Friday, February 23, 2024

Da Silva's Chenin Blanc and friends

Photo: Twylla and Richard Da Silva (photo credit Luke Whittall)
The 1988 pull-out of vines in the Okanagan was designed primarily to remove hybrid varietals such as Chelois, Maréchal Foch and Okanagan Riesling. But on one occasion, vinifera Chenin Blanc grapes also were pulled out. I wrote about the plight of Chenin Blanc in the Okanagan in my 1998 book, Chardonnay and Friends. The book, now out of print, had essays on 40 varietals being made into wine in the Okanagan. At the time, just four producers were making Chenin Blanc.
I wrote: “An ancient white variety important in the Loire, Chenin Blanc only has a precarious foothold in British Columbia. It got a reputation as a tender variety when a government test plot, based on vines imported from Washington State, was devastated by the deepfreeze winter of 1978-79. Former Oliver grower Terry Wells championed the variety, even after being denied crop insurance. His four- and one-half acres of Chenin Blanc were pulled out during the 1988 eradication of grape varieties, generally hybrids, no longer wanted by wineries. This unfortunate example of a good vinifera being pulled out occurred because no winery was prepared to contract his grapes at that time.”
Here is how the essay began: “Quite unfairly, this variety does not command much respect. ‘Chenin Blanc typically internationally is a cheap grape,’ says Mission Hill’s winemaker John Simes, who gets a small quantity of the grapes from Okanagan vineyards and imports additional tonnages from California and generally puts the variety into proprietary blends. ‘You can make wonderful, wonderful wine with the grape but you can grow ten to twelve ton to the acre in the Central Valley of California or in South Africa.’ As a result, many varietal Chenin Blancs on the market are simple jug wines. ‘Nothing wrong with it. Drink it as a Tuesday-night-with- sausages wine, which is all that it is intended to be. How can you make a $10 or $12 wine when there is that sort of wine sitting there? We’re not planting any Chenin Blanc.’ Now Mission Hill’s retired winemaker, John was speaking at a time when premium wines in British Columbia were selling at astonishing low prices.
Since then, just a handful of producers have embraced Chenin Blanc, if only in modest volume. In the 2022 crop year, some 119 tons of this varietal was produced, a mere quarter of one per cent of the total grape crop that year. The leading producers include Quails’ Gate Estate Winery, Road 13 Vineyards and, more recently, Da Silva Vineyards & Winery. Richard Da Silva has a small block in winery’s Hidden Hollow Vineyard in Penticton – small enough that the grapes for the 2023 Chenin Blanc were hand-harvested by the members of the winery’s wine club. Just 245 cases were made. In the more bounteous 2022 vintage, Da Silva released 344 cases of Chenin Blanc.
It remains to be seen how much damage the January freeze did to his Chenin Blanc. Judging from what other producers are saying, there might be few viable fruiting buds to yield grapes in 2024; but the vines will have survived, giving hope for vintages in 2025 and beyond. Any one attending the Vancouver International Wine Festival at the end of February should stop by the Da Silva table. Richard and his partner, Twylla, will be pouring the 2023 Chenin Blanc, along with the three other wines reviewed here. These are my notes:
Da Silva Chenin Blanc 2023 ($35.99 for 245 cases). The fruit was fermented and matured in stainless steel. The wine was structurally tight on release but opened up with breathing. This is a vibrant wine with aromas and flavours of lemon, lime and green apple. I recommend cellaring this wine for several years. 91.
Da Silva Chardonnay 2022 ($33.99 for 286 cases). This wine was made with fruit from two Penticton-area vineyards. The wine was fermented in stainless steel and aged six weeks on the lees in new French oak. The wine begins with aromas of vanilla and spice. It is crisp, with flavours of apple and pear. 91.
Da Silva Pinot Noir 2021 ($44.99 for 350 cases). The fruit is from two Penticton area vineyards. The wine was fermented in open-top fermenters and aged 24 months in French and Hungarian oak barrels. The wine appeals with aromas and flavours of bright fruit, notably cherry and cranberry. 91.
Da Silva Merlot 2020 ($37.99 for 227 cases). The fruit for this wine is from two Penticton area vineyards. The grapes were fermented in open-top fermenters and the wine was aged 20 months in barrel (50% French, 50% American). It is a medium t0 full-bodied wine, with aromas and flavours of dark cherry, black currant and plum, mingled with hints of spice on the finish. 92.

Monday, February 19, 2024

CheckMate begins releasing its 2021 Chardonnays

Photo: Winemaker Spencer Kelly
Winemaker Spencer Kelly had not yet joined CheckMate Artisanal Winery in the summer of 2021 when the grapes for these wines were developing on the vines. “But I got to experience the heat dome,” he says, referring to the record high temperatures in the Okanagan that summer. A native of Penticton then working in California, Spencer was vacationing in the Okanagan that summer. He joined CheckMate in the summer of 2022.
Now, he is presiding over the seven Chardonnays made by CheckMate in the 2021 vintage. The wines are quite remarkable, considering how challenging it must have been to grow quality fruit that summer. CheckMate’s vintage was saved by the very capable viticulture practised by the winery. As well, there were periods in the summer when high layers of smoke over the valley tempered the impact of the blistering sun. Finally, Chardonnay is a varietal that seems to handle the heat well. These seven wines are close to flawless (one is flawless in my judgement). There are no excessive alcohols. The acid levels are correct. The flavours are ripe but not overly so. And the structure of the wines will support aging them in bottle for at least five more years.
Consumers would expect nothing less. These are the most expensive Chardonnays in the Okanagan. But if you can afford it, treat yourself to a bottle or three. Or book a tasting this summer at the elegant CheckMate winery on the Golden Mile Bench. Here are my notes.
CheckMate Attack Chardonnay 2021 ($115 for two foudres). The fruit for this wine is drawn from four different vineyards in the south Okanagan with differing exposures. Fermentation was in one large oak cask, followed by 16 months aging in two French oak foudres (one new). A foudre is the equivalent in volume to eight barrels. The wine has significantly less oak exposure in these large vessels, resulting in a restrained, disciplined wine. It has aromas and flavours of stone fruits. 92.
CheckMate Fool’s Mate Chardonnay 2021 ($95 for 24 barrels, 1 foudre, 2 concrete eggs). Each concrete egg has 700 litres volume, the equivalent of three barrels. The fruit for this wine is drawn from five South Okanagan vineyards and is a blend of seven clones. Fifty-four percent of the wine was aged in French oak barriques (68% new); 25% in a foudre and 21% in a concrete egg. This is richly textured wine with aromas of citrus and flavours of stone fruits. The finish is persistent. 94.
CheckMate Capture Chardonnay 2021 ($95 for 17 barrels). The fruit for this wine is from the Border Vista Vineyard on the Osoyoos East Bench – the winery’s most sunbathed site. The wine was aged 16 months in French oak (47% new). This is an expressive wine with complex aromas of citrus. The palate delivers flavours of citrus, stone fruits and an intriguing hint of sea salt. 93.
CheckMate Queen’s Advantage Chardonnay 2021 ($95 for 17 barrels). The fruit for this wine is from what is now called the Combret Vineyard on the Golden Mile near the winery. The vines are believed to have been planted in 1973. The wine was aged 16 months in French oak (53% new). A charming and elegant wine, it begins with aromas of peach, melon and ginger. The rich flavours mingle exotic citrus fruits with a hint of wet stone on the long finish. 96.
CheckMate Knight’s Challenge Chardonnay 2021 ($95 for 11 barrels). The fruit – Dijon clones 76 and 95 - for this wine is from the Sunset Vineyard on the Black Sage Bench. Two-thirds of the wine was fermented with wild yeast. The wine was aged 16 months in French oak (64% new). The wine displays with a distinct golden hue in the glass and delivers aromas of butterscotch and peach. On the palate, there are flavours of apple, vanilla and spice with a long finish. 95.
CheckMate Queen Taken Chardonnay 2021 ($125 for 27 barrels). The fruit for this wine is from the legendary Dekleva Vineyard at the winery. This was where John Simes, the new retired Mission Hill winemaker, found the Chardonnay in the 1992 vintage to produce a medal winner for a London competition in 1994. That wine put both Mission Hill and the Okanagan on the map. The grapes are an unidentified clone now just called the Dekleva clone. The wine was fermented 50% with wild yeast and was aged 16 months in French oak (58% new). The wine begins with complex aromas of Asian pear, ginger and vanilla with flavours of stone fruits. The long savoury finish has a hint of sagebrush. The texture is firm, suggesting exceptional ageability. 98.
CheckMate Little Pawn Chardonnay 2021 ($110 for 31 barrels). The fruit for this distinguished wine is from the Jagged Rock Vineyard on the Black Sage Bench, which routinely seems to produce 100-point wines. There are two clones: Dijon 76 and Dekleva. The latter was reproduced with cuttings from the Dekleva vineyard. The wine was aged 16 months in French oak (61% new). It begins with aromas of lime and hints of tropical fruits, which are echoed on the palate, along with notes of lemon and hazelnut. The balance is seamless, producing an elegant and flawless wine. 100.

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Meyer's trio of premium 2022 wines

Photo: Meyer winemaker Chris Carson
The latest release from Meyer Family Vineyards at Okanagan Falls showcases three wines from the 2022 vintage, one of the best years in this century.
“The 2022 vintage was a classic Okanagan growing season with a typical spring budburst in early May and beautiful weather into June,” the winery’s notes say. “We had beautiful flowering from late June into early July, which resulted in good yields across the valley. July and August were consistent with previous years although slightly cooler, slowing the vines growth cycle. Leading up to harvest, the crop level was significantly higher compared to past vintages and needed more time to ripen. The weather was perfect for ripening with warm days and cool nights providing a lengthy hang time …”
The total wine grape production in British Columbia in 2022 boomed to 43,836 short tons compared with 31,470 short tons in 2021. It meant wineries made a lot of very good wine in 2022, which has now turned out to be something of a blessing. The severe cold in December, 2022, reduced production by 50% in the 2023 harvest while the even harder freeze in January this year has virtually eliminated the 2024 grape crop. Stock up on the 2022 vintage while the wines remain on the market.
Here are notes on three premium Meyer wines.
Meyer Micro Cuvée Chardonnay 2022 ($70 for 322 cases). The fruit for this wine is from the winery’s Old Main Road Vineyard on the Naramata Bench. The vines were planted in 1996. The gently-pressed juice had a long, cool ferment in stainless steel. The must then was transferred into French oak (50% new) and left 11 months on the lees. The wine selected for Micro Cuvée represents the best barrels. The result is an elegant wine beginning with aromas of lemon, mandarin orange, vanilla and honey. On the rich and fruity palate, there are flavours of peach, apple and orange. The finish is persistent. 93.
Meyer Micro Cuvée Pinot Noir 2022 ($70 for 350 cases). The fruit is from the winery’s McLean Creek Road Vineyard at Okanagan Falls. There are three blocks in the vineyard with differing aspects to create subtle differences in the flavour profiles of the grapes. This wine was made with 75% Pommard Clone 91 and 25% Dijon Clone 115. Winemaker Chris Carson selected three new 500-litre French oak puncheons and three one-year-old puncheons for the blend, aging the wine there for 11 months. This is a very attractive wine – silky on the palate, with aromas and flavours of strawberry and cherry. 93.
Meyer Old Block Pinot Noir 2022 ($55 for 517 cases). The fruit is from the McLean Creek Road Vineyard, where “old block” was planted in 1994. The fruit went into open-top fermenters where, after a cold soak, it was fermented with indigenous yeast. After a post-ferment maceration, the wine was transferred to French oak barrels (40% new) for 11 months of aging. The wine begins with aromas of cherry and vanilla. The palate is bold, with flavours of cherry, plum and spice, with a hint of forest floor on the finish. 91.

Friday, February 9, 2024

Township 7 bypasses Alberta government stores

Photo: Winemaker Mary McDermott
With the winery’s latest releases, Mary McDermott, the Township 7 Vineyards & Winery’s winemaker, provides glimpse of three recent Okanagan vintages. Two were great and one was quite challenging. If you are an Albertan who is a member of Township 7’s wine clubs, you will have an opportunity to buy these wines. But tough luck if you are an Albertan consumer without membership in the Township 7 wine clubs.
As has been widely reported, the Alberta Liquor, Gaming and Cannabis Commission told most B.C. wineries in January to stop shipping directly to their wine clubs in Alberta. Those that did not will no longer be able to list their wines with the AGLC and thus in Alberta liquor stores. We “have always strived to fulfill each customer’s request,” Township 7 said in a recent statement. “We have chosen not to sell wines to the AGLC and have ceased sending them our quality wines. It will be a loss for us, as we appreciate Alberta customers discovering our wines in retail stores.” It may not actually be that big a loss for Township 7. Over the last decade, the winery has deliberately developed its direct-to-consumer sales through its two wine clubs (one for still wines, one for its seven stars sparkling wines) and through its two winery stores and by online sales. Only a limited volume of Township 7 wine is allocated to liquor and wine stores, if only because those channels are less profitable.
But hats off to Township 7 for taking a firm stand against Alberta’s ridiculous assault on the British Columbia wine industry, which will deny many Alberta consumers access to some of the best recent Okanagan vintages. The strong vintages were 2020 and 2022, producing some of the finest Okanagan red wines of the last two decades. You should stock up on those wines while they are still available. There will be far fewer 2023 wines available and even fewer 2024s, given the severe vine damage in the past two winters. Many wineries likely will not have enough wine to ship to Alberta, even if the British Columbia government succeeds in having the surprise AGLC move reversed.
Other wineries also are struggling with the Alberta move. Consider the poignant comment from Rob Hammersley, co-owner of Black Market Wines in Kaleden. “We've spent almost a decade building a loyal following in our home province of Alberta through direct website and wine club sales,” he wrote recently. “Plus, we've spent years cultivating lasting relationships with independent wine shops and restaurants who showcase our wines and make them available for local purchase. To say this is frustrating would be putting it mildly! There are a number of initiatives at the industry and government levels attempting to resolve this situation, and we remain hopeful that logic and common sense will prevail. But in the meantime, we will continue to ship our wines directly to your door. To show how much we value our Alberta customers, we are offering FREE SHIPPING to Alberta until the end of February.”
In recent vintages, the difficult grape growing year in the Okanagan and the Similkameen was 2021. In her notes on the 2021 Chardonnay, Township 7’s Mary McDermott writes: “The 2021 vintage is considered one of the most challenging growing seasons we have seen in the British Columbia wine industry. The warm spring led to an extremely hot and dry summer. … The heat dome struck the province just as the berries set and bunches were swelling, shutting the growth down. This resulted in much lower crop levels, varying by location, from 10-50% down. The lower yields meant earlier ripening and we started harvesting Chardonnay for sparkling August 24th …. Overall, despite the difficulties from Mother Nature, the quality of the wine is great. We have maintained excellent acidity and balance within the wines. Yields were low but quality was certainly high.”
Here are notes on the wines.
Township 7 Chardonnay 2021 ($25.97 for 166 cases). Most of the fruit is from the Hidden Terrace vineyard near Oliver and the estate vineyard at Penticton. There is 11% Viognier in the blend, added to give roundness to the wine; it is also from the Fools’ Gold vineyard at Oliver. About a third of the wine was fermented in French barriques; the rest was fermented in stainless steel. The wine begins with aromas of apple and citrus which are echoed on the palate. In spite of what the winery says, I found the acidity a bit soft on the palate. The Chardonnay grapes had insufficient hang time to fully develop the usual rich palate. The winery did well to produce a Chardonnay as drinkable as this in a hot vintage. 89.
Township 7 Pinot Noir 2022 ($41.97 for 799 cases). The fruit for this wine, clones 115 and 667, is from the Remuda Vineyard near Okanagan Falls. A portion of the fruit was fermented in a concrete egg and a portion was fermented in stainless steel. The wine was aged 12 months in 500 litre French oak puncheons. The wine begins with aromas of cherry mingled with plum. On the palate, there are robust flavours of cherry and mocha, with long ripe tannins. I recommend cellaring this wine for several more years to let it fully develop its Burgundian personality. 90.
Township 7 NBO 2020 ($44.97 for 685 cases). The blend is 56% Cabernet Sauvignon and 44% Merlot, with the fruit from the winery’s Blue Terrace vineyard near Oliver. The wine was aged 24 months in French and American oak barrels. The 2020 vintage was strong and this structured red is a good example. It begins with aromas of cassis, dark cherry and spice. On the richly-textured palate, the wine delivers flavours of dark fruits mingled with spice and chocolate. 92.
Township 7 seven stars Rigel 2021 ($36.97 for 2,300 bottles). This wine is made with Riesling grapes from the Fool’s Gold vineyard near Oliver. The wine was en tirage for 12 months. This is a delicious and refreshing sparkling wine with aromas and flavours of lime. The active bubbles create a creamy mousse. 91.
Township 7 seven stars Polaris 2020 ($39.97 for 7,500 bottles). This is a Blanc de Blancs Brut made with Chardonnay fruit from the Hidden Terrace vineyard at Oliver and the estate vineyard at Penticton. The wine was en tirage for 21 months and bottle-aged for 12 months before release. This is a very elegant wine with a hint of brioche in the aroma and flavours of apple and citrus. The mousse is lively and full on the palate. 93.

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Rara Avis: Port-style wine from Haskap berries

Photo: Winemaker Tibor Erdélyi
Rara Avis means rare bird. It is a fitting name for a fortified wine from Haskap berries that was released in November by Echo Haskap Farm in Lumby, BC. It is the only fortified wine in BC from a “super berry” seldom used in wine. Echo Haskap Farm, operated by Margarita and Igor Valou, calls itself BC’s largest organic haskap farm, with 40 acres of that berry under cultivation. Most of the fruit goes into other products. However, they arranged to have Kalala Estate Organic Winery’s Serbian-born winemaker Tibor Erdélyi make 250 cases of a Port-style wine which, for licensing reasons, is sold through Kalala.
The Haskap berry is native to northern Japan, northern Asia and Siberia, where its healthful properties have been recognized for a long time. The berries are packed with antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. In the late 1990s, scientists at both Oregon State University and the University of Saskatchewan took an interest in bringing Haskap and its super-food properties to this continent. In 2002, the University of Saskatchewan, with plant material from Oregon, began the plant breeding program which has since produced the commercial varieties now grown in British Columbia and the Yukon by more than 50 growers.
Haskap.Ca, an industry association, says this about the berry: “Haskap is the Japanese name for Lonicera caerulea, also known as Edible Blue Honeysuckle and Honeyberry. Haskap is an ancient Japanese name of the Ainu people of Northern Japan for the fruit meaning “berry of long life and good vision”. The first introduction of the cultivated plant to Canada was at Beaver Lodge, AB in the 1950s. The fruit was bitter and not palatable. It has been found in the wild in every province in Canada except for British Columbia. The name “Haskap” was chosen as the brand name that has been applied to new varieties bred by the fruit program at the University of Saskatchewan.”
Haskap products typically include jams, chutneys and berry syrup. So far, only a few producers make wine from the berry. Monte Creek Winery near Kamloops planted Haskap a decade ago and has since released both a dessert wine and jam from the berry. Northern Lights Winery in Prince George also has a supply of Haskap berries and has made both a table wine and a compote from the berries. Echo Haskap Farm’s Rara Avis seems to be the only fortified wine from the berry. It has 18.5% alcohol, similar to Port, and was aged two years in American oak. Here is a note on the wine:
Rara Avis NV ($45 for 375 ml). The wine begins with aromas of blackberry and black currant mingle with caramel and toasted oak. Medium-bodied, the flavours mirror the aromas. There is a hint of spice on the finish. 90.

Thursday, February 1, 2024

Alberta strikes again

Photo: Grapes in Okanagan vineyard
Without warning, Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis has told British Columbia wineries that they should stop shipping wine directly to consumers in Alberta. Numerous wineries recently received this threatening letter from AGLC:
Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis (AGLC) recently conducted an investigation into suppliers/manufacturers providing DTC shipping of liquor products to Alberta residents in contravention of: • Section 3(1) of the federal Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act; • Sections 50 and 77 of Alberta’s Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis Act; and, • Section 89 of Alberta’s Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis Regulation. We are writing to advise that our investigation found tangible evidence of [your winery’s] involvement in DTC shipping of wines across provincial borders into Alberta. To maintain the integrity of Alberta’s liquor model and to protect the interests of Alberta retailers and liquor agents, AGLC will not accept any inbound shipments from [your winery] from this date forward. Shipments enroute to Alberta’s central warehouse prior to this notification will be accepted, and sell-through of current inventory will continue. Inbound shipments received after January 22, 2024, will be refused. There is an open and extensive opportunity for vintners to market their products to Albertans, and AGLC is supportive of continued distribution of your product through legal channels. We will resume acceptance of inbound shipments if, by way of written notice (via email to, [that your winery] agrees to immediately cease DTC shipping operations to Alberta.
AGLC oversees the legislative and regulatory aspects of the gaming, liquor and cannabis industries in Alberta. To help ensure integrity and a level playing field for industry, we engage with stakeholders to provide ongoing policy education and continually monitor compliance through random and covert investigations. Continued non-compliance by liquor suppliers/manufacturers may result in further action.
It is déjà vu all over again for British Columbia wineries. In early 2018, John Horgan, then the premier of British Columbia, threatened to restrict the movement of Alberta bitumen into British Columbia. Rachel Notley, then Alberta’s premier, responded by banning the import of British Columbia wine, including DTC shipments. The ban lasted two weeks before Horgan backed down. Since that time, a Supreme Court of Canada decision involving a New Brunswick consumer bringing in beer from Quebec confirmed that alcohol cannot move freely across provincial boundaries unless the provinces have specifically allowed it. Subsequently, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, British Columbia and Nova Scotia have opened their borders to direct-to-consumer shipments of alcohol. Manitoba allows shippers to remit relevant taxes to the province. There has been federal legislation initiated by a British Columbia member of Parliament which purports to eliminate provincial barriers to the movement of alcoholic products. As well intentioned as that is, the manufacture and sale of alcoholic products is a provincial responsibility.
It is hard to say what got the AGLC agitated. In a statement, Miles Prodan, chief executive of Wine Growers British Columbia, said: “While we are still unclear of the political motivation behind the recent AGLC letter, it is disheartening for our local growers and producers, who have already suffered great financial hardships over this past year. We are concerned of being targeted once again for political gain that has nothing to do with our industry.” “In Alberta, where it was once permitted to ‘import’ liquor from other Canadian provinces for personal consumption, the regulations were amended to make importation from other provinces subject to the policies of the Liquor Control Board,” the Wine Growers statement continues. “Currently, personal consumption is restricted to liquor that is also personally transported which eliminates shipping as an option. This prohibits Albertans, many of whom frequent BC as tourists, from joining wine clubs or ordering wine directly when visiting a winery outside of the province.” The legality of this is dubious. Prodan continues: “Currently AGLC jurisdiction is limited to regulating persons and activities within the province. The Alberta laws governing DTC Shipping are all designed to regulate consumer activities – their authority does not extend to BC manufacturers exporting wine into the province.”
The practicality of such a ban is even more dubious. At this time, British Columbia wineries do not have a lot of wine to ship. The 2023 vintage was half the expected quantity because of the extensive vine and bud damage last winter. The recent severe cold snap in the Okanagan means reduced production in the 2024 vintage, and beyond. British Columbia wineries will be disappointing many markets beyond the BC borders.
Even so, the AGLC position is an infuriating echo of Prohibition-era regulations from 100 years ago. Then, the object was to make it as inconvenient as possible to drink. Today, it for each province to squeeze every possible nickel of tax from alcohol. It has nothing to do with protecting retailers, as if they need protection. Wine Growers of British Columbia has retained a lawyer; and the Solicitor of British Columbia has said it is “actively engaging with the government of Alberta to address the issue …” I will drink to that.