A recent conversation with several friends touched on touched on the old debate of whether Okanagan wines are too expensive.
There was some discussion of $25-$30 wines from California or Argentina being better value. Then one of the group said he recently had been very impressed with a $50 Burrowing Owl Meritage, a wine he thought worth the money. I would agree. I tasted the one reviewed here recently during a special family dinner. The wine drew a spontaneous comment of appreciation from one of the guests as well as from the host. It was the best wine we had had all evening.
From the start, Jim Wyse, who founded Burrowing Owl in 1997, priced the wines appropriate to what both he and his customers thought they were worth. The wines have never been cheap but they never have been out of line for the quality in the bottle.
But here is a tip: Burrowing Owl also has a brand called Calliope (the name of a hummingbird). The Calliope wines are value-priced. They are made in the same cellars as Burrowing Owl’s wines and by the same winemakers. The cost of making the wines is kept in check in various ways, ranging perhaps from somewhat higher yields on the vines dedicated to these wines to less time aging in expensive oak. The Calliope wines are readily available in wine stores, unlike the more limited distribution Burrowing Owl wines.
It is a fact of life that the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys have become expensive locales in which to grow wines; probably always were, given how limited the acreage is. Unlike Argentina or California’s Central Valley, there are no vast tracts of vineyards stretching to the far horizon.
But as the cost of viticulture has risen over the last decade or two, so has the quality of the wine. Most British Columbia consumers recognize they are drinking wines grown in an exceptional region and are prepared to pay for them, even is just for a special dinner.
Of course, you would not serve the Burrowing Owl Meritage with Tuesday’s leftovers, although it would certainly elevate the meal. Instead, you might open Trapiche Reserve Malbec from Argentina, at $15 a bottle. There is room for both.
Here are notes on the recent Burrowing Owl releases.
Calliope Figure 8 Red 2019 ($24). The blend is 73% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Franc, 7% each Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah and 1% Petit Verdot/Malbec. The varietals were blended after aging separately for nine months in barrels, two-thirds of which were French. The majority were neutral oak. The aromas and the brambly flavours are predominantly red berries. 89.
Burrowing Owl Merlot 2019 ($32). This wine was aged 16 months in a combination of new and used oak, of which 65% was French oak, 18% was Hungarian oak and 18% was American oak. This long aging rounded out the tannins in what is a textbook Merlot, rich and generous on the palate. It begins with aromas of spice and dark fruit mingled with vanilla. It delivers flavours of black cherry, blueberry and plum with spice and chocolate on the long finish. 92.
Burrowing Owl Syrah 2019 ($35). This wine was aged 16 months in a combination of barrels – about two thirds French and 30% new. The wine begins with aromas of plum, fig, toasted oak and pepper. The wine opens up to deliver flavours of dark fruit mingled with delicatessen meats and pepper, with mineral notes on the finish. Decanting is recommended. 91.
Burrowing Owl Cabernet Franc 2019 ($36). This wine was aged 15 months primarily in French oak; 28% of the barrels were new. A firm wine that benefits from being decanted, this begins with aromas of plum, blackberry and red currant. The wine is savoury, with flavours of red fruits mingled with leather, spice and dark chocolate. 92.
Burrowing Owl Meritage 2018 ($50). The blend is 37% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Merlot, 22% Cabernet Franc, 10% Petit Verdot and 3% Merlot. The varietals were aged separately in barrel (70% French) for 15 months, with the best barrels selected for this blend. Once the components were selected, the blend spent another 3 ½ months in barrel before being bottled. This is a superb wine, beginning with bold aromas of dark fruits mingled with spice. The bold character carries over to the rich, intense palate, with flavours of black cherry, cassis, vanilla and plum. 95.
The white wines from the 2020 vintage, most of which were released last year, clearly showed what an impressive vintage that was. Now, 2020 reds have begun to show up, confirming that it was a great year.
Mayhem Wines has just released comparable Cabernet/Merlot blends from 2019 and 2020. Both are drinking well but the 2020 is a standout.
What were those vintages like? It happens that LaStella Winery of Osoyoos has published an excellent review of Okanagan vintages from 2005 to 2020.
“We celebrate the fact that we make wine in a region where vintage variations play an important role,” the winery writes. “Atypical growing seasons are a nightmare for commercial wineries interested in making consistent but boring wines. For us, however, it defines our interest in wine. We look forward to seeing what Mother Nature gives us to work with each year. It is the effects of each vintage on the finished wine that urges us to start verticals of our favourite wines, then follow their evolution and discuss their merits at tastings with friends. Some vintages are all about grace, while others favour power and of course there are ones where they showcase that fine balance of grace and power.”
Here is how LaStella sums up the 2020 and 2019 vintages:
2020: Consistent. Low Yields, concentrated fruit. Red wines of power and structure, and white wines with extra richness and dimension. 1616 growing degree days (slightly above average, yet the heat all came after mid-June).
Until mid-June, 2020 was one of the, if not the single coolest conditions on record. After that though, it was average or slightly above average temperatures.
Flowering/fruit set time met rain and windy conditions which resulted in fewer bunches per vine and smaller more concentrated berries. Yields were 30-40% down than average!
August and September saw one or two small scattered fires for a day or two. Nothing major. Nice Indian summer of hot days and cold nights. Long picking window. Warm October. No real maladies to speak of at harvest time. Small harvest but clean and concentrated fruit. Generally speaking, all the wines can benefit from cellaring, which is rather great news since both 2018 and 2019 made for earlier drinking style wines.
2019: Variable. Thinner-skinned reds didn’t do as well. Red wines of lighter extracts for early-term drinkability. 1598 growing degree days (almost the same as 2017 and on par with the 10-year average, yet numbers are just that, numbers!) More on this below.
September rains put a damper on fruit concentration and retarded phenolic ripeness. Since the tannins were not perfectly ripe, we opted for a lighter extract as to not get bitterness and green notes. Yields were lower but don’t think this equated to more concentration, since the low yields came partially due to 1) Cold winter did some damage to the buds and naturally lowered yields, 2) mildew and some rot required lots of sorting. Lastly, with an abrupt finish to the season in early October, there was no chance of secondary fruit set to ripen and be used.
While LaStella was writing about its own wines, the comments lined up with my impression of Mayhem’s two Cabernet Merlots. If you can lay your hands on the two wines, be sure to compare them side by side. The fruit, like LaStella’s fruit, comes from the South Okanagan.
The Meyer Old Block Pinot Noir 2020, also reviewed here, reinforces my view that 2020 was a fine vintage.
Mayhem’s Fortified Gewürztraminer 2019 is another matter. Adding spirits to the wine has blurred the vintage character of this unusual wine. This is at least the second vintage of this wine – a wine that sometimes reminds me of White Port.
Meyer and Mayhem are related wineries. Mayhem is a collaboration between Terry Meyer Stone of Anarchist Mountain Vineyards and her brother, JAK Meyer of Meyer Family Vineyards, along with their spouses.
Here are notes on the wines.
Meyer Old Block Pinot Noir 2020 ($40.44 for 333 cases). This is for those consumers who like a generous Pinot Noir (which is most of us). The Old Block refers to a one-acre block of an unknown clone that was planted in 1994 on the winery’s McLean Creek Road Vineyard. The gently-destemmed fruit begins a cold soak in small open-top fermenters. Fermentation begins with indigenous yeast and is allowed to peak at 30◦C. The wine is aged in French oak (33% new) for 11 months. The wine has aromas and robust flavours of cherry, strawberry and spice. The texture is full and the flavours are concentrated. The finish persists. 92.
Meyer NV Méthode Traditionelle Extra Brut ($34.88 for 500 cases). The fruit for this wine was harvested in 2016 and 2017. The combined batches were aged 18 to 24 months. This base wine then was bottled for secondary fermentation in the summer of 2018 and left on the lees 28 months before being disgorged. No dosage was added. The blend is 80% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir. The wine has fine bubbles which give a creaminess to the texture. The aroma and flavour show the classic brioche notes imparted by the lees. Fruit flavours, while a bit mute, reflect apples and citrus. 89.
Mayhem Cabernet Merlot 2019 ($21.74 for 233 cases). This is a blend of 72% Merlot and 28% Cabernet Franc. The wine was aged 11 months in French oak (40% new). The wine begins with aromas of blueberry and spice, with slightly herbaceous note. On the palate, flavours of cherry, blueberry and red currant mingle with oak spice. 88.
Mayhem Cabernet Merlot 2020 ($N/A for 755 cases). By releasing this wine along with the 2019, Mayhem has inadvertently educated consumers to look for reds from 2020, clearly a superior vintage. The blend is 89% Merlot, 11% Cabernet Franc, aged 11 months in French oak. The aromas just jump from the glass, with notes of cassis, dark cherry and blueberry. That is echoed on the rich and satisfying palate, where the fruit mingles with spice, plum and chocolate. 91.
Mayhem Fortified Gewürztraminer 2019 ($31.30 for 83 cases of 500 ml bottles). The juice for this wine was fermented to 24 Brix to allow the aromatics to be expressed. It was then fortified to 18% alcohol with grape spirit and was aged for 23 months in neutral oak barrels. Six months of that aging was done outside in the Okanagan summer heat. The wine is lightly gold in colour and begins with aromas of tropical fruit and ripe pears. The palate delivers the spice and lychee flavours of the varietal. Even with raisin notes and the hint of alcohol on the long finish, the wine is remarkably fresh. I would pair this wine with full-flavoured cheese. 92.
One of the newest additions to Naramata Road is Chain Reaction Winery, which opens its tasting room this spring at 980 Naramata Road.
It is well worth a visit. The winery has debuted with excellent, award-winning wines made with the consulting oversight of the very able winemaker, Dwight Sick.
For more background, here is my profile from the Okanagan Wine Tour Guide, published in 2020.
Joel and Linda Chamaschuk, who own Chain Reaction, have come a long way in appreciating wine since they had a U-Brew make the wine for their wedding. “We didn’t know anything about wine,” Linda confesses. “We just knew if we liked it or if we didn’t.” Since 2017, when they bought a property on Naramata Road, Joel has taken the viticulture course at Okanagan College and worked in the cellar at Moraine Winery with Dwight Sick, the winemaker. Both have completed level two in the Wine & Spirits Education Trust program, a sommelier-oriented course that has enriched their wine knowledge enormously.
The decision to commit to a winery developed gradually as Joel and Linda pursued successful business careers. Joel, who was born in New Westminster in 1967, has a science degree from Simon Fraser University. He has, at various times, been a business consultant, an intellectual technology manager and a photographer. Linda, who was born in Powell River in 1968, has been a business analyst and manager of technology projects in both the private sector and the public sector.
Neither grew up in families with much interest in wine. Their interest began in 1992 when they started camping in the Okanagan each summer and began visiting wineries. “I could not imagine a better job than to be the guy behind the tasting bar,” Joel says. “Getting into the wine business has been in the back of our minds for decades. It always seemed a big dream because we did not have any formal training in that area.”
Sometimes the desire for a winery was just dormant. Joel would bring it up from time to time with friends, one who advised him to go to Similkameen Valley, whose potential for growing wine was then overshadowed by the Okanagan. Joel and Linda ended up on the Naramata Bench. They had become familiar its concentration of wineries through volunteering or competing in Penticton’s renowned IRONMAN Canada triathlon. Both are avid cyclists, a pursuit that inspired the name for their winery.
Beginning in 2018, they converted a former apple orchard to 1.6 hectares (four acres) of vines. “We moved here to be involved in the wine industry,” Joel says. “Even if apples were lucrative, we would have pulled them out.” The largest block is Pinot Noir, followed by Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc. Chain Reaction’s first modest vintage in 2019 was made with purchased Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris. “We are targeting between 2,000 and 3,000 cases at full production,” Linda says. “We hope to stay small and focus on quality, not to mention enjoying a great quality of life which is what brought us to the Okanagan.”
Here are notes on current wines.
Chain Reaction Carpe Diem Gewürztraminer 2019 ($23 for 152 cases). The fruit for this wine was from a small organic vineyard in East Kelowna. The grapes were hand-harvested, lightly crushed by foot and cold-soaked. After a cool three-week fermentation, the wine was aged four months in stainless steel. The modest residual sugar is well-balanced. The wine is crisp and fresh with a hint of ginger in the aroma. That carries through to the palate, along with flavours of quince and lychee. 91.
Chain Reaction Tailwind Pinot Gris 2020 ($23 for 63 cases). A long, cool fermentation and four months on the lees in stainless steel has given this wine a refreshing fruitiness. This wine begins with spicy aromas of pear and apple. On the palate, the texture is full and delivers layered tropical fruit flavours -peach, mango and ripe pear. 92.
Chain Reaction Purple Bike Riesling 2019 ($23 for 124 cases). The fruit for this wine was sourced from a high-altitude vineyard at Peachland. The wine’s bracing acidity is nicely balanced with residual sugar. The wine has aromas and flavours of lemon. It has developed a hint of the petrol so classic with Riesling. The finish is dry. 91.
Chain Reaction True Colours Pinot Noir Rosé 2020 ($25 for 141 cases). Three hours of skin contact has given this wine an appealing rose hue. There are aromas and flavours of strawberry and red plum. The texture is juicy. 90
Chain Reaction Midnight Sparkling Wine 2019 ($25 for 107 cases). This is 70% Riesling, 30% Gewürztraminer. Both wines were fermented separately and aged on the lees for four months before being blended. The bubbles result from a CO2 injection. The wine is crisp and refreshing, with the residual sugar nicely balanced with acidity. There are aromas and flavours of apple and citrus with a hint of brioche. 91.
Chain Reaction Pendulum Pinot Noir 2020 ($30 for 196 cases). Fermentation of this wine was done with indigenous yeast, with care taken not to let the fermentation temperature to exceed 25◦C. It was aged in barrels (15% new). Aromas and flavours of cherry and ripe strawberry are accented with a hint of toasted oak. The flavours are generous and the silky tannins contribute to a lingering finish. 91.
Photo: Rust Winery takes its name from its steel siding
Syrah fans will have noticed that Rust Wine Co., south of Oliver, is establishing itself as a leading producer of this varietal.
Over the years, Syrah has become my favorite red varietal. I especially like those from the South Okanagan and the Similkameen. They are often full-bodied and peppery and just plain satisfying to drink. Of course, I like almost all other varietals as well. I would not be reviewing wines if I did not. But I have a soft spot for Syrah. Rust is doing a great job with the varietal.
Ryan de Witte, the winemaker, gets Syrah from four different terroirs – three in the Okanagan Valley and one in the Similkameen Valley. He expresses the characteristics of those terroirs with great skill. The soil types are sufficiently different to produce subtle but important differences among the wines.
The Lazy River Vineyard in the Similkameen has sandy clay loam with limestone and granitic rock. Just 10 km north of the U.S. border, it is a vineyard with, as Ryan’s notes say, “desert heat, prevailing wind and stony slopes. The South Rock Vineyard, which is next to the winery on the Golden Mile, is on a fluvial fan of gravelly clay and eroded mountain rock. The Ferreira Vineyard on the Black Sage Bench is volcanic ash mixed with fine granitic sand. The Lost Horn Vineyard in Okanagan Falls is clay loam with layers of gravel and small boulders.
Ryan had spent four vintages at Leaning Post Winery, a premium winery at Stoney Creek, ON, before joining Rust in 2019. On its website, Rust says that Ryan has a passion for single vineyard wines. He has been given plenty of opportunity for that at Rust, a small winery owned by the proprietor of the large Mt. Boucherie Estate Winery in West Kelowna.
Wine was not Ryan’s first career choice. He got a political science degree in 2006 from Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, ON, and then spent several years in Edmonton, working for Alberta Health Services. But in 2012, he enrolled in the Niagara College wine program and was on the president’s honour roll when he graduated in 2014.
He began accumulating winery experiences in Ontario as a practicum student at Featherstone Estate Winery in 2013 and Henry of Pelham in 2014. He spent three months in early 2015 as a cellar hand at Amisfield Wine Co. in New Zealand before returning to Ontario as assistant winemaker at Leaning Post.
Here are notes on the wines.
Rust Syrah 2019 South Rock Vineyard ($44). This is a vineyard, planted in 2002, on the Golden Mile Bench. The wine was aged 10 months in French oak (20% new). The wine has aromas and flavours of pepper and dark fruit. It benefits from decanting. The wine developed lovely aromas in the glass. Ryan says this wine has “the stuff to age” for the next decade. 92.
Rust Syrah 2019 Ferreira Vineyard ($44). The Ferreira Vineyard, also planted in 2002, is on the Black Sage Bench. The wine was aged 10 months in French oak (20% new). This wine has aromas and flavours of black cherry, plum and spice with a full-bodied texture. 92.
Rust Syrah 2019 Lazy River Vineyard ($44). This vineyard is near Cawston on the Similkameen Valley. The wine was aged 10 months in French oak (20% new). The wine begins with aromas of pepper, spice and plum. The palate is rich, with flavours of deli meats, black olives and figs, finishing with more pepper. 93.
Rust Syrah 2019 Lost Horn Vineyard ($44). This vineyard, planted in 2016, is near Okanagan Falls. The wine was aged 10 months in French oak (20% new). Aromas of sage and mint lead to flavours of black cherry and dark fruit. 91.
Along with most B.C. winery owners, Three Sisters Winery’s Matt Mikulic feared that the COVID 19 lockdown in March, 2020, would devastate sales. After all, restaurants were shut down and, even if liquor stores remained opened, people were discouraged from doing unnecessary shopping.
The consumer response was dramatically different.
“Our website sales went through the roof!” Matt remembers. “We always had had a trickle of website sales, but that changed everything. We had to develop proper shipping and packaging. We could not believe how well that went.”
Three Sisters, which made its first vintage in 2014 and opened a tasting room at the outskirts of Penticton in 2016, has just gone from strength to strength. The winery produced more than 10,000 cases in 2020 and nearly 13,000 cases in 2021.
That is a long way from the 800 cases Three Sisters in 2014. And that came about because Earlco Vineyards Ltd., the vineyard management company that spawned Three Sisters, had grapes left over that could not find a winery to buy them. As a qualified winemaker, Matt came to the rescue.
Earlco Vineyards was established in 2003 by John Lawrence, a chartered accountant who had moved from Calgary to retire to a 14-acre vineyard on the Naramata Bench. The company was named for his three daughters, Emily, Abigail and Rebecca. When his vineyard manager was approached by other vineyard owners to run their vineyards as well, John’s retirement hobby turned into a business. Today, Earlco manages about 400 acres of vineyard.
Matt joined Earlco early in 2013 when the company advertised for a viticulturist. Matt has a degree from Fresno State University and winemaking experience in both Australia and Europe (his father has a vineyard in Croatia).
“At Easter 2013, John invited me up to have a family dinner and that was the first time I met Rebecca,” Matt says. Rebecca has extensive experience in wine marketing. The couple hit it off and subsequently married.
When Matt and John decided to license a winery in 2014, they named it Three Sisters, both for the Lawrence sisters and for Matt’s three sisters.
John’s Naramata property was at the end of a narrow, winding road and was not a suitable tasting room location. But in 2016, they were able to buy the assets of the defunct Stable Door Winery whose vineyard fronted on Munson Avenue, the busy road linking Penticton to Naramata Road. The Three Sisters winery now has one of the most enviable locations on the Okanagan’s busiest wine touring route.
The growth of Three Sisters has been helped by its unique access to grapes from both the winery’s vineyards and from those managed by Earlco. Unlike 2014, grapes now are in short supply because of all the new wineries that have opened in the past decade.
“As a viticulture company, we get to plant a lot of vineyards,” Matt says. “We have the plots we really like and we have kept [for Three Sisters]. Of the, say, 400 acres of Earlco Vineyards-managed fruit, we have permanent leases. We have tied into 35, 40 acres of Earlco fruit plus the winery vineyard. The rest is open market to other wineries. Then if there are little plots of varietals we want, we scoop them up before we sell them to other wineries.”
The winery has as many as 20 wines in its portfolio, including the premium wines that Matt makes for the “Sisters” series. These are one-off tributes to his sisters and sisters-in-law. The current range includes a traditional method sparkling wine called Rebecca, after the winemaker’s wife.
Here are notes on some of the current selections. Some are sold out but you may have luck finding them in private wine shops.
Three Sisters Sauvignon Blanc 2020 ($19.90). The aromas mingle lime and herbal notes. On the palate, the wine is zesty and fresh with flavours of lime and grapefruit. 90.
Three Sisters Chardonnay 2019 ($22.90). This is a lean, fruit-forward Chardonnay beginning with aromas of apple. On the palate, there are flavours of apple and nectarine. The finish is crisp and dry. 89.
Three Sisters Gamay 2019 ($24.90). Matt builds his Gamay to dark and full-bodied, with a long cold maceration, a cool ferment and a year in neutral oak. This is a generous wine with aromas and flavours of cherry and plum with a touch of spice on the long finish. 92.
Three Sisters Syrah 2019 ($28.90). This is a medium-bodied wine, with pepper in the aroma. On the palate, dark fruit mingles with pepper. 89.
Three Sisters Rebecca 2019 ($45). This is a traditional method sparkling wine made with 90% Chardonnay and 10% Pinot Noir. The wine has aromas and flavours of apple and lemon, with a touch of brioche on the palate. The active mousse creates a creamy impression on the palate but the finish is crisp and refreshing. 91.
Three Sisters Cane Cut Riesling 2020 ($26.90 for 325 ml). This is a dessert wine that utilizes a technique Matt discovered in Australia. Late in the season, bunches of grapes are allowed to shrivel deliberately in the sun, with the canes cut so that the vines are not feeding the bunches. The object is to concentrate the sugar and the flavours in the grapes, much the same as botrytis does for Sauternes and freezing for Icewine. This wine, lightly gold in hue, has aromas of orange and ripe pineapple that are echoed on the palate. The residual sugar is nicely balanced so that the finish is pleasantly refreshing. 93.