Friday, April 26, 2024

Poplar Grove launches its first Pinot Noir

Photo: Poplar Grove's Tony Holler
The debut Pinot Noir that will be released by Poplar Grove Winery in late June is long overdue from this 30-year-old Penticton winery which built its stellar reputation around Bordeaux reds, Syrah, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris.
The Penticton winery has been run since 2008 by Summerland-born Tony Holler, his wife Barb and their four sons. Poplar Grove was founded initially by Ian Sutherland and produced its first vintage in 1996 from a Naramata Bench vineyard planted with Merlot and Cabernet Franc. That set the template for the varietal wines and blends the winery began to release. Tony Holler was a successful pharmaceutical entrepreneur when he moved from Vancouver back to the Okanagan, purchasing a lakefront property northeast of Penticton. A wine collector with a 5,000-bottle cellar, he was already a Poplar Grove customer. He retained Ian to look after the vineyard on the property he had bought and he jumped at the opportunity to buy the boutique Poplar Grove when it came onto the market.
“Because we did not know what we were doing, Barb and I decided to take a trip around the world and talk to wineries,” Tony admitted at a recent dinner where the Pinot Noir was launched. They were advised against keeping the winery at its boutique size. To be a sustainable business capable of handling hard knocks, it needed to produce 25,000 cases a year. Poplar Grove today has the capacity to produce much more and, consequently, the strength to deal with the vineyard devastation of the last two winters. At a time when a quarter of Okanagan’s wineries are for sale, Poplar Grove’s deep inventory of wines keeps it in business and supporting the ownership’s five families.
The impetus to add Pinot Noir to the Poplar Grove portfolio came from a New Zealand winemaker, Blair Walters of Felton Road Winery, a friend of the Hollers. He arranged to have Poplar Grove host a dinner seven years ago for Okanagan winemakers with experience in New Zealand. Blair expressed surprise that Poplar Grove was not making Pinot Noir.
“A lot of people assumed I did not like Pinot Noir,” Tony said. “But our winemaker, Stefan Arnason (left), had the attitude that we are making eight wines and we are doing a good job of it. Why would we risk making another wine and possibly not do as good a job. After some convincing, Stefan said, okay, if you find the right land, I am behind you.” In 2017, the Hollers purchased a 13-acre orchard at the south end of the Naramata with the right terroir for Pinot Noir. The Hudson Vineyard, as it is called, was planted in 2019 with six clones of Pinot Noir: 091 (or Pommard clone), 667, 777, 114, 115, and 828. The first harvest in 2021 was made entirely into rosé while the second harvest produced the debut Pinot Noir table wine. As well, there is also an 88-case reserve, Hudson Vineyard Pinot Noir 2022, which may see a limited release in the future.
Having put his skepticism aside, Stefan, Poplar Grove’s cellarhand and winemaker since 2008, convinced the Hollers to put a dedicated Pinot Noir production facility in a 3,000-square-foot corner of the winery’s warehouse. He recognized that Pinot Noir grapes needed to be handled differently from the other red varietals. And the project was given to Dan Marshall (right), Poplar Grove’s assistant winemaker, who developed a singular focus on Pinot Noir. In short, the Hollers have done everything right for the Pinot Noir project by dedicating a vineyard, a separate production area and a winemaker to it. As the vines mature, the Pinot Noir will only get better. The 2022 wine has already won gold medals in three international competitions.
While the severe freeze last January devastated many Okanagan vineyards, the Hollers are seeing their 140-acres of vineyards come to life this spring. There may not be much fruit at harvest but the Hollers will not need to do much replanting. In fact, Tony believes that no vineyard on the Naramata Bench will need replanting because the Okanagan Lake moderated the freezing temperatures last winter. As well, the Oliver vineyards did not suffer as much damage as vineyards elsewhere in the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys. By a lucky chance, Osoyoos Lake did not freeze over as usual last winter because the fall and earlywinter had been unusually mild until the January freeze. While the lake is shallow, it may have moderated the freeze a bit. In addition to launching the Pinot Noir, Poplar Grove has also begun releasing library wines, starting with Legacy 2014. This is the winery’s flagship Bordeaux blend, first made in the 2004 vintage. “When Barb and I bought the Poplar Grove winery, it was very tiny and we had no wine to put into a library,” Tony said. “We only made hundred of cases of each. But as we grew, we kept remembering an experience [in a Bordeaux chateau] where someone could come to the winery and taste older vintages. So, in 2012, we decided to set aside two palettes of all our red wines and have a 10-year release program.”
Legacy 2014 is a blend of 44% Cabernet Franc, 24% each of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon and 4% each of Malbec and Petit Verdot. The Legacy is eminently collectible. The 2014 is quite fresh, with appealing aromas of cassis giving way to layers of dark fruits. Properly stored, the wine will still be drinking well at its 20th birthday. Expect the library wines to be released to Poplar Grove’s wine club. Here are notes on the Pinot Noirs.
Poplar Grove Pinot Noir 2022 ($34.70). This wine incorporates six clones: 091 (or Pommard), 114, 115, 667, 777 and 828. The wine, which was aged in French oak (25% new), is elegant with a silky texture and a long finish. It begins with aromas of cherry and spice, leading to flavours of raspberry, cherry and plum. The feminine delicacy of the wine is typical of fruit from a young vineyard. 92. Poplar Grove Hudson Vineyard Pinot Noir 2022 (Not released). This is a blend of two clones (777 and 828) from the best barrels. The aromas and flavours of dark cherry, plum and spice are more intense, showing the potential of the vineyard to produce a great Pinot Noir. 94.

Friday, April 19, 2024

Pentâge dips into earlier vintages for latest releases

Photo: Paul Gardner and Julie Rennie
Pentâge Winery in Penticton has a record of making interesting wines because the owners, Julie Rennie and Paul Gardner, grow 19 varietals in their 35 acres of vineyards. That includes some varietals rarely seen in the Okanagan, including Tempranillo, a major red in Spanish vineyards.
“Spain is the kingdom of Tempranillo, a kingdom that extended to 206,988 ha (511,478 acres) in 2008, making it the country’s most widely planted red wine variety,” according to Wine Grapes, the great 2012 reference by Jancis Robinson and colleagues. The book has an extensive three-and-a-half-page entry on the grape. It noted that it has come to be planted around the wine-growing world, even including Texas. “The variety’s abilities to withstand hot summers and cold winters is appreciated here.” That line gives me some hope that Pentâge’s Tempranillo (and the other 18 varietals) survived the devastating January freeze. “Currently, the status of our vineyards remains uncertain,” Julie wrote in response to a recent query I sent to her. “We’re eagerly awaiting May/June to observe bud burst. While we’ve noticed some varietals bleeding, signaling positive signs [of vine life], we’re still assessing - not sure of health of the buds.”
Fans of Pentâge wines, and Okanagan wine in general, will be holding their breath for a few more weeks. Meanwhile, Pentâge is among the producers with a strong inventory from recent vintages. The current four releases sent to me included three from the excellent 2018 vintage. Here are notes on the wines.
Pentâge Viognier 2018 ($26.09). Fermentation on this wine began in stainless steel, with three-quarters then moved to a second-fill French oak barrique. The oak portion completed partial malolactic fermentation naturally in barrel. The result is an exquisitely-balanced wine, with aromas of apricot, pineapple and vanilla. The palate echoes the aromas with the addition of citrus notes. 92.
Pentâge Gamay 2022 ($22.61). Half of this wine was aged 13 months in French oak puncheons (second and third fill) and half was aged in stainless steel. The wine has aromas and flavours of cherry, plum and spice, with a delightful hint of pepper on the mid-palate. 92.
Pentâge Hiatus 2018 ($23.48). This is a blend of 43% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Petit Sirah, 15% Cabernet Franc, 15% Zinfandel and 5% Merlot. Each varietal was aged separately for 18 months in new and used French and American oak before being blended. This is a brooding wine with aromas of dark berries. Layers of flavour open as the wine breathes (I tasted this over several days). There are notes of plum, dark cherry, black currant. 91.
Pentâge Tempranillo 2018 ($29.56). This wine was fermented in four different batches with three different yeasts. It was then aged 18 months: half in neutral American oak and half in French oak (one-third new). This delicious wine begins with aromas of cherry, plum and spice. The palate delivers flavours of black cherry and black currant mingled with notes of strawberry. The finish is long and elegant. 93.

Monday, April 15, 2024

Spearhead is about to release two new Pinot Noirs

Photo: Grant Stanley in barrel cellar (photo courtesy Spearhead Winery)
East Kelowna’s Spearhead Winery is about to release two Pinot Noirs from the excellent 2022 vintage. Unfortunately, both are in small volumes (less than 200 cases). Consumers will need to move fast to get them. Like most East Kelowna producers, Spearhead has been struggling with winter damage in recent vintages. Not much wine was produced from the 15-acre estate vineyard in the 2023 vintage. The jury is still out on how severe the vine damage was in January this year and whether many buds even survived the deep cold. Keep your fingers crossed. When he has grapes to work with, Grant Stanley, the winery’s general manager and winemaker, can make very good wines.
The two coming releases include the first releases from a new vineyard, Braided Hill. “The Braided Hill vineyard is our neighbour, across the road,” Grant says. “It is a five-acre vineyard that we helped establish over the last three years. This is the first time we have had the opportunity to taste the juice in the wine. I am really happy the way things are working out over there. Working with new vineyards is always exciting because it is a new terroir and a new clonal mix. We have a great opportunity going forward to have our neighbours all around us with excellent Pinot Noir to choose from.”
The other new release is a single clone – the Pommard Clone – from a Summerland vineyard that Spearhead has worked with for some time. “For many years we have had this clone in our Summerland vineyard and we have been blending it,” Grant says. “This is the first opportunity we have had to show that clone on its own. It is a distinctly Burgundian-style wine – an iron fist in a velvet glove. It has beautiful aromas and textures, and is quite delicious.” He adds: The winter damages in “2023 and 2024 has caused us to go looking for new growers and vineyard sites that are a little less susceptible to frost and winter kill. We have new vineyards coming from Naramata. The Blueberry Hill vineyard from Summerland is in barrel now.”
Here are notes on the wines.
Spearhead Braided Hill Pinot Noir 2022 ($39 for 147 cases). This East Kelowna vineyard was only planted in 2000 with two Dijon clones, 771 and 115. This is the first wine released from it. The quality for a young wine is astounding. The wine was aged 13 months in French oak (25% new). Ruby in the glass, the wine begins with aromas of cherry mingled with oak. On the palate there are flavours of plum, cherry and spice. The texture is lush and silky. 92.
Spearhead Pommard Clone Pinot Noir 2022 ($46 for 185 cases). The fruit is from a Summerland vineyard. The wine was fermented with indigenous yeast and was aged 13 months in French oak barrels (25% new). This is a bold wine that should be cellared to allow it to fully express its aromas and flavours of dark cherry mingled with forest floor. The winemaker rightly calls it an iron fist in a silk glove. 92.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Ruffino: historic Chianti producer at Vancouver International Wine Festival

Photo: Ruffino brand ambassador Beppe d'Andrea
It would be hard to think of a Tuscan winery more strongly identified with Chianti than Ruffino. No doubt, that is one reason why it was among the large contingent of Italian wineries at the recent Vancouver International Wine Festival. Ruffino was represented by its veteran brand ambassador, Beppe d’Andrea. There is an extensive portfolio of 14 Ruffino wines in the BC Liquor stores; and elsewhere in this market. I would bet there is not an Italian restaurant in B.C. without at least one Ruffino wine in the list; and likely more than one. That reflects how long Ruffino has been a major exporter to this and other North American markets with quality wines at sensible prices. Ruffino was the first producer to export Chianti to the United States.
The winery was founded in 1877 by brothers Ilario and Leopoldo Ruffino. They soon established a reputation with gold medal winning Chianti wines. That resulted in Ruffino being named an official wine supplier to the Italian royal family. In turn, that led to the release in 1927 of what became its signature Chianti, branded as Riserva Ducale to acknowledge the patronage of the royal house. The winery was purchased in 1913 by the Folonari family. At the time, Ruffino probably was better known for Chiantis offered in traditional flasks wrapped in straw. I don’t know when that packaging was abandoned. I do remember buying it but I never used the empty flask as a candle holder. Many others did.
Beppe d’Andrea began his career at Ruffino in 1987 when the winery still was owned by the Folonaris. Beppe began working in the vineyards but soon moved to the cellars, first making white wines and then graduating to Chianti Classico and other red wines while also qualifying as a sommelier. His ability as a raconteur led to his appointment as Ruffino’s brand ambassador in 1995.
The Ruffino winery and its estates were acquired in 1999 by Constellation Brands, the big American wine and conglomerate. The Canadian market will recall that Constellation, on the way to becoming the world’s largest wine company, once also owned Vincor International and its brands here (Jackson-Triggs, Sumac Ridge, See Ya Later Ranch and others). In the last decade, Constellation’s Canadian wineries were repatriated by Alterra and are back under Canadian management.
Ruffino, however, remains under Constellation ownership. Beppe says that it is an arms-length relationship. “Constellation is the owner but we manage the company, not someone from Constellation,” he says. “The company is Italian. But it is important to be part of a big company. We talk to the other winemakers … how we can improve; what do they do in California or Oregon or New Zealand. We can share information on how to improve. This is why it is important to be part of a big brand.”
Chianti has changed profoundly since the days of the flasks in straw baskets. “A long time ago, Chianti Classico was always a blend, since 1700, when the regions was created,” Beppe says. “The rule then was that Chianti Classico was a blend of two red grapes, Sangiovese and Canaiolo, and two white grapes, Trebbiano and Malvasia. Then it changed again. In the 1990s, most of the producers including Ruffino, started to use some international varietals [Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot] in blends, giving the wines a different taste.” He continues: “Now, we are going back – not using white grapes but using indigenous red grapes. We are mostly using Sangiovese, Canaiolo Nero, Colorino, Malvasia Nera. We would like to more identify the wine with the place where we make it. The taste has changed a lot in the last several years.” In addition to avoiding French varietals, Ruffino also has stopped aging most of its red wines in French oak barriques. The wines are now aged in large casks, mostly neutral Slovenian oak, another reason why the fruit in today’s Chianti wines is more vibrant.
Ruffino began converting its vineyard to organic practices in 2006 and expects to be fully certified organic by 2025. The winery has switched its eight estates to solar power. “All company cars are electric,” Beppe says. “And we are pushing the company to move as fast as possible to electric tractors. We have to do everything possible to improve the quality of the life, not just the quality of the wine.”
Here are notes on some of the wines that Ruffino has in this market, either from my tastings at the festival or from the BCLDB website.
Ruffino Aqua di Venus Pinot Grigio 2022 ($26.99). The grapes for this wine are from a Ruffino estate in Friuli. This is one of the best Pinot Grigio wines I have tasted: refreshing with notes of lime, peach and citrus. 91.
Ruffino Chianti ($14.99). This is the successor to Chianti in the straw-clad flask. BCLD describes it thus: “Floral notes of violet on the nose lead to fruity flavours of plum, sweet cherry and a lightly spicy finish. Medium-bodied, this red shows fresh fruit on the finish.”
Ruffino Il Ducale Toscano 2018 ($21.99). The BCLDB describes it thus: “Dark ruby in colour, this wine is made predominately of Sangiovese, with a touch of Merlot and Syrah. The flavour is rich with aromas of dark plum, black cherry, spice and notes of cassis and chocolate. On the palate, it is well-balanced with pleasant acidity, fruit intensity and round tannins.”
Ruffino Chianti Classico Riserva Ducale 2017 ($27.99). The BCLD says this wine “opens to a lean raspberry or ruby color with bright aromas of tart cherry and wild plum. This is a recognized, well-traveled wine and a mini-ambassador for Chianti Classico around the world.”
Ruffino Modus 2020 ($34.99). This is a classic Super Tuscan wine: a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (aged in French oak), Merlot and Sangiovese. This is a big, bold wine, with lots of dark fruit flavours mingled with notes of oak. 92.
Ruffino Gran Selezione Riserva Ducale Oro 2019: $52.99. Gran Selezione is a classification created in 2014 that sits at the top of the Chianti Classico range. The wines must be made entirely from estate-grown grapes, with a minimum of 80% Sangiovese and an extra six months aging in cask. Various wine critics have scored this wine between 91 and 94 points. I was impressed by the concentrated flavours of dark fruits. The BCLDB says: "This shows notes of dried cherries and red plums with cured meat, dried sage and tree bark undertones. Medium- to full-bodied with plenty of structure. Ripe and velvety tannins with a fluid and polished mid-palate. Flavourful and intense." 92.
Ruffino Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Romitorio di Santedame 2015 ($70.99). The BCLD quotes a Wine Advocate review: "Showing a ripe and robust personality, the 2015 Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Romitorio is a wine of depth and dimension. The wine exhibits a polished and fine bouquet of aromas with wild cherry, red rose petal, spice and crushed rock at the front. It shows a dry, polished texture with plenty of fruit-driven endurance.”

Thursday, April 4, 2024

Quails' Gate Chasselas and friends

Photo: Quails' Gate president Tony Stewart (courtesy of Quails'Gate winery)
The best-selling white wine at Quails’ Gate Estate Winery usually is its blend of Chasselas/Pinot Blanc/Pinot Gris.
Chasselas is the major white varietal of Switzerland. Not much is planted in the Okanagan; the 6.4-acre block at the Quails’ Gate vineyard is there only because a vine nursery shipped the varietal in error when the vineyard was being developed in 1961. The Stewart family had ordered a labrusca varietal called Diamond. Several years later, after the vines were established, a visiting French grape expert identified them as Chasselas. The error was fortunate for the Stewarts. Diamond was then widely grown in Ontario, producing grapey and foxy wines that consumers were drinking because they did not know better. You would have difficulty selling it to today’s sophisticated consumers. Quails’ Gate’s Chasselas, on the other hand, has had a good following for the past 30 years. At one point, a Canadian regional airline even offered it in its in-flight service.
Some years ago, one of the Quails’ Gate winemakers had the bright idea to stretch the limited volume of Chasselas by blending it with Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. It is a good blend: Pinot Blanc adds structure while the Pinot Gris lifts the fruitiness. The volumes of the four wines discussed here have not been disclosed. The 2022 Chardonnay is from a year of better than average production. The 2023 vintage, on the other hand, was about half the average production due to winter damage and late 2022. It is anticipated this fall’s vintage was be far smaller because even more serious winter damage in January this year.
Joanna Schlosser, the winery’s marketing director, warns that Quails’ Gate wines likely will be in short supply for the next several years. “In January, our vineyards experienced winter's severity, a reminder of the delicate balance we navigate as farmers and how we manage climate change,” she writes. “The damage felt valley-wide will require extensive replanting and the full impact will not be known until the end of June. At Quails’ Gate, we're proactively addressing these challenges by planting new Pinot Noir and Chardonnay clones, enhancing both vineyard quality and wine craftsmanship. We're planting 80,000 vines across 40 acres this year, with similar plans for next year, focusing on areas affected by recent winters. These efforts will ensure our long-term vineyard production.”
The winery also is considering temporarily sourcing grapes and wines from other regions. I would take that to include California. Quails’ Gate president Tony Stewart and his family dipped a toe into California in 2011, first with a Napa joint venture and in 2012 with a major investment in Sonoma. The Stewart family purchased two historic Sonoma wineries, Lake Sonoma and Valley of the Moon, from F. Korbel & Bros. Four years later, the Stewarts bought a third Sonoma producer, primarily to get a production facility and tasting room for Lake Sonoma. The strategy has been to get those wines into Canadian markets. Currently, a Lake Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon is listed for $30 in 121 BC Liquor Stores while Everything Wine has five Lake Sonoma wines.
Meanwhile, Quails’ Gate has just released three wines from the 2023 vintage and one from the 2022 vintage. Here are notes on the wines.
Quails’ Gate Dry Riesling 2023 ($19.99). The grapes were cold in stainless steel. The wine shows great purity, with aromas and flavours of lime, lemon and orchard fruits. The touch of residual sugar is well balanced with bright acidity. This wine is easy to drink, especially at the price. 90.
Quails’ Gate Chasselas-Pinot Blanc-Pinot Gris 2023 ($21.99). This is a blend of 50% Chasselas, 30% Pinot Blanc and 20% Pinot Gris. The varietals were cold-fermented separately in stainless steel. This is likely the most popular wine from Quails’ Gate: a wine that manages to be juicy on the palate and refreshing on the finish. There are aromas of citrus and pear, leading to flavours of apple and peach. 90.
Quails’ Gate Chardonnay 2022 ($26.99). The fruit for this wine was whole-cluster pressed and fermented in a combination of stainless steel and neutral oak. The wine was aged nine months on the lees. The wine begins with aromas of butter and citrus, leading to a rich palate with flavours of mandarin orange and orchard fruits. 91
Quails’ Gate Rosé 2023 ($21.99). This rosé is a blend of Merlot, Pinot Noir and Gamay Noir. The colour is fashionably pale. Easy to drink and quite refreshing, the wine has aromas and flavours of watermelon, strawberry and raspberry. 90