Writer and wine columnist John Schreiner is Canada's most prolific author of books on wine.
Friday, May 7, 2021
Gray Monk's Rotberger now has a supporting role
Photo: Winemaker Jen Oishi (credit Mackenzie Dempsey)
Jen Oishi, the winemaker at Gray Monk Estate Winery, went to a remarkable amount of effort to make the winery’s 2020 rosé.
There are six grapes in the blend. Any one of them could have been used on its own (and often are) for a rosé. She set to build a degree of complexity seldom found in rosé.
The irony is that for years Gray Monk’s rosé was made exclusively, or at least primarily, with just one variety: Rotberger. It is just 13% of the 2020 rosé.
The variety is a cross of Trollinger and Riesling that was developed at the Geisenheim Research Institute in Germany in 1928. The current commercial acreage there and in northern Italy is miniscule. The same is true for the Okanagan, where the variety was planted initially by George Heiss, one of the founding owners of Gray Monk.
It was one of the varieties I profiled in a 1998 book, Chardonnay and Friends, which is no longer in print. Here is an excerpt.
In Germany, Rotberger is virtually unknown to consumers because wineries seldom produce it as a varietal, even when authorities like Jancis Robinson, the British wine writer, writes that it is capable of producing “very good wines.”
Rotberger’s brief moment in the sun every year rests primarily in the hands of George Heiss Jr., the serious-minded winemaker at Gray Monk. George Sr., his father, imported some vines from Germany in the 1970s -- six short rows, as George Jr. recalls it. “We knew next to nothing about it,” the elder Heiss recalls. “I doubt that at the time we took the vines we had ever tasted the wine ... we went totally blind.”
The Heiss family subsequently expanded its plantings to six acres, having found that the wine has a loyal following in a niche so small that no competitor has asked for Rotberger cuttings. (One other grower once expressed some interest in cuttings but never followed through.) That should not be taken as a reflection on the wine, a fresh and lively rosé with a colour as vibrant as the gleaming paint on a fast sports car.
The challenge of Rotberger is twofold. First, the name is comic to those who do not pronounce it correctly: the first syllable rhymes with vote and not with pot. Secondly, the rosé market is small in a nation that only has three months of summer, which is the preferred time for drinking fresh pink wines. Neither of these difficulties trouble young George Heiss. He knows how to pronounce German grape names and he makes barely enough Rotberger to satisfy the demand.
Straightforward in the vineyard, Rotberger is a mid- to late-season variety, ripening about the same time as Riesling. The large berries of Rotberger, when ripe, are dark purple; all the colour is in the skins while the flesh is colourless. Heiss crushes the grapes and begins fermentation immediately on the skins. The hue of the wine is the colour released in the first day; and there is no point leaving the juice on the skins beyond that because the tone will not deepen and may actually begin to brown. What Heiss wants, and invariably gets, is a lively cranberry shade that is achieved by pressing the must after that first day of fermentation and completing the process in stainless steel. “I try to keep it cool,” he says. “If it gets too hot, it can lose too much fruitiness.”
Fruitiness is the essence of this wine which, when fermentation ends, has no more than ten or eleven per cent alcohol and has a touch of residual sweetness. “Rotberger has the Riesling acidity,” he notes. “The acidity would be too strong to finish it off in a dry style. I find that extra little bit of sweetness brings out the fruitiness as well.” The wines usually are ready to be released nine months after harvest. They should be enjoyed when they are fresh and are not designed for long cellaring.
Since that was written, the market for rosé wines has grown substantially. It is hard to find a producer without one in the portfolio. On its own, Rotberger rosé could be a bit simple. The blending done here counters that.
It could also be that the blending was driven by the need to make more rosé than is possible just from the Gray Monk Rotberger block. Some years ago, the winery needed to expand the parking lot in front of its tasting room. Several rows of Rotberger were sacrificed to make room for cars.
George Heiss Jr. stepped aside as winemaker several years ago when the winery was acquired by Andrew Peller Ltd. in 2017. Jen Oishi, the current winemaker, was born and raised in the Okanagan. After completing a degree in microbiology from the University of British Columbia, Jen joined the Gray Monk team in 2011.
She was mentored as winemaker by Roger Wong, Gray Monk’s other long-time winemaker and now one of the owners of Intrigue Winery in Lake Country. Jen became assistant winemaker at Gray Monk in 2015 and succeeded Roger in 2020.
Here is a note on the wine.
Gray Monk Rosé 2020 ($17.99). This is a blend of 36% Cabernet Franc, 29% Merlot, 13% Rotberger, 9% Gamay Noir, 8% Pinot Noir and 5% Pinot Meunier. The grapes were given five to 15 hours of skin contact to develop a delicate rose petal hue. The juice was fermented cool in stainless steel for 21 days. There are aromas of strawberry and apple, which are echoed on the palate, along with a note of watermelon. A touch of residual sweetness adds a little flesh to the texture. The balance still leans toward dry and refreshing, with a lingering, fruity finish. 90.