Monday, April 13, 2009

Tantalus impresses with its newest Rieslings




There is not much point anymore in asking whether British Columbia wines can hold their own against wines from elsewhere in the world. Even so, a little reassurance is always nice.

Jane Hatch, the sales director for Tantalus Vineyards, got that support in spades last week when she matched the winery’s newest releases against comparably-priced imports in a blind tasting for the British Columbia Wine Appreciation Society in Vancouver.

The two Tantalus Rieslings were overwhelming favourites in the Riesling flight while the Pinot Noir was in the middle of the field in the Pinot Noir flight.

The Tantalus Rieslings have been impressive since the first vintage in 2005, and not just because of the skills of Matt Holmes, the young Australian winemaker. This vineyard, on a hillside overlooking Kelowna, is one of the great Riesling sites in the Okanagan.

An excellent clone of German Riesling was planted here in 1978 by Den Dulik, who then owned the property. In 1997, his daughter, Susan, opened a winery here called Pinot Reach. The Old Vines Riesling made here drew enthusiastic praise from many wine critics, notably Britain’s Jancis Robinson.

In 2004 the Dulik family sold the vineyard and the winery to Eric Savics, a Vancouver investment dealer and wine lover. One of the first decisions by Eric was to replace some of the lesser varieties in the vineyard (such as Bacchus) and focus almost exclusively on Riesling and Pinot Noir.

The 1978 Riesling vines were retained, of course, along with German clones of Pinot Noir, believed to have been planted in 1983. Building on that base, Tantalus then planted additional clones of both Riesling and Pinot Noir. Some of those new plantings are beginning to show up in the wines now and may explain why the 2008 Tantalus Riesling is so remarkably exuberant.

With priority on replanting the vineyard, Matt had to make four vintages in the Pinot Reach winery, a cramped and not entirely adequate facility.

Drawing of the Bing Thom winery design
However, there had been a tentative plan to replace the winery with a stunning showpiece designed by Bing Thom, a world-renowned Vancouver architect. Unhappily for collectors of architect eye candy, the global recession derailed this plan.

Tantalus will build a new winery this summer – having already demolished the Pinot Reach building – but it will erect a more practical structure in keeping with the times.

At the end of the day, it is the wine that matters. The wines, good from the beginning, are consistently getting better.

The tasters at the BCWA event were swept away by the Tantalus Riesling 2008 ($23), of which 1,350 cases are being released. “The regular Riesling we produce is a crowd pleaser,” Jane acknowledged. Tasters are drawn in immediately by the fresh, zesty aroma of both flowers and citrus fruits. The aroma is powerful enough to fill the room. The palate tingles with tangy pink grapefruit flavours. The texture is enriched with a generous amount of residual sugar that is balanced with racy acidity so that the wine seems almost dry on the finish. This is a juicy wine that tastes like more. 91 points.

Bold acidity has always marked the Tantalus Rieslings. “We don’t want to run away from the acidity but we have recognized we must refine it so it is less coarse,” Jane says. That is being achieved both in how the grapes are grown and how they are handled in the winery.

The big brother is the Tantalus Old Vines Riesling 2007 ($30), of which only 260 cases are being released. This wine is aged in bottle an extra year before it is released because it needs that time for the acidity and the minerals to integrate. The wine is more complex than the regular Riesling and really should be aged another year or two before all of this complexity reveals itself. Dry on the finish, this is still a restrained wine with flavours of lime and lemon. The old vines bring finely concentrated minerals as well as fruit to the taste and texture. This is a connoisseur’s Riesling. I scored it 90 now but I can only see the score rising with bottle age.

The other Rieslings in the flight included two fine Australian wines, St. Hallett Eden Valley 2008 and Bird in the Hand Clare Valley 2008. We also tasted a Riesling from Trimbach, a great Alsace producer, but the bottle seemed to be off.

The tasters ranked the Tantalus Pinot Noir 2007 ($30) behind the Belle Glos Meiomi Pinot Noir 2006 from California and the Spy Valley Pinot Noir 2007 from New Zealand. However, Tantalus outscored two comparably priced wines from Australia and France.

Being in the middle of the pack is just fine at this stage in development of a wine that is a work in progress. The 2007 vintage is richer and more vibrant than the winery’s 2006 because about 30% of the blend is from the new clones that were planted in 2005. As more of the new plantings come into play and as those vines mature, this Pinot Noir will get better and better.

It is not bad now, when it comes to that. It begins with fragrant floral aromas; it has flavours of strawberry and it shows the silky texture, the beginnings of seductive fleshiness, that one expects in good Pinot Noir. The taste is pleasing even if the finish is a trifle short. 87.

Overall, it was an impressive performance by the Tantalus wines, all of which are just being released.

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