost from scratch, including a new name, turning the page on the struggles of previous owners. German brewmaster Klaus Stadler planted the vineyard in 1998. He launched Benchland Winery three years later to such a lukewarm reception that he stopped making wine after the 2002 vintage and returned to Germany, selling the winery in 2004 to orchardist Keith Holman. Renamed Stonehill, it specialized in port-style wines before slipping into bankruptcy in 2010 with the other six Holman wineries.

Rebranding the winery, which is within Penticton’s city limits, has enabled Gavin and Shana to make a new beginning with high quality wines and cheeses. “I am really pleased we got this winery,” Gavin says. “I always thought it had good bones, this place. It was never used to its potential.”

 Born in Britain in 1965, Gavin was a sales manager in London when he came to Penticton on vacation in 1995 and met Shana. They lived in London for a year before returning to the Okanagan in 1997. Drawn to wine after a year as a sign maker, Gavin took Okanagan College courses That launched him on a career that began  in the vineyard at Lake Breeze, the cellars at Hawthorne Mountain Vineyards, the tasting room at Sumac Ridge and then winemaking, first at Poplar Grove and then at Painted Rock, where he made award-winning wines before leaving after the 2010 vintage.

Gavin and Shana now have had a decade of wine and cheese-making at Upper Bench. He continues to make award-winning wines that pair well with her cheeses.

Here are notes on four current wine releases.

Upper Bench Chardonnay 2018 ($25 for 780 cases). This is a crisp, fruit-forward Chardonnay, short on oak but long on aromas and flavours of citrus, apple and pear. The admirable restraint of oak was the result of aging just half the wine for three months in French oak (30% new). 90.

Upper Bench Estate Pinot Noir 2016 ($36 for 165 cases). This wine was aged 18 months in French oak (30% new). It begins with aromas of cherry and blueberry mingled with spice and tobacco. The palate delivers abundant red fruits and a robust texture with earthy/forest floor notes on the finish. 90.

Upper Bench Estate Merlot 2016 ($35 for 236 cases). This wine, which has five percent Cabernet Sauvignon, was aged 21 months in French oak (33% new). It begins with inviting aromas of blueberry, black cherry and vanilla which are echoed on the palate. There also are notes of vanilla and cedar. The texture is full and the tannins are ripe. 92.

Upper Bench Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($40 for 212 cases). The wine was aged 21 months in French oak (30% new). There is 5% Merlot in this wine. Dark in colour, the wine has a concentrated texture. It begins with aromas of black cherry, vanilla, cedar and tobacco. On the palate, it delivers flavours of black cherry, plum, vanilla mingled with mint. The finish lingers. Decanting enables the wine to unlock all of its flavours. 93.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Tyler Harlton winds down TH Wines

Photo: Vintner Tyler Harlton

Tyler Harlton, one of the Okanagan’s most interesting Garagiste winemakers, announced in November that the 1,300-case 2019 vintage was his final one.

He will still sell the 2019s and the remaining 2018 wines in his Summerland winery. But when they are gone, the TH Wines brand will disappear. He is not selling the brand.

“For now, my focus will remain on the winery, and operating the tasting room next season,” he said in his mid-November announcement. “At some point in the new year, I’ll think about what will come next; I hope to pass on the [winery] space if the right set of hands comes along.” 

His announcement continued:

“The past couple of years I have felt the pull of some other work in food and farming, which has been out of reach owing to the work at the winery. I’ve taken risks to build skills that afford me amazing opportunities, and it’s time to put those skills to work on a new project, as yet to be determined. I’m proud that we’ve pushed BC Wine in a positive direction.

“Many on this list know me personally, and for those who do, the transition won’t come as a shock. I grew up on a family farm in Saskatchewan, and whatever runs in the blood of prairie farmers starts early. Since I was old enough to climb onto the tractor and grab the wheel, I’ve had farming and the land on my mind. It feels natural for me to move on. Work lies ahead.”

I profiled Tyler, who made his first vintage in 2011, in the 2014 edition of John Schreiner’s Okanagan Wine Tour Guide.

In 2007, during his final year at McGill’s law school, Tyler Harlton had a semester in Paris. On most weekends, he took the train to a French wine region, rented a bicycle, and explored wineries and vineyards, even helping to pick grapes. He had taken courses in wine appreciation but the French experience was life changing. “Seeing the vines in France really connected with me,” says Tyler, who was born in Saskatchewan in 1976 and grew up on a wheat farm. “I had that in my background. The wine industry is sophisticated and popular but at the same time it has an agricultural tradition.”

When he graduated in 2008, he decided to article with a Penticton law firm, attracted in part by the Okanagan’s wine industry. In short order, Tyler decided against a career in law and became a picker and then a cellar hand at Osoyoos Larose Estate Winery. He moved to the cellar at Le Vieux Pin in 2009 and to Dirty Laundry Vineyards in 2010 while planning for himself a holistic agricultural lifestyle including a winery.

“I rent land and grow ground crops and I sell at farmers’ markets and to local restaurants,” he explains. “My idea is to have a sustainable lifestyle where I get to grow food and make wine. My idea is to be working with vines at the same time as I am growing food. The farming season slows down in September and that is when the grape picking starts. I would like to live an old-fashioned lifestyle doing the things that I love – growing food and making wine.”

He crafted a strategy allowing him to open a winery with limited capital. For a processing facility, he leases about 139 square meters (1,500 square feet) in an industrial building next to Ripley Stainless Ltd., the major supplier of tanks for the wine industry. He has handshake agreements with two growers in the south Okanagan for top quality grapes. And he operates the winery under a commercial license that, unlike a land-based winery license, does not require him to be based on his own vineyard.

In time, the demands of the winery consumed so much of his time that he stopped growing other food products.

In a recent interview, Tyler told me: “I have got to the point where I think the wines have good flavours and clean flavours. For me, the next step in this direction would be moving more into farming and vineyard purchases. And that in the Okanagan now is not feasible. Land remains very expensive and it doesn’t look like it is going to be changing.”

Tyler says that the winery is profitable. “It would be a nice scenario to see it passed onto someone who shares my values,” he continued. “I am going to focus on the winemaking and running the business until the new year [2020]. Then that is the time to start to have visits with people who are interested in doing this, and just see where that goes. I would not be selling that label or the name, TH Wines. But as far as access to grapes, access to a license, to a building lease, t0 equipment … that would be a nice thing to pass on.”

And he is looking for a different challenge.

“The reason I have been successful at winemaking is that I have taken on challenges and I have been very interested in growth,” he told me. “I feel I am at that point again where it is time for a challenge in growth. And I just won’t be doing it with the winemaker’s cap.

“This winery was a romantic notion. I honestly thought if you made beautiful wine, it would sell itself. I didn’t realize that within this industry, we spend a lot of time selling. I am fine with that; I have embraced that. The next thing I want to do, I’d like it to be food and farming.”

Several of his 2018 wines are currently be sold to the TH wine club. If they are not all snapped up, they will be offered to other consumers on-line or through his wine shop.

Here are notes on current releases.

TH Wines Roussanne 2018 ($34.99; wine club only). This crisp, dry wine begins with floral aromas mingled with stone fruit and herbs; these are echoed on the palate. 91.

TH Wines Viognier 2018 ($27.99). The aromas of peach and apricot bound from the glass. On the palate, there are flavours of apple, apricot and peach. One remarkable feature of this wine is that the alcohol is 11.9%. This is a more refreshing white than typical Viognier wines. 91.

TH Wines Malbec 2018 ($N/A). The alcohol is 12.8%, accentuating the lean and bright profile of the wine. It has aromas and flavours cherries with a hint of pepper on the finish.

TH Wines Pinot Noir 2018 ($39.99). The wine begins with aromas of spice and cherries which are echoed on the juicy and silky palate. The finish lingers. 92.

TH Wines Cabernet Franc 2018 ($39.99). Herbal and brambly on the nose, the wine has bright flavours of blackberry and black cherry, with a savoury finish. 92.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Twelve vintages of Black Hills Carménère

Photo: Black Hills winemaker Ross Wise

The most memorable tasting in which I participated in 2019 was a vertical tasting in June of 12 vintages of Carménère produced by Black Hills Estate Winery.

Black Hills was the first winery to plant Carménère in the Okanagan. It remains one of three or four wineries growing this old Bordeaux red varietal. The wine is virtually exclusive to the Black Hills wine club, where it has acquired a cult following, deservedly so.

The tasting was hosted by Glenn Fawcett, now the Black Hills wine evangelist, and Ross Wise, to soon-to-be Master of Wine who joined Black Hills was winemaker early in 2019.

He had not made any of the Carménère vintages we tasted. The wines were made initially by Senka Tennant, the founding winemaker at Black Hills, and later by Graham Pierce who succeeded her in 2008. (Subsequently, he has moved to Time Estate Winery.)

Ross’s first Carménère vintage ever was 2019. He is, in fact, a recent Carménère convert after tasting the wines at Black Hills. He was not a fan of the varietal before that. On a recent MW examination, he was asked to name two grape varietals he would banish from the earth. He named Torrontes, Argentina’s ubiquitous grapey white, and Carménère, because he does not like the plump, alcoholic style often produced in Chile.

The varietal was saved from near extinction in Chile. It is an old Bordeaux varietal that once was widely grown in the Médoc. Wine Grapes, the massive and authoritative book by Jancis Robinson (and two colleagues) has an extensive entry on the grape’s history. It was “largely abandoned in Bordeaux after the phylloxera invasion of the 1870s because of its poor fruit set and consequently unreliable yields,” the book says. “There were just 21 hectares in France in 2008.”

Carménère vines were planted in Chile in the mid-nineteenth century from vines that has come from France before phylloxera invaded the French vineyards. Chile is believed still to be free of phylloxera, although viticulturists today would know how to deal with it.

The Carménère vines in Chile were interplanted with other varietals, primarily Merlot. The variety did better there than in France because the growing season is longer and drier than in Bordeaux. Robinson et al says Chilean growers recognized that Carménère was different from Merlot and they called it Merlot Chileno.

In the early 1990s, a French ampelographer identified Merlot Chileno as Carménère. This was confirmed by DNA analysis and in 1998, authorities in Chile recognized the variety officially as Carménère.

Black Hills planted Carménère in 2001 at the suggestion of Rusty Figgins, the Washington state consultant who worked with Senka Tennant during the early Black Hills vintages. Carménère was just being planted in Washington at the time. Black Hills had a three-quarter-acre unplanted block in its vineyard. Rusty had the winery plant Carménère as an additional blending component for Nota Bene, the winery’s flagship Bordeaux blend.

“We harvested the first grapes in 2005,” Glenn Fawcett (left) told the tasting in June. “There were just two barrels, 50 cases. It was intended to go into Nota Bene but when Senka and the team were doing barrel samples, they concluded that would be a mistake because the wine was so distinct. So they decided to release it as a single varietal.”

Black Hills no long has any bottles of that debut Carménère in its library. The vertical tasting began with the 2006 vintage.

“The Carménère you are tasting reflects our terroir,” Glenn said. “We have had winemakers from Chile taste it. [They commented] it is distinct from Carménère from other regions. I think it is because of the sand here; because of the sunlight we have; because of our hot days and cool evenings. That develops a different flavour profile.”

The Jancis Robinson book also noted that the varietal’s flavour differences reflects vintage conditions. “If the grapes are harvested before they are fully ripe, wines have strong capsicum and herbaceous flavours,” the authors write. “These turn into red berry and sometimes black pepper and tomato when the berries are just ripe, and then at full maturity blackberry and blueberry with overtones of chocolate and coffee and soy sauce, although the variety also tends to lose acidity at this stage.”

All of these characters were reflected in the various Black Hills vintages, except for low acidity. Okanagan Carménère always has bright and refreshing acidity because the season here is not long enough for the fruit to get overripe. The fresh flavours, together with the moderate alcohol levels – between 12% and 13.5% - are the reasons that Ross Wise changed his mind about banishing the varietal.

“Carménère used to be really popular in Bordeaux and now it is not,” Ross said. “They did not replant it because it is a really low-cropping variety and they couldn’t make much money with it. But the good thing about really low-cropping vines is they have much more power and concentration. From a winemaker perspective, they are fantastic. From a business perspective, it is harder to justify. But I am a winemaker, so that’s fine.”

As the demand for its Carménère has grown, Black Hills has increased its plantings – moderately. In 2008, 2 ½ acres of Chardonnay was grafted over to Carménère. Two more acres were planted in 2012, and about 2 ½ acres more in 2016.

“If people wanted more Carménère, we needed to grow more, even if it didn’t make economic sense,” Glenn said.

Not that Black Hills loses money on the wine. The 2017 vintage, the most recent release, was $60 a bottle. A wine club exclusive, it is sold out.

The surprise to me is how well Carménère ages. Even the 2006 vintage, while obviously mature, was not over the hill. This is an amazing varietal.

“We are not getting too much fresh fruit any more,” Ross said on tasting the 2006. “We are getting a lot of spice characters, a lot of earthiness. This is a really evolved wine. You are getting more of the dry fruits. Kind of plummy. Silky, elegant tannins; it sits soft on the palate. I think it is drinking at its peak now but that it will hold on for another two or three years. It’s in a really good place to drink.”

Here are notes on the 12 vintages. The wines all scored between 91 and 95. Note how the harvest dates and the alcohols vary.

Black Hills Carménère 2006Harvested October 30, 2006. Alcohol 13.4%. This is now a savoury wine with flavours of plum and black cherry.

Black Hills Carménère 2007
Harvested October 29. Alcohol 13%. This wine shows aromas of plum and fig. On the palate, the wine has red berry flavours including a touch of raspberry, mingled with herbal notes.

Black Hills Carménère 2008
Harvested October 20-30. Alcohol 13%. The aromas are intense, with notes of dark fruit mingled with herbs. The wine has flavours of cherry and raspberry with pepper.

Black Hills Carménère 2009
October 13. Alcohol 12.2%. Ross Wise suggested this wine reminded him a bit of Pinot Noir, with its lean texture and bright berry aromas and flavours.

Black Hills Carménère 2010
October 27. Alcohol 12.5%. This wine begins with aromas of blackberries and herbs leading to flavours of spicy oak, red cherry and jalapeño peppers.

Black Hills Carménère 2011
November 1. Alcohol 12.2%. This was a notoriously cool season in the Okanagan, which is why the grapes were allowed to hang to November. Yet this proved to be one of best wines in the vertical. It has a peppery aroma and flavours of cassis, blueberry and raspberry. The texture is firm.

Black Hills Carménère 2012
October 23, Alcohol 12.2%. Ripe and elegant, this wine’s silky tannins give it a fullness on the palate. It has aromas and flavours of blueberry and raspberry mingled with pepper.

Black Hills Carménère 2013
Harvested October 27. Alcohol 12.2%. This wine of sage, herbs and white pepper mingled with berry notes. On the palate there are flavours of cherry, raspberry and pepper.

Black Hills Carménère 2014
Harvested September 30. Alcohol 12.9%. I scored this 95 points, my top wine in the vertical. It benefitted from one of the best growing seasons ever in the Okanagan. It has aromas and flavours of spice, cedar, cherries and other dark fruits. This is a complex wine and one that will age well.

Black Hills Carménère 2015
Harvested October 10. Alcohol 13%. This was a hot Okanagan vintage but Black Hills picked the fruit before the acid dropped. This is a wine with flavours of black cherry, fig, red currant and chocolate. The spice and pepper aromas recall menthol.

Black Hills Carménère 2016
Harvested October 18. Alcohol 12.1%. This wine begins with a great whiff of pepper and red liquorice, leading to flavours of black cherry, raspberry and cranberry.

Black Hills Carménère 2017
Harvested October 8 and 9. Alcohol 13%. This is a youthfully aromatic wine with aromas of red fruit and pepper, leading to savoury, dark fruit flavours. The wine has the potential to develop into one of the best over the next decade.  

Monday, January 6, 2020

Mireille Sauvé’s wines for a good cause

 Photo: Charity vintner  Mireille Sauvé

During the past decade, wines made by Mireille Sauvé, a Naramata-based wine educator and sommelier, have raised more than $20,000 for scholarships awarded by the 60-member Vancouver chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier.

Once again, she has released two wines for, as she puts it, “a good cause.” Both are well made, worth drinking even without the incentive of supporting a good cause.

Some time ago, she moved from being a sommelier to wine education and marketing under her own company, The Wine Umbrella. One of her two recent releases is a red wine under The Wine Umbrella label, as she begins a transition from the Dames label. It still raises funds to support wine professionals.

A recent president of the Dames chapter, Mireille has a considerable history with this organization that supports women in the wine business. She was a previous scholarship recipient through the Dames program. She credits that support for allowing her to graduate from George Brown College in 1997 as Canada’s youngest female sommelier.

Her history was detailed three years ago in a press release accompanying an earlier release of wines under the Dames label.

Back in 1991, a 22-year-old Mireille was struggling with her career. Having started working in restaurants at the young age of 14, she was an established server in fine dining with vast experience but frustrated that she was unable to find anyone to take her under their wing to attain management status; and a professional sommelier degree from Toronto’s George Brown University was both out of financial reach and necessitated a move across the country.  
A few senior women in the industry knew of her talents and ambition and encouraged her to apply for a scholarship from the local chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, money they raised throughout the year for exactly this type of need. Mireille received a generous scholarship, scored honours distinction in her course, and went on to become the youngest certified sommelier (yes, of any gender) in Canada.

Apprenticeship at a Washington State winery, work experience with Eric von Krosigk at Hawthorne Mountain Vineyards (now See-Ya-Later Ranch) behind her; her own successful wine consulting business; travels across the world judging wine and no less than three children later, Mireille had reached a level in her career and was invited to join Les Dames as member - the very same organization that had helped her to pay for the schooling she needed to reach this place in her career. Talk about full circle. 

Jumping into the fundraising arm of the chapter committees she saw an opportunity to move away from silent auctions and give back, include other members in an amazing winemaking experience and, if she was lucky, be able to involve and give back to a whole new generation of female winemakers and sommeliers by making and bottling wine with all the profits being donated back to the chapter.

Mireille started to experiment with the white wine a few years ago as she discussed her dream of creating a special Dames wine. An early prototype blending Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat was good enough to inspire her. With that presentation, the chapter approved her use of their branding and gave her their blessing to move ahead.

Under the Dames label, Mireille previously released a 2013 red (a Merlot/Syrah blend) and a 2015 white (a blend of Pinot Blanc, Gewürztraminer and Riesling) and a 2016 Rosé (a blend of 80% Pinot Blanc and 20% Pinot Noir.)

“I can only make one wine a year,” she says. Her style: “My philosophy is non-intervention.”

Her current releases are a 2017 sparkling wine under the Dames label and 2018 red wine under The Wine Umbrella.

Here are notes on the wines. Look for the wines in private wine stores.

Dames Brut 2017 ($37 for 160 cases). The blend is 70% Pinot Blanc, 30% Riesling, aged on the lees for 17 months. With zero dosage, the wine is crisply dry, yet has a creamy texture on the palate. The aromas and flavours blend citrus and brioche. The wine is elegant and the finish is refreshing. 90.

The Wine Umbrella 70/40 Red 2018 ($25 for 400 cases). This is an unfiltered blend of 70% Cabernet Franc and 30% Pinot Noir, which were co-fermented. (The other 10% in the blend is winemaking effort, Mireille explains.) The inspiration for this wine is Loire Cabernet Franc, a style admired by Mireille. Half the wine spent six months in neutral oak and the remainder was aged in stainless steel. The wine, medium-bodied and fruity, has bright aromas and flavours of cherry, mingled with hints of spice and earthiness. 90.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Audacity of Thomas G. Bright

Photo: Arterra's idea of what Thomas G. Bright looked like

Thomas G. Bright, one of the pioneers in Canadian wine history, has been revived by Arterra Wines Canada with the label, The Audacity of Thomas G. Bright.

This might be a classic example of what happens when the marketing department creates wines rather than the winemakers.

The printed material with the wines reads:

“The Audacity of Thomas G. Bright is an ode to a place where explorers and mavericks have been defying the odds for generations. When our founder challenged the era’s accepted wisdom and grew some of Europe’s most prestigious grapes right here in Canada, dissenters deemed his strategy too risky – impossible even – but today, we continue the legacy he forged in 1874.”

That may be great copywriting but it is dubious history.

There was indeed a real Thomas G. Bright. He was a lumber merchant in Toronto who, in 1874, teamed up with F.A. Shirriff to start a winery on Toronto’s Front Street. They moved in 1890 to a site on Dorchester Road in Niagara Falls to be close to vineyards.

Shirriff left the partnership to go into jam production. In 1910 W.M. Bright, the founder’s son, took over the business and ran it until 1933, when he sold it to distiller Harry Hatch. The Hatch family ran the Brights winery at least for the next 50 years.

Arterra’s news release this fall credited Thomas G. Bright with the “bold idea” of growing European grapes in Niagara. In fact, he died many years before the winery made a significant commitment to European grapes varieties.

In 1934, the year after the Hatch family took over the business, Brights bought 1,400 acres of land near Niagara Falls for vineyards. Most of the vines, if not all, were North American hybrids like Duchess and Delaware. There were likely also some Concords, the durable American labrusca varietal.

Perhaps the man with audacity was Harry Hatch because he hired a pair of professional winemakers. The most influential of them was Adhémar de Chaunac, a French-born chemist. He convinced Hatch that he could make better wines if Brights planted European varieties including the European hybrids developed by such plant breeders at Albert Seibel, François Baco, Eugene Kuhlmann and J-L Vidal. Those varieties were already planted in New York State.

Brights appears to have planted Seibel 1000 (for rosé) and, in conjunction with Ontario’s Vineland Research Station, was preparing an order for vines from France when World War II broke out. The order, co-ordinated by De Chaunac, finally was placed in 1945. That trial order included 35 French hybrids and four vinifera varieties – Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir and a Muscat variety.

Under the ownership of the Hatch family, Brights now made a major commitment to the European varieties, planting 40,000 vines in 1947. Brights also launched prolonged plantings in Ontario and later in British Columbia to prove the viability of vinifera grape varieties.

It is merely romantic to give the credit for all of this to Thomas G. Bright who had long since departed the scene.

Arterra has released both a Chardonnay and a Cabernet Merlot blend (in Ontario as well as in B.C.) The wines are so affordable and easy-drinking that one can forgive the copywriters for taking liberty with history.

Here are notes on the wines.

The Audacity of Thomas G. Bright Chardonnay Sussreserve 2017 ($16.99). This wine was aged nine months in French oak. Sussreserve refers to the technique of adding a little unfermented grape juice just before bottling to tweak the flavors, the perception of sweetness and the voluptuous texture. It has aromas and flavours of pineapple, ripe apple and citrus. 88.

The Audacity of Thomas G. Bright Cabernet Merlot 2017 ($17.90). This wine was aged 14 months in French and American oak and then finished in a whisky barrel, an increasingly fashionable winemaking style. The hint of whisky and barrel smokiness adds a slight impression of sweetness mingled with flavours of black cherries, vanilla and spice. The long, ripe tannins support a long finish. 90.