Friday, December 30, 2022

Frind's red wines show a tasty house style

Photo: Winery principal Markus Frind (courtesy of winery)
Frind Estate Winery’s five red wines from 2021 display an intriguing house style. The flavours are rich and bold while the tannins are long and ripe. These youthful wines are ready to drink now but have the structure to cellar for five or more years. The winemaking technique may have slightly homogenized the varietal definition. In a blind tasting it might be hard to tell the difference between, say, the Merlot and the Cabernet Franc. Purists might grumble but the wines are so delicious that the wines will be consumed anyway. Lacking inside knowledge on how the house style has been achieved, I turned to the winery’s website. Frind prides itself at being one of the more technologically advanced wineries in the Okanagan, reflecting owner Markus Frind’s extensive technological background.
He has given his winemakers some of the most sophisticated tools for dealing with grapes. Here is a quote describing the winery’s automated fermentation tanks: “Apart from being at the forefront of winemaking technology, these tanks are unique because they are custom designed for Frind Estate Winery and for the wines we are aiming to produce. At Frind we make many smaller select batches of wines, separating vineyards and varietals. This is our point of difference; at some larger, more commercial wineries, it is more economical to blend all their Merlot in one big tank and produce just one batch, whereas we are looking to pinpoint the nuances of flavour components provided by our different vineyards sites and varietals to make our very best wine. At Frind, we want to know which soils our Cabernet Sauvignon clones are thriving in or which Pinot Noir clone prefers a gentle breeze during summer. This is why we have invested heavily into small batch winemaking with the purpose of unravelling and discovering all the flavour profiles our grapes and vineyards are capable of.”
With the exception of Midnight, which was aged nine months in French and American oak, the reds were all aged 10 months in French and American oak barrels. The fruit is from Okanagan and Similkameen vineyards, except for Cabernet Franc, which was sourced just in the Okanagan. Here are notes on the wines.
Frind Midnight 2021 ($27.99). The wine is made with estate-grown Maréchal Foch grapes – and because has such a strong personality, there is no confusing the varietal here. That personality, however, is nicely in check. This is a wine with aromas of dark cherry and spice and flavours of plum. 90.
Frind Premier Merlot 2021 ($34.99). This wine begins with aromas of dark cherries and plum. Rich in texture, the wine has abundant flavours of cherry, blackberry and chocolate. 92.
Frind Premier Cabernet Franc 2021 ($36.99). Here is another rich and deeply flavoured wine. It begins with aromas of spice, blackberry, dark cherry, all of which is echoed on the palate. Once again, the finish lingers. 92.
Frind Premier Cabernet Sauvignon 2021 ($39.99). This intense wine will benefit from being decanted. It begins with aromas of black currant and dark chocolate. These are echoed on the palate, along with a hint of black licorice on the persistent finish. 92.
Frind Premier Syrah 2021 ($43.99). Dark in colour, this wine begins with aromas of dark fruits mingled with black pepper. On the palate, there are layers and layers of flavour: dark cherry, blueberry, blackberry and plum with a hint of spice and pepper on the lingering finish. 92.

Friday, December 23, 2022

Blue Mountain's bubbles sparkle

Photo: Blue Mountain winemaker Matt Mavety
Recently, I discovered an article on the internet recounting the history of Champagne. One fact was new to me: The Champagne region once was far better known for wool production. The wines were considered mediocre. The wool merchants gave away wines casually to their customers. However, the quality of the wines was improved by the Benedictine monks. Eventually, the demand for Champagne outstripped the demand for wool. If there are any sheep in the vineyards today, they are there for weed control, not for their wool.
I may be stretching it a bit, but there is a parallel in the Okanagan’s dramatic expansion in sparkling wine production in recent years. Before wine was being produced here, the valley was better known for apples and other tree fruits. And before there were orchards, this was ranch country. Today, there are no ranches and not many orchards in the Okanagan. This is some of the world’s best wine country.
For reasons of terroir as well as reputation, the Champagne region’s wine production is limited largely to sparkling wines. The Okanagan Valley’s unique terroir enables it to grow all the major varietals and wine styles of the world in a valley that is 110 miles long. I had an essay on the history of Okanagan sparkling wine in my 1996 book, The British Columbia Wine Companion. Because it has been out of print for some time, here is an excerpt:
The first premium quality British Columbia sparkling wine made by the classical method was Sumac Ridge's Stellar's Jay Cuvée, of which the first vintage was 1987. Subsequently, Summerhill Estate Winery has entered the market with its Cipes Brut.
The current generation of sparkling wines in British Columbia emerged from trials conducted, starting in 1983, by Gary Strachan when he was at the Summerland Research Station. Soon after arriving there from Ontario in 1977, he noticed the wineries all complained that British Columbia grapes were excessively acidic. "Why don't we exploit that and make sparkling wines?" he asked himself. The finest sparkling wines are made from grapes that are slightly more acidic than grapes used in table wines. The acidity, which softens as the wines develop in the bottle, is essential if the wines are to retain their fresh, clean flavors through the prolonged production cycle and during further aging in the consumer's cellar. Ironically, the excessive acidity of grapes of which the wineries complained was caused chiefly by poor growing techniques (typically, over-cropping) which vineyardists since have learned to correct.
Sumac Ridge's Harry McWatters was the first producer to cooperate with Strachan's research project, which was funded by a grant from the National Research Council. To a degree, Strachan and McWatters were re-inventing the wheel. After all, Dom Perignon, who died in France in 1715, generally is credited with figuring out how to retain bubbles in wine. However, the French, understandably, have had a long tradition to keeping to themselves the technical nuances of making champagne. "There were lots of books about champagne but they didn't give you the technical background in how to make it," Strachan found. Winemaker Harold Bates, who had acquired sparkling wine experience with T.G. Bright & Co. in Niagara Falls, helped the inexperienced Strachan in the first year of the Summerland trials. In the second year, technical assistance was provided by Eric von Krosigk, a Vernon native who was just completing winemaking studies in Germany that included apprenticeship with a sparkling wine producer. (Subsequently, Bates joined Sumac Ridge and von Krosigk made several vintages of Cipes Brut.) After several trial lots of sparkling wine had been made, Sumac Ridge committed to commercial quantities of sparkling wine, with the first major release being made July 1991, on the winery's tenth anniversary. The flagship, blended from pinot blanc, pinot noir and chardonnay, is Stellar's Jay Cuvee, named for the raucous blue-feathered creature that is British Columbia's provincial bird.
Cipes Brut has a more complex history. In 1989 Summerhill's Stephen Cipes and Kenn Visser, who was then managing Inkameep Vineyards, invited Jack Davies, owner of California's prestigious Schramsberg Champagne Cellars, to consider investing in a sparkling wine facility in British Columbia. "Jack opened our eyes," Cipes said, recalling the enthusiasm that Davies and his winemaker displayed for the potential of the Okanagan. Strachan secured another research grant and a number of cuvees were produced from grapes grown primarily in the Summerhill vineyard. Davies decided not to get involved but Cipes proceeded on his own, enlisting von Krosigk as the winemaker. The Summerhill vineyard is extensively planted to riesling and this grape, widely used for sparkling wines in Germany, became the basis for Cipes Brut. Subsequently, von Krosigk and his successor at Summerhill, Alan Marks, also produced sparkling wines based on pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier, the traditional varieties of Champagne. Okanagan Falls grapegrower Ian Mavety had participated in the Schramsberg trial. When Schramsberg withdrew in 1991, Mavety launched Blue Mountain winery, with half of its production committed to sparkling wine.
Blue Mountain Vineyard & Cellars, to use the winery’s full name, tapped the expertise of a French-trained consultant skilled in making sparkling wines. Today, the wines are made by Ian’s son, Matt, who has developed a very sure hand with the style. Blue Mountain consistently is arguably the best sparkling wine producer in the Okanagan. Its four current releases include three sophisticated wines that, in the tradition of Champagne, were aged on the lees as long as seven and a half years. Here are notes on the wines.
Blue Mountain Gold Label Brut 2019 ($27.90). This is 65% Pinot Noir, 35% Chardonnay. The wine was on the lees two years. While there is a touch of brioche in the aroma and on the palate, the flavours are also fruity, with notes of lemon. The finish is crisp. 92.
Blue Mountain Brut Rosé 2018 R.D. ($40). This is 70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay. The wine was on the lees for 30 months. It presents festively in the glass, with a bronze pink hue and an active mousse. Raspberry mingles with brioche on the nose and palate of this delicious wine. 94.
Blue Mountain Blanc de Blancs 2013 R.D. ($50). This is 100% Chardonnay. The wine was on the lees for 7 ½ years, giving it a toasty note on the nose. It is surprisingly, and deliciously, fruity on the palate. With an active mousse, this is a very elegant wine. 94.
Blue Mountain Reserve Brut 2013 R.D. ($50). This is 55% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Noir. The wine was also on the lees for 7 ½ years, acquiring notes of brioche on the nose and palate. This is a cerebral wine, with elusive fruit on the palate and with a crisp finish. 94.

Monday, December 19, 2022

Painted Rock's fine 2020 reds

Photo: Painted Rock's John Skinner
The notes for these wines include a comment on every vintage made by Painted Rock Estate Winery since the first in 2007. Arguably, the 2020 vintage is the best yet, prompting generous scores for the wines. “Our winemaker, Gabriel Reis, and winemaking consultant Alain Sutre both described the vintage as fantastic,” the winery writes. That was due “to the smaller berry size and particularly low yields, leading to ripe, beautifully balanced wines.”
The winery’s total production in 2020 was 4,950 cases compared to 4,560 in 2019, 5,370 in 2018, 5,590 in 2017 and 7,400 in 2016, which was the winery’s biggest harvest to date. The winery describes the 2020 vintage this way: “It started out not unusually with slightly delayed budbreak due to a cool spring, followed by a mild and wet June leading to exponential growth in the vineyard and a lush canopy. Temperatures and rainfall evened out to averages in July and we were seeing great fruit development. Harvest arrived on time and started [September 28] with those beautiful golden clusters of Chardonnay.”
There are not yet comments on either the 2021 or 2022 vintages. The 2021 vintage was good for wineries not affected by smoke; Painted Rock likely was safe. It may be early to comment on 2022 – but some winemakers have begun to report that the long, long autumn delivered very good quality fruit. That should be the case with Painted Rock. Proprietor John Skinner chose an excellent vineyard site. As the winery recounts: “It took four years of searching and detailed analysis for John to find the vineyard that would one day be the estate vineyard. The remarkable 56-acre west-facing bench is surrounded by an amphitheatre of rock and overlooks Skaha Lake. It was once home to the largest apricot orchard in the British Commonwealth. Now, 27 acres are covered with 55,000 plants sourced and propagated from a Bordeaux nursery. The bench is composed of layers of glacial silt, clay, sand and volcanic deposits with underlying gravels.” Here are notes on the current releases.
Painted Rock Chardonnay 2021 ($44.99 and sold out). The specifications no longer are on the website. However, the rich, buttery aromas and flavours suggest the wine was fermented and aged in good French oak – which still does not overwhelm the lovely fruit. There are layers of flavour – peach, apricot, ripe apple. The finish persists. 92.
Painted Rock Rosé 2021 ($32.99 and sold out). This is a blend of 45% Merlot, 22% Malbec, 18% Petit Verdot, 14% Syrah and 1% Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine is made primarily by the saignée method. The dark rose petal hue is spot on: the wine in the glass looks appealing. The aromas are rich with notes of strawberry. The flavours are savoury with notes of strawberry and red currant. Fresh acidity assures that this wine will age better than most rosé wines. 91.
Painted Rock Cabernet Franc 2020 ($54.99 for 315 cases). This wine was on the skins for 25 days and then barrel-aged 18 months in French oak (30% new). Dark in colour, the wine begins with aromas of spice and chocolate, leading to flavours of plum, cherry, blackberry, spice and leather. The texture is concentrated, with ripe, grippy tannins on the finish. Decant this wine. 92.
Painted Rock Malbec 2020 ($59.99 for 315 cases). The fruit was aged 18 months in French oak (30% new). Dark in colour, the wine begins with the allusive fruit and floral aromas of the variety – cherry, blackberry mingled with mocha. The flavours are delicious: think of Black Forest cake! 93.
Painted Rock Cabernet Sauvignon 2020 ($59.99 and sold out). This wine fermented 25 days on the skins and then was aged 18 months in French oak (30% new). Dark in colour, the wine begins with aromas of cassis, blueberries and herbs which is echoed on the palate. Long ripe tannins give the wine a polished, elegant finish that lingers. 93.
Painted Rock Merlot 2020 ($49.99). The grapes are from four individual blocks in the vineyard. They were harvested individually, cold-soaked on the skins for four days and then fermented in tank on the skins for another 21 days. The wine was aged 18 months in French oak (30% new). The wine begins with aromas of cherry, blueberry and chocolate, leading to flavours of black currant, cherry and spice. The finish persists. 93.
Painted Rock Syrah 2020 ($49.99). This is a powerful wine and a textbook Okanagan Syrah with classic black and white pepper notes. The wine was aged 18 months in oak (30% new). The new oak was 80% French, 20% American. The remaining oak was second-fill French. The aromas jump from the glass: plum, dark fruits, pepper. The luscious palate delivers flavours of blackberry, plum and black cherry. The finish is persistent. 94.
Painted Rock Syrah Cabernet Sauvignon 2020 ($49.99 for 245 cases). This is a blend of 76% Syrah and 24% Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines were fermented and aged separately in French oak (30% new), to be blended just before bottling. This is another powerful red, with the aromas of dark fruits and pepper and the rich dark fruit flavours defined by the Syrah. The Cabernet Sauvignon contributes fresh fruit and bright acidity to this harmonious blend. 93.
Painted Rock Red Icon 2020 ($79.99). This wine, which is also available in magnums and doble magnums, is a blend of 39% Merlot, 31% Cabernet Franc, 14% Petit Verdot, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon and 4% Malbec. The various batches were aged 18 months in French oak (30% new) prior to blending. This is a cerebral wine beginning with aromas of spice, black cherry and black currant. On the palate, there are layers of dark fruits – black cherry, blackberry, plum and blueberry – mingled with spice and notes of chocolate. The tannins are firm but ripe. Decant for immediate consumption or lay it down for a decade or so. 95.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Phantom Creek joins the bubble parade

Photo: Winemaker Mark Beringer (photo courtesy Phantom Creek)
The latest Okanagan winery to release sparkling wines is Phantom Creek Estate Winery, with a pair of premium cuvées from the 2017 vintage. Since the winery, owned by businessman Richter Bai, only began making wine in 2016, it is clear that sparkling wine was part of the strategy almost at the start. This is not a producer that jumped onto the bubble parade just because Prosecco has expanded the market for sparkling wines. Mr. Bai has always aimed at the top end of the market. These two wines compete favourably with Champagne. Here are the winery’s notes on these two wines. I have tasted the wines and agree totally with the descriptors.
2017 Sparkling Brut Reserve Méthode Traditionnelle ($80) 93% Chardonnay 7% Pinot Noir This Chardonnay-dominant Brut Reserve shows delicate, elegant fruit, led by lemon and crisp green apple lifted by orchard blossoms and acacia. There’s added richness and complexity from aging in neutral barriques for 11 months prior to blending, along with toasty brioche notes from an additional 47 months in the méthode traditionnelle. That patience gives this wine its soft, creamy mousse, leading to a precise, richly textured palate that combines an evocative chalky minerality with impeccable purity of fruit. My score: 92.
2017 Sparkling Brut Méthode Traditionnelle ($70) 64% Chardonnay 36% Pinot Noir This poised Brut seamlessly blends the lively finesse of Chardonnay with the depth of Pinot Noir. The nose shows bright and expressive fruit, with ripe lemon and golden apple, along with toasted hazelnut and subtle, harmonious sweet spices. The wine is framed by rich brioche notes, benefiting from extended aging on its lees for 47 months, leading to a fine, persistent mousse. It’s exceptionally balanced in a classic Brut style, with a verve and tension that carries the long, chalky finish. My score: 93.
I was able to taste some of Phantom Creek’s table wine portfolio during a visit to the winery in July. There were no wines that scored less than 92; most scored higher. I awarded 100 points to a 2016 Phantom Creek Cuvée. I was not surprised that the wine showed so well. In December 2016, I was at a luncheon hosted by Mr. Bai. He brought along, from his personal cellar, a leading classified growth red from Bordeaux. Anne Vawter, a Napa consultant who was Phantom Creek’s launch winemaker, brought samples of several reds she that fall in the Okanagan. I preferred her young wines to the prestige wine from Bordeaux.
Consistently high quality wines have been produced vintage after vintage at Phantom Creek, even though there has been rather a lot of turnover of winemakers. Anne Vawter was in charge of the 2016 vintage. Ross Wise MW joined Phantom Creek just as the 2016 reds were being made. He was there until moving to Black Hills Estate Winery early in 2019. He was succeeded by Francis Hutt, a New Zealand winemaker. After Frances returned to New Zealand, he was succeeded in 2021 by Mark Beringer. Added to the bench strength is white winemaker Karin Grosstessner-Hain, who has been with the winery since the inaugural vintage. She is supported by a renowned winemaking team, Philippe Melka (a red wine consultant) and Olivier Humbrecht MW, a white wine specialist from Alsace.
With Mark Beringer, the winery has returned to the California influence in the cellar. He is the great-great-grandson of Jacob Beringer, one of the founders of the Napa Valley’s Beringer Vineyards. After receiving an Enology degree from California State University in Fresno, Mark spent a year in the cellars at Benziger Family Winery in Sonoma before joining Duckhorn Vineyards as an enologist in 1992, where he worked his way up to Vice President of Winemaking. In 2009, Mark joined Artesa as Vice President and Winemaker. In 2015, he returned to Beringer Vineyards as chief winemaker.
How Mr. Bai lured him away from the family winery is not known. But judging for the quotes attributed to Mark, he was clearly persuaded by the Okanagan. “The Okanagan Valley really excites me as it shows so much potential and there is an incredible opportunity to help this region achieve global recognition,” he said in a winery news release in July, 2021. “Phantom Creek Estates has invested significantly in acquiring some of the region’s most acclaimed and historic vineyards, technology, architecture and talent, so I believe that the winery will be the premier property in the region, if not Canada, and that’s a goal I’m inspired to be a part of.” He will find that the competition is stiff. However, he has already found that Mr. Bai has equipped the winery with the tools, including exceptional vineyards, that will enable Mark to make wines ranking well against other Okanagan wines, to say nothing of Napa wines.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

How Blue Grouse is becoming a Cowichan Valley powerhouse

Photo: Paul Brunner and wife Cristina Plenge
I was in for a big surprise when I dipped into the website of Blue Grouse Estate Winery, which I have not visited in several years. This is no longer the sleepy winery I remember from the 1990s. When Paul Brunner acquired the winery in 2012, the vineyard totalled just 8 ½ acres and the winery was a functional plain-jane building. The first thing Paul did was have a new winery built in 2015, transforming Blue Grouse into one of the destination wineries in the Cowichan Valley. The architecture is quite stunning, with a roof line inspired by the back of a grouse.
I attended the grand opening and got to chat with Hans Kiltz, the German veterinarian who had opened Blue Grouse in 1992, making the wine in the basement of the Kiltz family home. Hans thought that the gorgeous new winery was a little over the top. I wonder what he would say today. Paul Brunner, a mining engineer who clearly is better financed than Hans ever was, is on quite a roll. An additional 6 ½ acres of vineyard was planted in 2017, followed by 20 acres in 2020 and 2021. It will all have been certified organic by next year. Once that is done, Paul intends to develop another 35-acre vineyard by 2024. The grand total under vine will be 70 acres, with a big emphasis on Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. Bailey Williamson, the winemaker the Brunner family lured from the Okanagan shortly after buying the winery, will have the fruit needed to ramp up production. Then, we may see more Blue Grouse wines in markets other than Vancouver Island.
Blue Grouse has been on quite a journey from its beginning. The first vines were planted in this vineyard between 1986 and 1988 by John Harper, a viticulturist who had moved there when his Fraser Valley vineyard was taken over by developers. John planned to develop a winery in the Cowichan Valley but his financial backers failed to raise the money. After Hans Kiltz took over the vineyard in 1990, Harper moved to a nearby property and began developing a vineyard that now, under the ownership of John Kelly, is Glenterra Vineyards. John Harper died in 2001. He would be totally astonished if he could see that his expectations have been more than exceeded by Paul Brunner. Here are notes on three current releases from Blue Grouse.
Blue Grouse Quill Chardonnay 2021 ($25.90 for 240 cases). The wine, made with Cowichan Valley fruit, was fermented for four weeks in neutral oak barrels. After completing malolactic fermentation, the wine was aged in French oak for eight months. The wine begins with aromas of vanilla, butter and apple. The flavours are bright with notes of citrus. The texture recalls Chablis. This is the winery’s first Chardonnay with Cowichan fruit. 89.
Blue Grouse Pinot Gris 2021 ($27.99 for 320 cases). This wine is made with estate-grown grapes. The vines are up to 35 years old. The fruit was divided into two lots. Some 40% of the juice was fermented cool in neutral French oak and spent a total of eight months in oak. The other 60% was fermented for 20 days in stainless steel and remained on the lees for a total of seven months before being blended with the barrel portion. The result is a complex wine which begins with butterscotch aromas mingled with stone fruit, all of which is echoed on the palate. The finish is persistent. 90.
Blue Grouse Pinot Noir 2020 ($45.99 for 225 cases). The wine is made from estate-grown grapes. The vines were planted between 1992 and 1994 and the clone is unknown. Slow fermentation began in an amphora and finished in the amphora along with new 500-liter French oak puncheons and neutral French oak barrels. The medium-bodied wine begins with a lovely aroma of spice and dark cherry which is echoed on the palate. 90.