As is generally known, Blue Mountain Vineyard & Cellars did not bottle its 2021 vintage after smoke from nearby forest fires saturated the vineyard.
Fortunately for the many Blue Mountain fans, the winery is still releasing wines from earlier vintages; and will likely harvest a very solid vintage from 2022.
Current releases from Blue Mountain include a sparkling wine and three Chardonnays, including two exceptional wines from single blocks in the vineyard.
Blue Mountain, despite having 30-year-old vines, began releasing single block wines only three years ago. The debut wines were three Pinot Noirs from the 2017 vintage.
“With the single vineyard bottlings, we are trying to put in bottle a wine that expresses the site itself, not the hand of the winemaking,” winemaker Matt Mavety told me in 2019. “We have been working over the last 10 vintages to remove some of our input or our stamp on the wines, to allow more of the site to show through. Not that at any time we were heavy handed but there was room for refinement.”
“The refinements in winemaking have allowed the personalities of the vineyards to become very expressive,” Matt continued. “Before, when our extraction levels were a bit higher, they started to hide, or muddle, the nuances in the wine. That becomes a very significant evolution in what has happened. It is not one that happened all of a sudden. It is something we have been working on since, I would say, the 2010 vintage, to try to pull back our activity during the fermentation.”
“As our understanding of the vineyards and the wines we are making from specific blocks emerged, we had three blocks [of Pinot Noir] we could isolate as three unique personalities,” Matt added. “We definitely have differences in the soils here. One of the blocks in particular is different, based on the soil. But quite often, we find the topography is what is giving us a significant difference in the sites.”
Those comments apply equally to the two Chardonnays just released. The wines are seductive and charming, but quite different in flavour and personality. Hats off to Matt and his family for working so hard to identify the Grand Cru plots in their vineyard.
Here are notes on those two wines along with two other recent releases.
Blue Mountain Gold Label Brut 2018 ($28). The wine is 62% Pinot Noir and 38% Chardonnay, aged on the lees for 24 months before being disgorged. A hint of brioche mingles with the aromas and flavours of apple and citrus. The bubbles give the wine a creamy impact on the palate. The finish is long. This is a classic Champagne-style sparkling wine of remarkable elegance at an affordable price. 93.
Blue Mountain Estate Cuvée Chardonnay 2020 ($30). The grapes in this wine are vines 14 to 31 years old. The fruit is hand-harvested and fermented with native yeasts. The wines are fermented and aged 18 months in French oak, both new and up to three years old. The wine is also allowed to undergo malolactic fermentation. It is an elegant wine, beginning with aromas of apple and peach that carry through to the palate. There also are buttery and spicy notes on the long finish. 92.
Blue Mountain Blossom Slope Block 17 Chardonnay 2019 ($50). The fruit for this wine is from 29-year-old vines (clones 76, 95 and 96), hand-picked and fermented with native yeast. The wine was fermented and aged for 18 months in French oak (new to three years old) and allowed to go through malolactic fermentation. The wine begins with floral aromas mingled with citrus. On the palate, there are flavours of stone fruits and apples, with a delicate minerality threading through the wine. It is a polished and elegant Chardonnay. 95.
Blue Mountain Alluvium Reflection Block 32 Chardonnay 2019 ($50). The fruit is from 30-year-old vines (clones 76 and 96). The grapes were hand-picked and fermented with native yeast. The wine was fermented and aged for 18 months in French oak (new to three years old) and allowed to go through malolactic fermentation. The wine has an earthy intensity, with aromas of spice and oranges. The texture is full, with flavours slightly reminiscent of baked apples. 95.
Photo: JoieFarm winery on Naramata Road (courtesy of JoieFarm)
This month JoieFarm Winery of Naramata trumpeted that it had won to gold medals for the second consecutive year at the International Canned Wine Competition in Mendocino.
A canned wine competition? Who knew?
In fact, I should have known. This is one of the hottest wine packages in recent years. Wineries all over the world have begun to can wines. The Mendocino competition attracted entries from 20 countries.
The competition was launched in 2019 by Allan Green, who has run the Mendocino County Fair Wine Competition for 40 years. He would have noticed that an increasing number of producers were putting wines in cans.
British Columbia wineries are relatively recent entrants to this category. Bench 1775 Winery, as an example, has just launched two wines in cans: a sparkling Pinot Noir and a canned version of Chill, the winery’s white blend. “With the technology improving over the years,” the winery says, “canned wine is really taking off at BC wineries and we wanted to be at the forefront of this industry trend.” Okanagan Crush Pad Winery has just launched two, a sparkling wine and a rose, under its Bizou+Yukon label (named for two vineyard guard dogs). Meadow Vista Honey Wine has just released Stinger, a sparkling peach-flavoured mead in a can.
Perhaps wineries were discouraged from canning BC wines because, so far, they are not permitted to put VQA on the package even if the wines inside qualify for VQA when sold in bottles.
One of JoieFarm’s gold medals was for a can of 2021 Noble Blend. This has always been one of the winery’s flagship whites, qualifying easily for VQA when packaged in glass. JoieFarm also won gold for a sparkling wine called Tiny Bubbles. Both wines also won gold medals at last year’s Canned Wine competition. As well, JoieFarm Rosé was best in show last year. In total, JoieFarm now offers five wines in cans.
“A few years back, we saw that there was a perception of wine in a can that we felt needed to be overhauled,” winemaker Karl Duda said in a statement. “The format of canned wine is a natural and perfect fit for the lifestyle of so many Canadians, with the ability to take them with you on any outdoor adventure and with the sustainable nature of the packaging format. We decided to be leaders in this category by producing the same high-quality wine in cans as we do for our bottles.”
Richard Charnock, JoieFarm’s co-winemaker and vineyard manager, observed that wines under screw cap closures are widely preferred but once also were regarded as inferior.
In fact, the VQA symbol once was not allowed on BC wines with screw cap closures. The story may be apocryphal but the B.C. Wine Institute, which then administered VQA, is reported to have dropped the prohibition at the insistence of Mission Hill Family Estate. The winery had just landed an order with Tesco, the British retailer, which insisted on screw cap closures. Mission Hill threatened to leave the wine institute of the ban stayed in place.
Canned wines owe a debt to the burgeoning number of craft breweries whose need for canning facilities created the infrastructure for this packaging technology.
Currently, most of the wines are canned by Vessel Packaging Co., a Vancouver company with national operations. The company was formed in 2013, purchasing a mobile canning line from the U.S. to package craft beer. After the business grew beyond the wildest expectations of founder Matt Leslie, the company was taken over early in 2022 by TricorBraun, a U.S. packaging giant. Vessel still operates as standalone company with Leslie as chief executive.
“All our canning is done by Vessel,” says Jan Biega, sales and marketing manager at JoieFarm. “Most of it was done on-site here at the winery but Tiny Bubbles was done at Artus. They use a mobile line, so they can set up wherever. I think there are a couple other companies offering canning services but my understanding is the 250 ml format is a little trickier to work with and less common (given that breweries - the most common canning clients - use 335 ml or 500 ml). We’ve seen vast improvements in the efficiency year over year and this past canning run was a breeze. We really enjoy working with Vessel.”
Artus Bottling Ltd. is the leading contract bottler in the Okanagan, based in Penticton. President Norman Cole says the company is sourcing a permanent canning line. Until that is in place, Artus uses a contract canner to provide a service for which there is increasing demand.
Wineries offering canned wines in addition to Joie and Bench 1775 include Stag’s Hollow Winery, Mayhem Wines, Corcelettes, Castoro de Oro, Chaberton Estate Winery, Lake Breeze Winery, Kitsch Wines, and Seaside Pearl. 50th Parallel Winery has released three wines under its Glamour Farming label – a Gewürztraminer, a Pinot Gris and a Pinot Noir Rosé.
The pricing and distribution formats for canned wines are a work in progress. JoieFarm sells its cans in flats of 24 for $195 a flat. It has just released mixed flats of its award-winning wines.
50th Parallel sells four packs at $36 a pack ($40 for the rosé). Seaside Pearl Farmgate Winery sells its Daffodil Sparkling Wine in six packs for $41.65 or nine packs for $61.20. Lake Breeze’s The Spice Jar is $8.50 a can on the winery’s website. Corcelettes Estate Winery sells it Santé en Cannette sparkling wine for $7.50 a can.
“Our sparkling wine in a can has been even more popular than we expected,” says Jesce Baessler, Corcelettes’s sales and marketing manager. “We are flying through it, both in our wine shop and via retail stores. We actually don’t even sample it in our shop very often. Overall, we would call it a smash success and will be increasing production of our “Santé” next year.”
Angela Grant, a sales representative for Mayhem Wines, says the winery released a Merlot rosé in cans from the 2020 vintage but did not have enough wine in the 2021 vintage to make another. “If we have a good harvest this year, we are allocating two tons of rosé to cans,” she says.
The cans clearly fill a niche in the wine market. “It seems to be quite popular for more ‘activity’ oriented purchases, like golf, camping, boating, and beach visits in particular,” Jesce Baessler says.
“We have definitely noticed people who are active love the cans for camping, boating, golfing, picnicking, BBQing, beaching, etc.,” says Erica McIntosh, sales and marketing co-ordinator at Stag’s Hollow. “Plus, customers who are sustainability-focussed in their decision-making appreciate the cans. People who are looking to celebrate an anniversary or a special occasion are still looking for the bottles.”
“The cans have been a fascinating case study as far as both sales and marketing go,” JoieFarm’s Jan Biega says. “Our initial assumptions have been challenged in a number of ways. First off, there seems to be no clear demographic consensus - they appeal equally to very price-conscious customers (who prefer not to have to pay for an entire bottle) as well as those that buy them specifically to enjoy on their yachts or country clubs. Likewise with age and gender - it’s impossible to generalize.”
“Another surprising factor with the cans,” Jan adds, “has been the onboarding of new, unexpected wholesale accounts: bakeries, microbreweries, cafés, mobile caterers. It’s really opened up additional avenues beyond the traditional restaurant and retail channels. Heck, our cans will soon be served on-board BC Ferries!”
Here are notes on the JoieFarm wines.
JoieFarm Tiny Bubbles 2021: The blend is 58% Viognier and 42% Sauvignon Blanc. This is a bright, refreshing sparkling wine with enough spritz to dance on the palate. There are aromas of pineapple and lime and flavours of pear and guava. 90.
JoieFarm A Noble Blend 2021: This is an aromatic blend of Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Auxerrois, and Muscat. It has aromas of spice, melon, apple and citrus which are echoed on the palate. In bottle, this is the winery’s signature white blend. The canned version does not let that legacy down. 91.
JoieFarm Un-oaked Chardonnay 2021: This wine has muted aromas and flavours of apple and citrus. Soft acidity lets the wine down. Unoaked Chardonnay should be crisper. 87.
JoieFarm Picnique Rouge 2021: This is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Gamay. Dark in colour and juicy in texture, the wine begins with aromas of cherries and plums. There are plenty of berry flavours on the palate – cherry and blackberry – mingled with a touch of pepper. This eminently quaffable wine is best when lightly chilled. 90.
JoieFarm Rosé 2021: This dark hued rosé is also packed with aromas and flavours of cherry and plum. 90
When I am reviewing wines, I sometimes share some with a neighbour who, in turn, shares them with her walking club. If they particularly like a wine, they may head to the wine store to buy it.
My neighbour really enjoyed the Ti Amo sparkling wine but got a surprise when she went searching for it. It is not available in any wine stores except that at the Hester Creek winery. It is available on line and to members of Hester Creek’s wine club, which usually means buying a case. You might stumble across it in a few restaurants.
The same is true for the other Hester Creek wines reviewed here, except for The Judge, which can be found in fine wine stores in B.C. and Alberta.
Fortunately, my neighbour has a visit planned to the Okanagan. It will include a stop at the Hester Creek wine shop.
Hester Creek does not hold all of its wines so close to the chest. There are four Hester Creek wines, including a three-litre box of Pinot Gris, in Everything Wine. There are six in the BC liquor stores. I have reviewed most of them earlier in the year, giving them all favourable scores. Hester Creek is one of the most reliable wineries in the Okanagan.
The fact is that many wineries give priority to their wine club members, and Hester Creek is no exception. Wine clubs have been around for about 20 years but their ubiquity exploded during the pandemic. Many consumers now are sold having access to their favourite wines on a regular basis, delivered to the doorstep and often at a discount.
If you belong to Hester Creek’s Bench Club, here are some of the wines you might get.
Hester Creek Ti Amo 2021 Foundation Series ($21.99) This Charmat method sparkling wine is Hester Creek’s answer to Prosecco. It is made primarily with Pinot Gris, along with Gewürztraminer and Sémillon in the blend. The wine puts on a display of fine bubbles in the glass. The fruity aromas – think of lilac blossoms – jump from the glass. On the palate, there are flavours of pear and citrus mingled with a hint of brioche. The wine dances in the mouth, refreshing the palate. 91.
Hester Creek Old Vines Brut 2019 ($34.99). This elegant wine is made with fruit from mature blocks of Pinot Blanc. The grapes were picked by hand into bins that were only half full so that the weight of the bunches would not crush the fruit and cause some oxidation. While cluster pressing produced clean juice that was fermented cool for 24 days. The bottled base wine then aged 24 months on fine lees before being disgorged. The wine presents in the glass with fine bubbles. Brioche notes mingle with citrus and apple aromas. On the palate, there are flavours of pear and apple. The bubbles give this wine a creamy finish. 93.
Hester Creek Sémillon 2021 Storied Series ($21.99 for 400 cases). A long, cool 30-day ferment has accented the fresh aromas and flavours of lemon and apple around a spine of minerality. Bright acidity gives the wine a crisp and savoury finish. 91.
Hester Creek Viognier 2021 Storied Series ($21.99 for 350 cases). This wine was fermented in stainless steel for 25 days and then was aged another four months on fine lees. It begins with aromas of nectarine and apricot. On the richly textured palate, flavours of stone fruit mingle with honey and citrus. The finish goes on and on. This wine won double gold at the Cascadia International Wine Competition. The wine should be priced more highly. 92.
Hester Creek The Judge 2019 Origin Wines ($49.99). This is 41% Merlot, 31% Cabernet Franc and 28% Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine was aged 24 months in barrel (75% French, of which 30% was new, and 25% in American oak). The wine has aromas of blackberry, cassis, dark cherry and chocolate. The palate is full-bodied with brambly and spicy flavours, mingling cherry and chocolate. The finish is long. This is a powerful and expressive red with the structure to age another decade. 94.
When veteran Okanagan winemaker Graham Pierce joined Kitsch Winery in Kelowna in 2020, he was asked what his favourite winemaking grape was. Without hesitation, he replied: “Syrah.”
It was a surprising answer, given that he was taking over the cellar at winery making its reputation with Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. However, Trent and Ria Kitsch, the owners of the winery, gave him the green light. He found a three-acre Syrah block beside Osoyoos Lake and a fine 2020 Syrah joined the Kitsch portfolio this year.
I wonder if Graham was asked the same question this month when Prudence Mahrer recruited him for her Ruby Blues Winery. Perhaps it was unnecessary. The portfolio at Ruby Blues includes a $50 Reserve Syrah and two red blends incorporating Syrah. If Graham was looking for a Syrah house, he has certainly found one.
Judging from the different cellars in which Graham has worked during the past twenty years, he is one of the Okanagan’s most seasoned winemakers. Born in Vancouver in 1971, Pierce came into wine through an early career in food service. He came to the Okanagan in 1997 as the culinary director at Summerhill Pyramid Winery’s first restaurant.
When he developed his interest in wine, he joined Mt. Boucherie Estate Winery as an assistant to winemaker Dr. Alan Marks. Graham enrolled in winemaking courses at Okanagan University College and took over as Mt. Boucherie’s winemaker in 2003.
Five years later, he moved to Black Hills Estate Winery where, over the next 10 vintages, he got to work with Syrah and the other big reds grown in the Black Hills vineyard. The winery’s flagship Nota Bene, a Bordeaux blend usually anchored with Cabernet Sauvignon, was already an icon. Graham improved it significantly in the 2014 vintage by extending the wine’s barrel aging from 12 months to 16 months.
In 2018, he became the wine director at TIME Winery in Penticton. The opportunity to put a stamp on that portfolio evaporated when founder Harry McWatters died, leading to a change of ownership and a restructuring at that winery. Graham moved on to Kitsch, a small but fine winery in North Kelowna.
The move to Ruby Blues once more should give him a bigger canvas to work with. Ruby Blues is planning to add a tier of super-premium wines to what is already a solid portfolio.
The winery was opened in 2009 by Prudence Mahrer and her husband, Beat. Previously, they had operated the Red Rooster winery until selling it in 2005 to Andrew Peller Ltd. They had continued to farm several vineyards on the Naramata Bench. Ruby Blues was created after Prudence discovered she missed the wine business, and especially the interaction with customers.
“We are excited beyond belief to have Graham come on board as our winemaker,” Prudence said in a statement. “He understands and supports our stylistic direction of our wines and desire to remain a small, high-quality, hand-crafted winery. Even better, we are developing plans to enable Graham to produce some very high-end wines for us that we feel will become icons in the BC wine industry.”
“I feel an affinity to this style of wine and am attracted to the very innovative winemaking culture they have created here,” Graham is quoted in the statement.
As it happened, I tasted with Graham in June at Kitsch; and before that, I tasted with him at Black Hills and TIME. There is no doubt that Prudence has landed a talented winemaker.
Here are notes on the Kitsch wines.
Kitsch Pinot Gris 2021 ($25). The wine is crisp and refreshing, with flavours of pear and apple mingled with minerality. 90.
Kitsch Unoaked Chardonnay 2021 ($27). This wine was designed to convince consumers that they will like Chardonnay if there is no oak. The wine is crisp and focussed, with aromas and flavours of apple. 91.
Kitsch Block Party 2021 ($23). This is a blend of Riesling, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It has aromas and flavours of citrus and stone fruit, with a juicy, easy-to-drink texture. 91.
Kitsch Riesling 2020 ($29). This is now sold out and has been replaced by the 2021 vintage. There are aromas and flavours of lemon and lime, with a hint of petrol just developing. There is just enough residual sugar to give the wine a full texture. 92.
Kitsch Esther’s Block Riesling 2020 ($35). This single block Riesling was fermented in puncheons. That gave the wine a rich texture supporting flavours of citrus and stone fruit. The finish is exceptionally long and complex. 94.
Kitsch Pinot Noir 2020 ($43). The style is what wine writers sometimes call feminine – because the wine is so pretty. Cherry notes dance on the nose and the palate. 90
Kitsch 5 Barrel Pinot Noir 2019 ($50). Not made every year, this is a blend of Pinot Noir from the five best barrels in the cellar. The texture is concentrated with spice and dark cherry aromas and flavours. 92.
Kitsch Syrah 2020 ($45). This is a fine South Okanagan Syrah. Dark in colour, it is full-bodied with aromas and flavours of plum, fig and dark cherry. 93.
Photo: Winemaker Grant Stanley (courtesy SpearHead Winery)
SpearHead Winery’s winemaker, Grant Stanley, has released two small lot Chardonnays that beg to be tasted side by side. They are made with the same clone and the same technique but the vineyards are 44 km apart. The wines are a lesson in terroir.
If you taste them on different occasions, you might miss the comparison of terroirs but you will still be tasting Chardonnays of elegance and charm. Those in whom the “anything but Chardonnay” prejudice still resides are likely to be seduced by these wines.
One of the wines is from SpearHead’s Saddle Block Vineyard in East Kelowna. The other is from the Duncan Vineyard on the Naramata Bench.
The grapes were clone 95. The fruit was hand-harvested and whole bunch pressed. The wines were fermented and aged in French oak barrels (25% new) for 10 months. Grant allowed the wines to undergo partial malolactic fermentation in the spring. That means the wines still have fresh acidity. The wines are refreshing, and not like the fat, overly-oaked Chardonnays of old that turned people off.
Here are notes on the wines.
SpearHead Chardonnay 2020 Saddle Block Vineyard ($30 for 188 cases). The wine begins with lovely aromas of peach, apple and citrus. On the palate, flavours of peach mingle with citrus and a touch of hazelnut. There are long, luscious fruit flavours on the lingering finish. 92.
SpearHead Chardonnay 2020 Duncan Vineyard ($30 for 490 cases; 48 magnums are available). If anything, this Chardonnay is even more luscious. It begins with aromas of citrus and stone fruits. The flavours are a medley of lemon, mango and baked apple. Bright acidity accentuates the fruitiness. 92.