The wines from Painted Rock Estate Winery have never disappointed this reviewer, nor – I suspect – any of Painted Rock’s customers.
This was one of the producers included in my 2017 book, Icon: Flagship Wines from British Columbia’s Best Wineries. The text focussed specifically on the winery’s flagship wine, called Red Icon. The text provides insights in why that wine, and all of the others, are among the Okanagan’s best.
Here is an excerpt from the book:
Few Okanagan wineries are as greatly influenced by Bordeaux consultant Alain Sutre as John and Trish Skinner’s Painted Rock Estate Winery. Alain’s advice to them covers the full scope of winemaking, from viticulture and barrel selection to blending the winery’s flagship Red Icon.
“I will tell you how Alain found me,” says John. “Alain heard about me from the nursery in Bordeaux. I had contacted the nursery directly because I wanted to get very specific clones. A year later, Alain showed up at the vineyard one day when we had just planted. He introduced himself and said, ‘I love what you have planted here, but no one in the Okanagan knows how to blend these clones.’ That was the beginning of the journey.”
John needed such expertise to fully realize his wine-growing ambitions. Born in 1958, he had been a successful Vancouver investment adviser. His growing passion for wine triggered a decision to retire from the investment business at 50 and take up wine-growing. In 2004, after a careful study of potential vineyard sites, he bought a 24-hectare (60-acre) former apricot orchard near the Skaha climbing bluffs. The site was shaped to produce an ideal southwestern vineyard exposure that he began planting in 2005.
He had a clear vision for his wines. “This journey is not about making a Bordeaux blend,” he told Alain. “This is about making an Okanagan wine with clones I sourced from Bordeaux.” Alain, he discovered, was on the same page. The consultant has had a hand in making Okanagan wines at other distinguished producers including Osoyoos Larose and, latterly, Culmina Family Estate Winery.
To date, Alain has blended every vintage of Red Icon. The blending decisions reflect the strengths of the Painted Rock vineyard in any given vintage. “Our 2012 Red Icon is kind of an inverted Bordeaux blend because it leads with 31% Malbec,” John says. “It’s Okanagan.”
The blends vary from year to year and are somewhat unorthodox, with higher percentages of both Malbec and Petit Verdot. In most Okanagan red Meritages, Petit Verdot is a minor portion of the blend, bringing a touch of spice. Not so at Painted Rock. “I have never tasted a Petit Verdot like this,” Alain once said, advocating that the variety play a significant role in the blend.
The varietals all have roles to play. The Cabernets provide structure; Merlot fleshes out the mid-palate; Malbec brings bright flavour notes. “Petit Verdot,” John says, “is the attack and the finish.” While the components move around from vintage to vintage, Red Icon is united in style year after year by its harmony, as John discovered when tasting a vertical of the first five vintages. “Those five wines, all different blends, were all quite similar because they were complete wines,” he explains.
Here are notes on current releases.
Painted Rock Merlot 2017 ($34.99). This wine, which was aged 18 months in French oak (30% new), is age-worthy but is already drinking well. It begins with aromas of black cherry, plum and mocha. On the palate, it delivers flavours of dark cherries, plums, black currants and spice. The finish is long. 92.
Painted Rock Syrah 2018 ($39.99). This is a rich, bold wine with aromas of fig, dark plum and black pepper. Those are echoed on the palate, mingled with dark fruit flavours, cracked black pepper and a hint of earthiness. 93.
Painted Rock Red Icon 2018 ($59.99). The blend is 56% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc, 11% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Malbec and 8% Petit Merlot. The wine was aged 18 months in French oak (30% new). 94.
Burrowing Owl Estate Winery’s sampler pack of its red wine releases for spring came with an attractive mask. I donned it for the selfie that accompanies this item.
The winery originally ordered the masks for use by its staff. Such was the response that it is now sold in the Burrowing Owl wine shop for $9.95. It is also included free of charge with every case of wine ordered from Burrowing Owl.
I am not aware of other wineries with branded masks. It would be surprising if others have not picked up on the idea. Since mask wearing is going to be with us for some time, it makes sense to have a winery’s customers walking around with the winery’s brand on display. Especially if the mask is a little more chic than the ubiquitous “surgical” masks that, when not covering faces, are littering streets.
There is no reason why we should not make statements with our masks. Last summer, because I am a fan of Formula 1 racing, I purchased a mask from McLaren, one of my favourite teams. It is the same colour – orange – as the cars. I think it looks dashing. However, I paid a ridiculous price for the high tech mask (it has an anti-viral filter), which came from a factory in the Netherlands. Such is the cost of fandom.
The Burrowing Owl mask, which appears to have been made in China, is low tech … but comfortable and smart.
Here are notes on the wines, as written by Rhys Pender MW for the winery’s website. The points scores are mine but I will defer to his palate and vocabulary on the wines. While I have never found burlap in a wine (and I grew up on a farm!), I generally agree with his comments.
Burrowing Owl Merlot 2018 ($32). A bright, fresh, silky and complex Merlot with lots of black plum, baking spice, ripe raspberry, mixed brambly berries with violet and lavender floral notes, cocoa, marzipan and vanilla and some Earl Grey tea, burlap and cedar. The palate is full-bodied with firm ripe tannins, refreshing acidity, a velvety texture and flavours of plum pudding, black cherry, hazelnut, chilli spiced dark chocolate, paprika, dried sage with some graphite notes on the long finish. Has the structure to age and develop for over a decade. 90.
Burrowing Owl Syrah 2018 ($35). A deep, brooding Syrah with an intense nose of blackberry, black cherry and black plum fruit along with some pastry crust, vanilla and clove and complex notes of burlap, leather, espresso, violet, graphite, black sage and bacon. Dry, full-bodied and rich on the palate with intense black pepper, black fruit, ripe tannins, paprika, roasted red peppers, dark chocolate and grilled rosemary with a long finish and plenty of potential to age. 91.
A California winery, Paul Masson, once had this advertising slogan: “No wine before its time.”
If it were not trademarked, Paul Gardner and Julie Rennie could apply it to the wines they produce at Pentâge Winery in Penticton. When their peers have begun releasing 2019 and even 2020 wines, some of the current releases from Pentâge are from the 2016 vintage, which is almost sold out elsewhere.
In my view, the fans of Pentâge are in luck. While most other wineries expect you to cellar their wines until they are ready, Pentâge does the cellaring for you. The wines are ready to drink when you get them, although they will certainly cellar well.
Other producers would like to hold back wines the way Paul and Julie do (and some in fact do that). The down side of holding back wine is that a winery’s cellar becomes jammed with case goods; and those cases of wine are not generating cash flow. Another California producer gently pointed this out by mocking the Paul Masson slogan. “No wine before its time – but when the banker calls, it is time!”
Pentâge, which opened in 2003 and now produces about 5,000 cases a year, clearly has cash flow and storage issues under control. A former marine engineer, Paul Gardner spent about 10 years carving a 5,000-square-foot cellar in the natural rock caping the Pentâge property. With stable year-round temperature, it is an ideal place for maturing wines in bottle.
The current sample pack from Pentâge was limited to just four wines to represent the winery’s extensive portfolio. It is two mountain-side vineyards above Penticton, the winery has 19 grape varieties. Not many winemakers have as many options as Paul has.
Here are notes on the wines.
Pentâge Pinot Gris 2018 ($17.39). This is a strikingly complex wine, no doubt because of how it was put together. The winery drew fruit from three different vineyards and did six different fermentations in stainless steel. The final blend is rich on the palate, with aromas and flavours of pears, stone fruit and citrus. 90.
Pentâge Viognier 2016 ($20). The wine was inoculated in stainless steel, with 30% then transferred to second-fill oak barrels to finish fermentation, including partial malolactic. Both portions were on lees that were stirred weekly. The wine begins with aromas of pear and stone fruit. On the palate, flavours of apricot and ripe apple mingle with notes of oak. The texture is fleshy, with a touch of tannin to give it backbone. The finish is dry. 90.
Pentâge Cabernet Franc 2016 ($26.70). This wine was matured 18 months in oak barrels (75% French, 25% American – and 25% new). It has also been bottled aged two years before release. The wine has developed lovely aromas of cassis and cherry. It shows bright and spicy flavours of raspberry and cherry, with a lingering finish. 91.
Pentâge GSM 2016 ($30.43). The blend is 35% Grenache, 35% Mourvedre and 30% Syrah. The three varieties were matured separately for 16 months in neutral French and American oak barrels. The wine begins with aromas of cherry and plum accented with cracked black pepper. Those fruits and the pepper are echoed on the rich palate. There is a delicious underlying sweetness to the fruit as the wine opens up in the glass. 92.
Mohan Gill, the proprietor of Bordertown Vineyards & Estate Winery, surely is one of the most ambitious winery owners in the South Okanagan.
The winery, located beside the highway at the northern edge of Osoyoos, produced 3,000 cases of wine in 2013, Bordertown’s first vintage. In the 2020 vintage, Bordertown made 10,000 cases of wine, with a plan to reach 40,000 cases a year when all of Mohan’s 100-plus acres of vineyards are producing.
On top of this, Bordertown also produces apple cider. The cider was launched in 2019. Last year, the winery made 7,000 cans (each with 470 ml of cider); it plans to make 10,000 cans this year.
I touched on his ambition in the Bordertown profile in the Okanagan Wine Tour Guide, which was published last year:
Mohan Gill summarizes his biography concisely. Born in India in 1976, he came to the Okanagan in 1993 with his immigrant parents. “I went to Oliver Secondary School,” he recounts. “Then I started working.”
Mohan has never stopped working. He bought his first orchard (with an older brother) in 1996. Today, he and his brother operate 44.5 hectares (110 acres) of vineyards and orchards in the Okanagan. They have their own fruit-packing house and, since 2018, a cidery attached to the winery.
Mohan dipped his toe into viticulture by planting less than a hectare (2 acres) of grapes in 2005. A quick study, he began increasing his vineyard area in 2007 and was soon selling grapes to both large and small wineries. One of his clients was Mark Simpson, who operates BC Wine Studio, a custom crush winery near Okanagan Falls. On Mark’s urging, Mohan opened Bordertown in 2015, locating it strategically on the highway just north of Osoyoos. The expansive wine shop signalled Mohan’s ambition that Bordertown become a substantial winery quickly.
Bordertown’s 100 acres of vineyard, of which 40 acres is coming into production over the next several years, are dedicated primarily to red varietals, led by Cabernet Franc and Merlot. The major white varietal is Pinot Gris. Mark Simpson's role is limited to cider making. The wines are made by Daniel Bontorin, one of the Okanagan's top consulting winemakers.
Mohan is sensitive to the need to release competitively-priced wines. Bordertown produced 4,500 cases of Cabernet Franc alone last year. The wine is widely available for $21.95 (plus tax).
Last fall Bordertown also introduced two three-litre bag-in-the-box wines: a Cabernet Merlot blend and a Pinot Gris, each priced around $60. That translates as $15 a bottle. There is VQA quality wine in the packages although wineries are not permitted to label these boxes as VQA wines. Mohan simply labels them British Columbia wine.
Here are notes on some of Bordertown’s current releases of its premium wines.
Bordertown Grüner Veltliner 2019 ($22 for 200 cases). The varietal is an Austrian white that is finding a home in the Okanagan. This wine has aromas and flavours of stone fruit, pineapple and honey. The crispness benefits from being nicely chilled. 89.
Bordertown Living Desert Red 2017 ($27 for 995 cases). The blend is 28% Syrah, 22% Cabernet Franc, 22% Malbec, 12% Petit Verdot, 9% Merlot and 7% Cabernet Sauvignon. This is quite an expressive wine, with aromas and flavours of cassis, cherry and blueberry. The tannins are soft, the texture is generous and the finish is persistent. 91.
Bordertown Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($33 for 600 cases). This is a classic Cabernet Sauvignon, with plenty of grip; it benefits from decanting. It has aromas of black currant, mint and cherry. The mint mingles on the palate with dark berry flavours. 90.
Bordertown Syrah 2018 ($35 for 500 cases). The wines matured between 12 and 18 months in American oak. It is a muscular, brooding red with aromas of plum, prune, cherry and black pepper. The palate has layers of dark fruit with a hint of black pepper. 90.
Bordertown Malbec 2018 ($35 for 520 cases). Matured in French oak, this wine begins with the appealing perfumed aromas of the varietal – blueberry and black currant. On the palate, it is full and delivers intense flavours of blueberry, raspberry and black cherry. 91.
Bordertown Petit Verdot 2018 ($35 for 224 cases). Matured in French oak, this wine is dark as night, typical of a varietal rarely seen on its own. This is an intense wine, with aromas of black currant and plum and with flavours of prune, blackberry, black currant, tobacco. There is a note of flint on the finish. This is a big wine, ideal for pairing with game. 93.
Osoyoos Larose Estate Winery will finally own its own winemaking facility, two decades after making its first vintage in 2001.
The winery, now owned totally by Groupe Taillan of Bordeaux, has recently purchased the former Fernandes packing house, a 32,000-square-foot building at the east end of Osoyoos beside Highway 3. Because extensive renovations are required, the winery does not expect to make a vintage there until 2022.
This news comes just as the winery releases Le Grand Vin 2017, its flagship red wine. This is the first wine made in Canada by Caroline Schaller, who was sent from France in July 2017 to be the executive manager and winemaker at Osoyoos Larose.
Osoyoos Larose was established as a joint venture between Vincor International and Groupe Taillan, with the intent of bringing the expertise of a seasoned Bordeaux wine producer to the Okanagan. Taillan’s Bordeaux properties include Château Gruaud-Larose, a distinguished second-growth winery in Saint-Julien, created in 1725. The Okanagan vineyard was planted in 1999 on the slopes northwest of Osoyoos. For production, barrels and fermenters were placed in a dedicated area at the rear of the Vincor/Jackson-Triggs winery north of Oliver.
The Bordeaux partner dispatched a French-trained winemaker, Pascal Madevon, to make the wine in 2001, and for the next nine vintages. He was enchanted with the Okanagan, became a Canadian citizen and now is one of the busiest consultants to British Columbia wineries.
Vincor was taken over in 2006 by Constellation Brands, a big U.S.-based wine company with little commitment to the Okanagan. It sold its 50% share of Osoyoos Larose in 2013 to the French partner and gave Osoyoos Larose five or six years to relocate its winemaking facilities.
When the Osoyoos Larose vineyard was planted, an area had been set aside for a future winery. The location has a spectacular view over the vineyards and the valley. But on closer study, it proved to be a difficult location for a production facility, with inadequate water, sewage and electrical services. Osoyoos Larose then purchased an orchard with a rather palatial house north of Osoyoos, just beside the highway. Its plan to build a winery there was thwarted when the Agricultural Land Commission ruled the property was not big enough for a production facility.
Osoyoos Larose still maintains the house as a future hospitality centre and grows white varieties in the vineyard. Last year, Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon was planted. This year Muscadelle will be added so that, in a few years, Osoyoos Larose will add a Bordeaux white to its portfolio.
While looking for a production site, Osoyoos Larose rented space in 2019 at the Bordertown Winery just north of Osoyoos. The 2019, 2020 and soon the 2121 vintages are being made and cellared here, pending the move to the packing house.
It is perhaps surprising that Groupe Taillan, given the frustrations it has endured during the past decade, has not thrown in the towel on the Okanagan, its only investment in the Canadian wine industry. Instead, the company has seen to it that Osoyoos Larose wines are consistently made to the same high quality that was envisioned from the outset.
Caroline Schaller, the fourth winemaker sent to Canada by Taillan, was born in Toulouse, did her wine training there and started her career in wineries in southwestern France. She also burnished her skills by working wineries in California (Pine Ridge) and Chile (Viña Leyda). She was the manager and winemaker at Domaine d En Segur, in Tarn France, when Groupe Taillan recruited her for the Okanagan.
Here is a note on the new release.
Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin 2017 ($48.99). The blend is 61.4% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7.6% Petit Verdot and 5% Malbec. The wine was aged 12 months in French oak barrels (60% new). The structure is reminiscent of a Bordeaux red, as one might expect. This is an excellent wine for cellaring. I decided to decant it overnight. The result was a rich, fruity wine with aromas of cassis and blueberry and with flavours of black currants and cherries. 93.
When Mt. Boucherie Estate Winery two years ago rejuvenated the former Rustico winery as Rust Wine Co., the strategy of focussing on single vineyard wines was adopted to distinguish Rust’s wines from Mt. Boucherie’s portfolio.
These three Syrahs demonstrate that strategy superbly. Each is made with grapes from a different vineyard. Comparing them is an excellent illustration of terroir, and how much it changes from one site to another.
I rarely taste a Syrah that I find unappealing. It is one of British Columbia’s signature table wines. The grape produces delicious reds from vineyards in the South Okanagan, the Similkameen and the Naramata Bench. There are some surprising Syrah blocks elsewhere as well, such as the one Quails’ Gate has in its West Kelowna vineyard.
Rust’s winemaker, Ryan DeWitte, who came to the Okanagan from Ontario, has several great vineyards to work with.
The winery takes its name from the steel siding on its building. This is a special steel, designed to develop an attractive patina of rust. The wine labels also simulate rust. All this helps this south Okanagan winery’s brand to stand out.
Two of the Syrahs in the current release are made with grapes from the south Okanagan – but opposite sides of the valley and from different soils. Both vineyards are south of Oliver.
One Syrah is from the South Rock Vineyard, the estate vineyard, is on the Golden Mile Bench. This is the west side of the valley where the soil is an alluvial fan of gravelly soil and eroded mountain rock.
A second Syrah is made with grapes from the Ferreira Vineyard. This property is on the eastern side of the valley on a plateau at the northern end of Black Sage Road, overlooking Oliver. The soils are volcanic ash mixed with fine granitic sand.
The third Syrah is from the Lazy River Vineyard in the Similkameen Valley, south of Cawston. The soil is a sandy clay loam with limestone and granitic rock.
Rust Syrah 2018 South Rock Vineyard Golden Mile Bench ($44 for 362 cases). This wine was aged 16 months in American and French oak barrels (27% new). It begins with aromas of plum, cherry and spice mingled lightly with pepper. The palate echoes the aromas and delivers bold fruit flavours so intense as to seem almost sweet. The long ripe tannins give the wine a generous texture and long finish. 93.
Rust Syrah 2018 Ferreira Vineyard Okanagan Valley ($44 for 337 cases). This wine was aged 16 months in American and French oak (27% new). It begins with aromas of black pepper and dark fruits. The palate also delivers notes of black pepper mingled with figs, black olives and cherries. The tannins are firm. 92.
Rust Syrah 2018 Lazy River Vineyard Similkameen Valley ($44 for 430 cases). This wine was aged 16 months in American and French oak (27% new). It begins with aromas of cherry, raspberry and sage. On the palate, there is bright red fruit with notes of spice and white pepper. The ripe tannins give the wine an elegantly polished texture. 93.
Steven Spurrier, perhaps the most influential advocate for British Columbia wine among British wine writers, has died at 79, the victim of aggressive liver cancer.
He lent his prestige, beginning in 2015, to presiding over a series of Judgment in B.C. tastings that were organized over five years by the British Columbia Wine Institute.
As a tribute by Jancis Robinson says, this was entirely typical of his extensive interest in wines other than the French classics. “At any sparsely attended tasting of the most obscurely nascent wine region, Steven would be there,” she wrote.
“Obscurely nascent” is not a term we in British Columbia would attach to our wine industry but the truth is there are probably more consumers in Britain who have tasted Georgian wine than there are those who have tasted Canadian wine. In recent years, however, Steven helped our producers spread the word there, especially after becoming familiar with our wines through the Judgment of BC tastings. Those were blind tastings with BC wines pitted against comparable imported wines. BC wines more than held their own against the competition. The tastings are no longer held because the point has been made.
The Judgment of BC tasting was modelled on Steven’s famous 1976 tasting, The Judgment of Paris, which put California wines in the map internationally. In 1976 Spurrier was a wine merchant in Paris with some California wines in his shop. He organized a tasting and, to draw attention, decided that it would be a blind tasting. California was then a nascently obscure wine region, at least to the French. So he pitted top California wines against leading French wines.
He sold primarily French wines and he expected French wines to win the tasting. When the result was announced, one of the outraged French judges demanded her ballot back. (All but two of the 11 judges were French and the scores of the others – Steven and an American – were not counted.) You can understand why the French were outraged when an upstart like Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon beats a First Growth Bordeaux like Chateau Mouton.
The results of The Judgment of BC did not have the same shock value, if only because blind comparative tastings have become routine. But the fact that British Columbia’s wines scored well, and often won, was reassuring both to the consumers here and to the producers.
At the first such tasting, the top Syrah was a Syrah from C.C. Jentsch Cellars, an Okanagan winery that has been open just two years and was not widely known at the time.
Steven presided over these tastings – at which there were at least two dozen wine professionals as judges – with his characteristically modest mien. His wore his celebrity lightly. Jancis Robinson recounts that he told a host of a South American wine visit that it was not necessary for Steven to fly business class.
His interest in British Columbia wines was genuine, which could not always be said of all of his contemporary wine writers in Britain.