Sunday, January 25, 2015

Class of 2015: Vanessa Vineyard

Photo: Vanessa Vineyard owners John Welson (l) and Suki Sekhon

Two premium 2012 red wines, a Syrah and a Meritage, to be released this spring constitute a very strong start for Vanessa Vineyard, the newest winery in the Similkameen Valley.

Vanessa is owned by two Vancouver businessmen: real estate developer Suki Sekhon and retired stock broker John Welson. The two were friends and partners in real estate projects before 2005, when they purchased property near Cawston for a vineyard and future winery.

“We kind of went into this initially, basically to build a vineyard, and then, as you get into it, the industry just pulls you along,” John told me the first time I interviewed him in 2006.

“John is the keener,” Suki told me at the time. “He has a real passion for wine. That is the love of his life.”

Suki was born in Vancouver in 1961, the son of immigrants from India. “We’re farmers from India,” Suki says. “Our history and our background go back hundreds of years in the farming community.”

He studied urban land economics at the University of British Columbia, followed by a marketing and real estate diploma in 1984 from the British Columbia Institute of Technology. Since 1999, he has been chief executive of CRS Group, a major developer, owner and manager of real estate projects.

When he started looking for vineyard property in the Okanagan and the Similkameen, he thought he could use the same business model that works in his development projects. The vineyard would be developed and leased to a major winery. Then he discovered that the large wineries – there are few really large producers in the Okanagan – were not prepared to commit until they knew what quality of grapes would come from the vineyard.

So he and John plunged ahead independently, purchasing a large block of raw land on a hillside above Highway 3, south of Cawston. It is almost diagonally across the highway from the Seven Stones Winery.

The soil, however, is different. Richard Cleave and Robert Goltz, who were hired to plant about 75 acres of grapes, had to bring in a rock crusher to pulverise the rocks. The rocks were so hard that the crusher wore out its first set of teeth. Planting in 2006 ran late; a portion of the vineyard died in the summer heat and had to be replanted.

Suki and John decided to plant just red varieties on the sun-bathed slope. “I must have had six or seven phone calls from people, asking me if I was crazy; was I sure what I was doing?” Suki says. He figured that if he needs white wines in his portfolio, he will find a cooler site. As it happens, Richard and Robert did plant two acres of Viognier, a heat-loving white that is useful for co-fermenting with Syrah.

The major blocks, up to 20 acres each, are Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Andrew Peller Ltd., owner of the nearby Rocky Ridge Vineyard, began buying Vanessa’s grapes about five years ago when the vines began producing.

“They have been great partners, customers and terrific people to deal with,” Suki says. That might be a bit of an understatement. Peller also owns Sandhill Winery and the winemaker there is Howard Soon, a 35-year veteran of the industry and a superstar in his own right. He has been allowed to make Vanessa’s debut vintages.

He also knows the vineyard well. He has also made several vintages of a Cabernet Merlot for Sandhill from Vanessa Vineyard grapes.

The initial production from the 2012 for Vanessa totalled 600 cases. Production from the 2013 vintage was 1,200 cases; from 2014, it was 3,000 cases.

“We’ll have to make a decision long term on production levels and on a winemaker,” says Suki, who is in the process of licensing a production facility on the Vanessa property.

So far, there are no plans for a tasting room in the immediate future. However, an ideal location at the top of the vineyard has been set aside for such a possibility down the road.

“They put a lookout at the top for me,” Suki told me as the vineyard was being planted. “It looks out at the whole Similkameen Valley. It is a phenomenal view. You can look 180 degrees over the whole valley.”

In the early history of settlement in the valley, there apparently was a stagecoach stop near the vineyard.  John recounts walking the property and asking Richard Cleave about its history.

“And Richard pulled out the old maps and right through the middle of the vineyard is a very old easement for the original stagecoach road that went from Princeton to Osoyoos,” John says.

For a time, the partners considered calling the winery Stagecoach Road or Old Stagecoach Road. In the end, they opted for Vanessa, the name of Suki’s charming eldest daughter. I’d say it’s a good call.

Here are notes on the wines.

Vanessa Vineyard Meritage 2012 ($36 for 440 cases). This is 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot and 23% Cabernet Franc. Each varietal was aged six months in barrel individually. Then the blend was assembled and aged another 12 months in French and American oak. Aromas of black cherry, vanilla and cassis explode from the glass. On the generously-textured palate, there is a core of sweet fruit – black currant, blackberry, fig – with notes of cedar and spice on the finish. The ripe, silky tannins give this wine a full body. 92.

Vanessa Vineyard Syrah 2012 ($39 for 186 cases). The Syrah grapes were co-fermented with six per cent Viognier. The wine was aged 18 months in French and American oak barrels (this was an eight-barrel wine and five of the barrels were new). This is a big, plush Syrah with black cherry and vanilla aromas that are echoed in the flavour, along with a touch of white pepper and chocolate. 91.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Bartier Brothers opening winery

 Photo: Bartier Brothers' Cerquiera Vineyard (courtesy Bartier Brothers)

After selling its wine for two years under the Okanagan Crush Pad license, Bartier Brothers Winery will open its own winery and tasting room next summer on Black Sage Road.

It is the culmination of a long journey for Michael Bartier who nurtured the ambition for his own winery not long after becoming a cellar rat at Hawthorne Mountain Vineyards in 1995.

The winery is a partnership with his older brother, Donald (left), an oil industry accountant and land manager in Calgary with a three-acre Gewurztraminer vineyard in Summerland.

“Don and I have just received possession of the Cerqueira Vineyard as of Jan. 1, and we'll be building a winery and visitor centre in the coming months,” Michael told me in a recent email. “The address is 4815 Ryegrass Road (formerly known as Road #9), Oliver.  We're right around the corner from Stoneboat, - great neighbours to have.  Our property has frontage on both Ryegrass Road and Black Sage Road, though I think we'll keep our access on Ryegrass.”

Coincidental with this move, Michael has now left Okanagan Crush Pad, where he had been the senior winemaker since 2010. New Zealander Matt Dumayne, who joined OCP two years ago, takes over there.

Michael (right) has had his eye on the 15-acre Cerqueira Vineyard for a long time. “I signed up the Cerqueira family to a long term contract when I was with Township 7 [from 2001 through 2003].  The contract wasn't renewed, so I was very happy to take on the contract myself.”

He and his brother negotiated an option to purchase it when Joe Cerqueira retired and they have now exercised that option. The vineyard, planted between 1999 and 2009, has four acres each of Merlot and Chardonnay, 2.4 acres of Cabernet Franc, 2.6 acres of Syrah and two acres of Sémillon.

“The site is very good,” Michael says. “At that latitude, Black Sage Road is the divider between the sandy soils (above the road) and the gravel bar (below the road).  The gravel bar, of course, is all young (10,000 year old) glacial till which is very calcium rich, amongst other minerals, - very typical Okanagan subsoils material.  A calcium carbonate crust - limestone - has formed on all the rocks in the subsoils as a result of rainwater washing it through the millennia, and then the calcium wicking back up towards the surface.  All of our rocks are crusted white and the small feeder roots from the vines are ‘hugging’ these rocks.  Every vintage, every batch from this vineyard, the wines are fresh, fruity, and minerally.  I don't care what the minerality naysayers say, that limestone ends up in every glass of our wine!”

That vineyard, along with his brother’s Gewürztraminer block, is allowing him to build a portfolio of about 10 wines. The flagship red is a Merlot-anchored blend called The Goal, made every vintage since 2009.

This spring, the winery is releasing a 2013 Cabernet Franc. “This is a special wine, and one that we will continue with over the long term,” Michael says. “The vines are finally mature enough that I'm happy with the complexity of the wines coming from this block.  There is a lot of limestone in this [Cerqueira] vineyard and the resulting intersection of fruit and minerality that shows in this wine is miraculous.”

He is also rather high on the Sémillon, which is surprising, considering his long and successful love affair with Chardonnay.

 “Notwithstanding the two wines I've discussed above, and the fact that it's only $20 per bottle, the Sémillon is, hands down, my favourite wine year after year,” Michael says.  “Again, in this wine, the fruit and minerality is astonishing, its age-ability is remarkable, and it is so refreshing. We plan to tie the branding of our winery very closely to this varietal.”

In one of my earlier books, I wrote about Michael’s affection for Chardonnay (he makes both unoaked and barrel-fermented Chardonnay at Bartier Brothers). The grape became one of his passions in 1998 when he did a vintage in Australia with the Thomas Hardy winery. “I was working with the best maker of white wine in the southern hemisphere,” he says, referring to a winemaker named Tom Newton. “He had a passion for Chardonnay and his excitement passed on to me.” After coming back to the Okanagan, Bartier made award-winning Chardonnay in several cellars.

The son of an accountant, Michael was born in Kelowna in 1967. He and his brother, who was born in 1968, grew up in Summerland. A lean mountaineer and passionate cyclist, Michael has a degree from the University of Victoria in recreational administration. However, on graduating in 1990, he took a job with a wine marketing agency. “I wasn’t interested in the recreational field,” he told me later. “By the time I realized that, I was too far along in my degree to stop those studies.”

The job with the wine agency provided the opportunity to visit wineries in France and in the United States. “It gave me the interest and the passion for wine,” Bartier recalled. One side of the business that did not appeal to him, however, was selling wine. “I am not a salesperson,” he admits.

He left the agency in 1995 to return to the Okanagan, intending to pick up his original interest in the outdoors. “My dream was to become a professional climbing guide. I came out to the Okanagan to boost my résumé on difficult climbing routes.” Those include the Skaha Bluffs just south of Penticton, one of the world’s more popular climbing venues. Ultimately, Michael decided this was definitely not for him. While he considered himself a capable ice climber and mountaineer, he concluded he was “a mediocre rock climber.”

While working on his climbing skills, Michael took a job as a cellar hand at Hawthorne Mountain Vineyards. By the end of a season, he had been promoted to assistant winemaker, leading him to abandon professional climbing. “I realized it was just too dangerous an occupation,” he says. “And I was having too much fun in the wine cellar.”

He applied himself to this new job with gusto, taking extension courses from various American winemaking schools to underpin his career with professional skills. By the time he left Hawthorne Mountain (now See Ya Later Ranch) after the 2001 vintage, he was crafting some of the Okanagan’s best Chardonnay wines.

“Like a lot of careers, I got into this quite by accident,” he says. “I feel really privileged. I was at the right place at the right time. I can’t see anyone now coming into the wine industry as wet behind the ears as I was, and rising so fast.”

After Hawthorne Mountain, he was consulting winemaker at Stag’s Hollow for the 2002 vintage. At the same time, he was developing Township 7 Okanagan’s property where, once again, he repeated his touch with Chardonnay. In the 2003 Canadian Wine Awards competition, Township 7’s 2002 Chardonnay was judged not only the best Chardonnay but the year’s best Canadian white wine. Two years earlier, the Hawthorne Mountain 2000 Gold Label Chardonnay had been the top Chardonnay in the same competition

He left Township 7 Okanagan in 2004 to join Road 13 and moved from there in 2010 to Okanagan Crush Pad.

While he and his brother get Bartier Brothers established, he will continue to consult with several other wineries. The current plan is to build Bartier Brothers to about 5,000 cases a year.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Mission Hill refreshes its reserve labels

Photo: Mission Hill's new Reserve label

There are times when the most meaningless word on a wine label is “reserve”.

However, there are wineries that endeavour to give real meaning to the word. One of them is Mission Hill Family Estate.

The winery recently released its reserve wines under refreshed labels that should make them stand out better on wine store shelves. At the same time, the winery provided the trade with some background on how it makes reserve wines so that they will stand apart in the portfolio.

Mission Hill has a large portfolio split into seven tiers. The Legacy wines, such as Oculus, are the top tier. Next is the Terroir Series, introduced last summer, and the Martin’s Lane wines (soon to be a separate winery for Pinot Noir and Riesling). Then there is Select Lot Collection for wines made from specific vineyard blocks, followed by Reserve. The two tiers below Reserve are Rootstock (the wines are sold just to restaurants) and Five Vineyards, the entry level wines.

Keeping this sorted out in the cellar at Mission Hill must be quite a challenge. However, John Simes, the winemaker, (right) has been at this for 23 years and clearly knows what he is doing.

He was recently interviewed for the British Columbia Wine Appreciation Society newsletter. When asked was his “favourite part of the job,” he replied: “Helping build the winery and the vineyards. It was a very small winery with no vineyards of its own when I joined. I’ve been able to be part of a team that has established Mission Hill Family Estate with some outstanding vineyards, an extremely well equipped cellar and some spectacular international-quality wines.”

The winery has five major vineyards, strategically located in diverse terroirs from Kelowna to Osoyoos, encompassing 30 different microclimates. Every mainstream varietal is growing in those vineyards. The reserve wines are all from estate vineyards.

When John is making the reserves, 75% of the same vineyards are used. That ensures consistent quality from vintage to vintage. And each wine includes 15% of the best grapes from those vineyards, so that the wines approach the ultra-premium quality that the reserve designation implies.

The new reserve labels are in a style the winery calls “modern classic.” They feature the original sketch that architect Tom Kundig did when he and owner Anthony von Mandl were redesigning the winery about 15 years ago. The bell tower is the focal point of the sketch and now of the labels.

Here are notes on the wines.

Mission Hill Reserve Riesling 2013 ($18.99). This wine begins with an appealing aroma of herbs and citrus, leading to flavours of lime and grapefruit. A touch residual sugar lifts the flavours and the texture, but the wine is balanced to finish almost dry. This is drinking well now but it will reward you with more complexity if you cellar it a few years. 91.

Mission Hill Reserve Chardonnay 2013 ($21.99). I would cellar this wine another six months because it still seems to be integrating the oak, which is sweet in the aroma and adds a suggestion of hazelnuts on the palate. There it mingles with flavours of citrus, apple and pineapple. 88-90.

Mission Hill Reserve Pinot Noir 2013 ($27.99). In the Wine Society interview, John was asked what accomplishments he was particularly proud of. “The emergence of Pinot Noir at an international quality level,” he replied. This wine is a case in point. It begins with aromas of cherries and raspberry, leading to vibrant flavours of cherry and spice with a classically silken texture. 90.

Mission Hill Reserve Merlot 2012 ($26.99). This wine, which has been aged 12 months in French and American oak, begins with aromas of black cherry and black currant. The texture is concentrated and still firm (it will age well). There are flavours of black currant, plums espresso and dark chocolate. 90.

Mission Hill Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ($26.99). This wine, aged 14 months in French and American oak, is still tight and will benefit with decanting or cellaring several more years. It begins with aromas of mint, black currant and cedar, leading to flavours of black currant, with a spine of minerality. There is a lingering hint of graphite, dark chocolate and coffee on the finish. 90-91.

Mission Hill Reserve Shiraz 2012 ($26.99). This wine also has been aged in French and American oak for 14 months. Dark in colour, the wine begins with aromas of spicy plum and blackberry. On the earthy and concentrated palate, there are generous flavours of blackberry and cherry with a hint of liquorice on the finish. 90.

Mission Hill Five Vineyards Cabernet Merlot 2012 ($16.99). Recently released, this wine is available in stores from British Columbia to Quebec. It is 37% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, 24% Cabernet Franc and 4% Petit Verdot. It has been aged 11 months in French and American oak. It is soft and easy-drinking, with aromas and flavours of cherry, vanilla and sage. 87.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

JoieFarm is aging its reserves one more year

Photo: JoieFarm's Michael Dinn and Heidi Noble

JoieFarm Winery’s red wine release last fall omitted the winery’s reserve wines, which are released under the designation, En Famille.

En Famille was launched last year with wines from the 2011 vintage. Besides signifying that the wines are of reserve quality, the designation also honours the entire family behind the wines. That is family in the broadest sense: it covers staff, relatives and, perhaps most importantly, “committed grape growers.”

In a covering letter with their three 2012 reds, JoieFarm owners Michael Dinn and Heidi Noble said that: “We have chosen to hold on to our 2012 ‘En Famille’ Reserve wines (and all subsequent vintages) for an extra year in bottle to ensure they are showing at their absolute best upon release.”

One awaits those wines with eager anticipation. JoieFarm entered the 2012 En Famille Pinot Noir in the Decanter World Wine Awards last fall – and got a gold medal. The regular Pinot Noir, reviewed here, won silver.

“Not only are we proud of these awards,” Michael and Heidi wrote, “but it gives us confidence to go forward with our Pinot Noir project knowing that our efforts and potential are being rewarded and noticed.”

Some other Okanagan wineries also give their reserve wines an extra year or so of bottle age. For example, Poplar Grove’s Legacy, a $50 Bordeaux red, has typically not been released until it is five years old. The winery is considering reducing that to four years, in part because a winery ties up a lot of capital when it warehouses wines for as long as five years. Surely, it is up to the customer to age the wines as well. And most Okanagan reds are drinking well by the time they are four years old.

Who benefits when a winery holds back its wines for a year longer?

Restaurants, for one. Most restaurant owners also don’t want to tie up capital in massive wine cellars. Many sommeliers don’t have the time, or won’t take it, to decant young wines during dinner service.

Apartment and condo dwellers also benefit. There is seldom adequate wine storage in 1,000 square feet. Unless they rent commercial storage, those consumers do not buy and hold. They buy for more or less immediate consumption.

JoieFarm’s decision should help it place its En Famille wines onto more restaurant wine lists and into the hands of cellar-challenged private consumers.

While you wait, here are notes on the ready to drink current releases.

JoieFarm Gamay 2012 ($24 for 490 cases). A medium-bodied wine with lively acidity (think Beaujolais), this is a wine with cherry aromas and flavours. The winery’s tasting notes also speak of “white pepper, coffee and bacon flavours” on the palate. I confess to missing those notes in what, at the end of the day, is a good cheerful drink. 88.

JoieFarm PTG 2012 ($24 for 650 cases). A tradition in Burgundy is to blend Gamay and Pinot Noir into wines called Passe-Tout-Grains. This is 50% of each varietal. However, the Pinot Noir is drawn from four different vineyards and at least three clones. In that way, the winery has built complexity into the wine. It begins with aromas of cherry and raspberry which are echoed on the palate. There is a fine core of berry flavours and a juicy texture. 90.

JoieFarm Pinot Noir 2012 ($24 for 900 cases). This is a beauty in the glass with its jewelled ruby colour. It has rich aromas of cherries and strawberries which echo in the bright flavours. The texture is firm and full. This is drinking well but won’t reach its peak for another two or three years. 90.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

40 Knots gets a flying start

Photo: 40 Knots owners Brenda Hetman-Craig and Layne Craig

Whether it was good business or a stroke of luck, Brenda Hetman-Craig and Layne Craig, her husband, bought 40 Knots Vineyard & Estate Winery last summer just as one of the best vintages ever was ripening in the Comox Valley.

“Our 2014 is going to be excellent,” Brenda told me by email last week. Matt Dumayne, their winemaker, “has used such words as ‘stellar’. The heat units for the 2014 vintage gave us some great brix numbers earlier than normal for the island, translating into great balance and very brilliant skins. Our farming practice is a focus on smaller batch, very high quality, so some of our bottle numbers will be smaller. We harvested 33 short tons this year.”

She added: “We are going to bottle the Siegerrebe varietal from our vineyard on its own. We are very excited as the aromas and flavours are remarkable.”

Judging from those comments and from the winery’s current releases, the new owners are off to a flying start. That is an intentional pun: Layne is a pilot, an occupation he juggles with managing the cellar at 40 Knots.

The winery was opened in 2011 by Bill Montgomery, a former towboat company owner who planted a sizeable vineyard near Comox in 2007 and 2008. The 18 acres include Auxerrois, Siegerrebe, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, and Gamay Noir.  He put the winery on the market a year after opening when he discovered that it involved an overwhelming amount of work.

The wines in the initial release, two whites from 2009 and two reds from 2010, showed promise. However, the 2010 and 2011 vintages were very challenging on Vancouver Island, unless one was focussing on sparkling wines. The previous winemaker recognized this and made a terrific bubbly, part of the current release.

Fortunately for the Craigs, the weather turned around in 2012. The wines they inherited, which were finished and bottled by Matt, reflect the better vintages. Based on these wines, we should all look forward to the 2014s from 40 Knots. That Siegerrebe, for example, will be released under the label, Zeggy. That is also the nickname for their vineyard dog, a whippet called Siegerrebe.

The Craigs are a business couple from Fort St. John who wanted to buy and operate a family business. To make up for their lack of wine industry experience, they are using consulting services from Okanagan Crush Pad Winery in Summerland. New Zealand-trained Matt is Crush Pad’s senior winemaker.

The Craigs recognized that the Comox terroir will not grow a complete range of the varietals they might want for their portfolio. (Bill Montgomery discovered the limitations of that terroir when he had to give up on the block of Merlot he had planted.)

The Craigs have split their portfolio into two labels. Estate-grown wines are always released under the 40 Knots label. But when they release wines from Okanagan fruit, those will be labelled Stall Speed.

“We wanted to be very transparent to our consumer and have chosen not to mix grapes from different vineyards,” Brenda says.

It is noteworthy that the winery’s labels are smart and the packaging is contemporary. With the exception of the port-style wine, all still wines are under screw caps. The sparkling wines are closed with crown caps.

Here are notes on the current releases.

40 Knots Spindrift Brut 2012 ($29.90). This is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with a touch of Pinot Gris in the cuvée. The wine gives an active display of fine bubbles in the glass. It has toasty/bready aromas from its time on the lees. On the palate, the wine is creamy with subtle flavours of lemon. The finish is crisp. 89.

40 Knots Spindrift Soleil Rosé 2011 ($29.90). This is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with a touch of Pinot Gris and a splash of Maréchal Foch in the cuvée. The wine begins with an appealing rose petal hue and active bubbles. The bready notes of lees aging mingle in the aroma with hints of strawberry. There are flavours of raspberry that linger on the finish. 91.

40 Knots Reserve Chardonnay 2012 ($20.90). This Chablis-style wine is a subtly oaked Chardonnay; the oak expresses itself with a hint of coconut mingled with the citrus aromas. On the palate, there are flavours of apple and lemon. The lively acidity gives the wine a crisply clean finish that lingers. 89.

40 Knots  Pinot Gris 2012 ($18.90). The wine begins with aromas of apples, peaches and citrus. On the palate, it is crisp, tasting of apples and grapefruit, with an intriguing hint of anise on the finish. 88.

40 Knots  Whitecaps 2013 ($18.90). This is a blend of Pinot Gris and Schönburger. It begins with a fruity aroma of pears. On the palate, the wine has flavours of lemon and herbs. The finish is clean and crisp. 88.

40 Knots Rosé 2012 ($18.90). A blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay Noir, this wine has a lovely rose petal hue. It begins with aromas of strawberries, leading to flavours of strawberry, cranberry and cherry. There is a slight hint of residual sugar – just the right amount to lift the flavours and the aromas. This is a refreshing rosé. 89.

40 Knots Pinot Noir 2012 ($22.90). Light ruby in hue, the wine begins with lightly oaked aromas mingled with hints of raspberry. The wine is appropriately silky in texture. The flavours are savoury and earthy with a touch of cherry and spice on the finish. 88.

40 Knots Stall Speed Meritage 2013 ($29.90). Made with Okanagan grapes (Naramata Bench), this is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Malbec. The wine begins with aromas of black currants and blackberries, leading to flavours of black currants, cola, dark chocolate with a spine of minerality. The wine is drinking well now but will reward you if you cellar it another four or five years. 90.

40 Knots Stall Speed Merlot Icewine 2013 ($49.90 for 375 ml). The Merlot grapes are from a Kelowna vineyard. The wine begins with an appealing dark rose petal hue. Dramatic aromas of strawberries and cherries explode from the glass. The wine delivers generous flavours of strawberry and raspberry jam. There is just enough acidity to refresh the palate. 90.

40 Knots Safe Haven 2012 ($20.90 for 375 ml). This port-style wine is made with Vancouver Island Maréchal Foch, fortified to 18% with grain alcohol. The aromas and flavours recall a nice slice of fruit cake, with moderate sweetness. The finish lingers on the palate. A wedge of blue cheese would be a perfect companion. 90.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Wayne Gretzky's top shelf wines

 Photo: Wayne Gretzky winemaker Stephanie Stanley

One of the more savvy moves by Andrew Peller Ltd. was its 10-year licensing agreement in November, 2011, with Wayne Gretzky Wines Estates.

Under that agreement, Peller gets to make and sell wines under the Gretzky brand. It would be hard to find wines with better name recognition.

After retiring from his lengthy NHL career as a player and then as a coach, Gretzky ventured into other businesses, including wine. When he agreed to fold his Ontario winery into the Peller stable, he allied his celebrity to a company with powerful technical and marketing skills. At the time of the deal, Peller assumed $2.7 million of Gretzky’s Ontario wines.

Peller wasted no time in launching a parallel Okanagan brand. Peller has a good grape supply in the Okanagan and winemaking capacity in the big Calona winery in Kelowna.

And crucially, Stephanie Stanley, who was already making the Peller wines in British Columbia, also began making the Gretzky wines in 2011. Indeed, one of her first Gretzky wines won a Lieutenant Governor’s Award of Excellence in 2014.

By every indication, the brand has been a solid success in British Columbia, and very likely in the other provinces in Western Canada where the hockey great has a following.

Currently, six Wayne Gretzky Okanagan wines, all VQA, are available in British Columbia liquor stores – often widely available. For example, almost 2,000 bottles of the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Syrah are spread among 131 stores. During the recent holiday period, this wine and two others were discounted temporarily by $2 a bottle, presumably to clear out some older vintages.

These wines, which over-deliver, really don’t need to be discounted.

Here are notes on three of those wines.

Wayne Gretzky Okanagan The Great White 2012 ($15.99). This is a complex blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Sémillon. It begins with herbal aromas (a bit of petrol) with a touch of grapefruit and grapefruit rind. These are echoed in the layered tropical flavours. The texture is full but the finish is crisp even if the back label says off-dry. 90.

Wayne Gretzky Okanagan The Great Red 2013 ($17.99). Everything but the kitchen sink seems to be in this wine. It is a blend of Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Mourvèdre and Gamay Noir. The wine begins with smoky and gamy aromas with notes of black cherry. On the palate, there are flavours of spicy fruit reminiscent of fruit cake with a touch of vanilla on the long finish. This is an interesting wine. 90.

Wayne Gretzky Okanagan Cabernet Sauvignon Syrah 2013 ($17.99). The wine begins with classic minty Cabernet aromas. On the palate, there are luscious flavours of black currant, black cherry, cocoa and coffee. There is pepper on the finish of this appealing blend. 90.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Blue Mountain bubbles take on Champagne

Photo: Blue Mountain winemaker Matt Mavety

Recently, an executive from Champagne producer Lanson was asked by a radio reporter if the Champagne houses should be concerned at dramatic rise in Proseco sales.

Not at all, he replied. The quality of Champagne simply puts it in a different league than Proseco, the Italian bubbly.

I would not argue with that, other than to say we expect more from a $50 - $100 Champagne than we do from a $20 Proseco.

Having said that, we don’t need to go offshore if we want a classy sparkling wine for New Year’s, or for any other occasion. Blue Mountain Vineyard & Cellars, right in our own back yard, is one of Canada’s best sparkling wine producers. Its wines certainly compete with Champagne.

In fact, the wines in its reserve sparkling program are nudging toward the price of Champagne. However, good sparkling wine is never going to be cheap. There is at least twice as much labour involved in making bubble than in making still table wine.

Secondly, when the sparkling wine is aged for years in the cellar before release, capital is tied up for years. The three current Blue Mountain releases are from the 2006, 2007 and 2010 vintages. The cost of capital inevitably will need to be reflected in the price of the finished wine. In fact, the volumes of the Blue Mountain reserves are so modest – 100 to 200 cases – that winemaker Matt Mavety may be making these more for the prestige than for the profit.

Blue Mountain wines have always delivered value for money. This is illustrated by the two table wines, a Pinot Gris and a Gamay, also released this fall.

Here are notes on those wines. R.D. means recently disgorged.

Blue Mountain Pinot Gris 2013 ($21). The style of this wine deviates slightly from the fruity, drink me now, style of most Okanagan Pinot Gris wines.  Forty percent was fermented and aged six months in French oak (new to four years old). The wine in barrels also was left in contact with the lees, but with minimum battonage. The other 60% was fermented and aged in stainless steel. The barrel portion gives the wine a rich texture. The wine has herbal and citrus aromas with a bready note from the lees contact. On the palate, there are flavours of pear and citrus. The finish is dry. This wine is built to age four to six years, developing even more complexity. 90.

Blue Mountain Gamay Noir 2012 ($23). This wine was fermented entirely with the wild yeasts from the vineyard. The technical notes refer to a 20-day maceration period, indicating a moderately slow fermentation. The wine was aged nine months in four-year-old French oak barrels. Aside from a touch of mocha on the palate, there is no significant oak flavour. However, the fleshy texture results in part from time in barrel. The wine has aromas and flavours cherry and blackberry. 90.

Blue Mountain Rosé Brut 2010 R.D. ($33). This wine gets a lovely rose petal hue from the 65% Pinot Noir in the cuvée (the rest is Chardonnay). The wine spent 36 months on lees in individual bottles after completing secondary fermentation. The dosage is 10 grams a litre, enough to flesh out the flavours without making the wine sweet. The wine begins with toasty and strawberry aromas, leading to a creamy mouthful of fruit flavours, with a crisp, clean finish. 91.

Blue Mountain Blanc de Blancs 2007 R.D. ($40). This wine is just as elegant and complex as fine Champagne. Made with Chardonnay in the 2007 vintage, the cuvée was bottled for its secondary fermentation in February 2008. The wine spent six years on the lees in individual bottles, to be disgorged in May 2014. The prolonged time on the lees has given this wine toasty, nutty aromas and flavours and very fine bubbles. The finish is crisply clean and dry. 93.

Blue Mountain Reserve Brut 2006 R.D. ($40). This is 30% Pinot Noir, 70% Chardonnay. The wine spent seven years on the lees in individual bottles before being disgorged in May 2014. It is almost creamy on the palate with toasty notes on the nose. The flavours include appealing hints of strawberry and citrus. The wine, which finishes dry, is exceptional in its elegance. 95.

If you can’t find any of this in good wine stores, the winery plans to release a Brut 2007 R.D., followed by a 2008 Brut R.D. You might want to get on a list for this wine.