Sunday, May 17, 2009

Black Hills signals it is in the big leagues

Nota Bene, the Bordeaux red blend from Black Hills Estate Winery, achieved cult status from its very first vintage in 1999. The latest release, from the 2007 vintage, confirms the view of the winery’s new managers that this following is well entrenched. The wine was released at $52.90 a bottle – the first time it was ever been priced above $50 on release.

The result? Black Hills released 2,500 cases on April 18 and they were all spoken for on April 20. The total production was 3,990 cases, a portion of which has been held back for the winery’s own tasting room. If last year is any guide, Nota Bene will sell for a premium at the cellar door.

While the winery considers the public release sold out, in fact some private wine stores are actually retailing the 2007 Nota Bene, including VQA stores. The Edgemont Village VQA store in North Vancouver, as an example, had a generous allotment of four cases. It was be instructive to see if Nota Bene moves any faster than the other excellent $50 wines that store has in stock.

Nota Bene has always commanded a premium (and, I would argue, deserved a premium). The 2002 vintage, for example, was $32 a bottle and the 2005 vintage was $36. Last year’s release was around $40 and fetched $60 in the aftermarket, an indication that Black Hills was leaving money on the table.

Nota Bene (Latin for take notice) is a departure from most Okanagan Meritage blends, the majority of which are built around Merlot. Nota Bene has always put Cabernet Sauvignon first. That is a daring choice since Cabernet Sauvignon, if not fully ripe, can infuse a (not necessarily unpleasant) minty aroma and flavour to the wine. That was not the case with 2007, the last vintage in which the vineyard was farmed by the founders of Black Hills and in which the wine was made by Senka Tennant.

Late in 2007 Senka and her husband Bob, along with partners Susan and Peter McCarrell, sold the winery to a large group of investors whose numbers include actor Jason Priestley. When the investment syndicate’s manager was raising money for the deal, he stated in the offering circular that Nota Bene was underpriced for the quality. Hence, the subsequent price adjustments.

The 2007 is a typical Nota Bene blend: 46% Cabernet Sauvignon, 39% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Franc. The wine is as bold as the price. In the glass, the colour is almost black. It has aromas of black currants, blackberries and cedar. On the palate, the wine is big and rich, tasting of currants, plums, chocolate, tobacco and vanilla. The texture is richly concentrated with a pleasant earthiness. The tannins are ripe but firm; this wine is structured to develop very well in bottle over the next five, and probably 10, years. Earlier vintages of Nota Bene sometimes peaked at seven years. This wine, the best Nota Bene so far, should peak a little later. Score: 91 points.

If you must drink it now, try to decant it an hour or two before the meal.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

New releases from Quails' Gate

Quails’ Gate winemaker Grant Stanley has said that he spends 80 percent of his time thinking about Pinot Noir.

Perhaps that is a bit of an exaggeration of his exceptional interest in Pinot Noir. However, most winemakers acknowledge that they improve their craft generally from the lessons gained in making Pinot Noir.

More than most other varieties, Pinot Noir needs to be grown very well. In the winery it needs to be treated gently – so gently that the most dedicated of Pinot Noir producers sometimes still crush grapes with their bare feet. The foot does not scour the bitter seeds the way some crushers will.

The winemaking is temperature sensitive. The quality can be enhanced by using the proper yeasts, or even wild yeast. The choice of barrels is critical. And on and on, even among those winemakers who maintain that the less they mess with the wine, the better it will be.

So it stands to reason that winemakers who can make fine Pinot Noirs vintage after vintage will also make other excellent wines. The latest releases from Quails’ Gate confirm that theory.

Five are wines from the 2008 vintage, a cool vintage that was saved by a good Indian summer.

It took impeccable farming to get the grapes ripe by the end of the season. Referring to Pinot Noir, Grant says: “Last year, we probably put more of the crop onto the ground than we picked.” The point of thinning the yield is to give the vines a chance to get the remaining grapes ripe.

The coolness of the vintage also preserved the acidity in the grapes. The Okanagan usually grows grapes with good acidity. Last vintage’s wines are often bracing in their acidity – not over the top, just very refreshing. It was one of the best vintages so far in the Okanagan for white varieties and for Pinot Noir grapes with lots of flavour.

The technical specifications of the 2008 Quails’ Gate wines show significant acidity ranging between 7.2 grams and nine grams a litre. Hats off to Grant for not fiddling with what nature gave him. These are all wonderful food wines.

Here are my notes on the range:

Chasselas Pinot Blanc Pinot Gris 2008 ($16.99). This aromatic white blend is half Chasselas (a Swiss varietal) with equal parts of the other two varietals. Quails’ Gate produced 11,000 cases of a light (12% alcohol) and refreshing wine. The wine shows aromas and flavours of sweet lime, honey dew melon, apple with a hint of minerals in the texture. The wine is finished with 15 grams of residual sugar and 7.2 grams of acid, a balance that creates an impression of dryness. The wine is very refreshing. 88 points.

Chenin Blanc 2008 ($18.99). Back in the 1970s, so much dull Chenin Blanc came from California that it ruined the market in British Columbia and discouraged the planting of this varietal. A great pity. Only three or four wineries make what is arguably the finest seafood wine anywhere. Quails’ Gate has the courage to release this wine with a racy 9% grams of acidity, but with a trace of residual sweetness to take away the sharp edge. This is a tangy wine, with flavours of green apples and lime. The acidity and the minerals give it the grip to cut through any sauce you put on the oysters. 4,700 cases were made. 89

Dry Riesling 2008 ($16.99). The wine is a steal at this price. It begins with an attractive herbal aroma and presents flavours of lime and grapefruit. It has a crisply dry finish, along with a daringly tangy bite. This is a serious cellar-worthy Riesling. The winery made 4,000 cases. 90

Gewurztraminer 2008 ($15.99). This is a Gewurz with delightful feminine beauty to it, started with its perfumed floral aroma. That leads to a core of sweet fruit on the palate – flavours of peaches and apples and lychee. The acidity of eight grams is perfectly balanced with 10 grams of residual sweetness, giving the wine a tangy, refreshing finish. 6,200 cases. 88

Rosé 2008 ($12.99). Here is a screamingly good buy but only 3,000 cases were released. The wine is 95% Gamay Noir with a dash of Pinot Gris to add body and fruitiness. And is there ever fruit! This is a bowl full of strawberries and rhubarb. The wine is technically dry but the fruit flavours impart a refreshingly sweet impression on the mid-palate. Every glass tastes like more. 89

Chardonnay 2007 ($18.99). With a production of 6,018 cases, this well-made wine is widely available. Two-thirds of the blend was fermented in barrel (20% new French oak as well as American oak) and that comes through on the palate with buttery and honeyed marmalade flavours. The one third that was tank fermented adds the fresh and crisp citrus notes. The texture is rich and the finish is lingering. 88

Pinot Noir 2007 ($24.99). This is one of two Pinot Noirs from Quails’ Gate, the other being the $45 premium wine. The winery released 3,817 cases of its “regular” Pinot Noir and it certainly displays the pedigree of its big brother, showing a lovely silky texture. It begins with aromas of ripe berries. On the palate, there are flavours of cherries and strawberries with a hint of chocolate and some spice on the finish. It is a full-bodied wine for drinking while big brother ages. 90

Friday, May 15, 2009

Worshipping at Pinot Noir's altar

Photos: Grant Stanley (top) and Clive Paton

A former professor of mine who was a Basilian priest once joked that if he were to start over, he would go to California and found a new religion.

That was decades before anyone in California was making serious Pinot Noir. Today, winemakers there and elsewhere have turned Pinot Noir into something approaching the sort of religion that might have appealed to my prof - and certainly to this student.

This week four of the finest adherents to that faith gathered in Vancouver for an impressive comparative tasting of Pinot Noir organized by Grant Stanley, the winemaker at Quails’ Gate Estate Winery in the Okanagan.

Quails’ Gate is Canada’s largest producer of estate-grown Pinot Noir, and one of the oldest. The Stewart family, which began planting the variety in 1975, claim they were the first in Canada to plant a successful commercial block. Today, Quails’ Gate dedicates 40 acres of vineyard to nine clones of Pinot Noir. About one-fifth of the winery’s production is Pinot Noir.

Grant, who joined Quails’ Gate since 2003, once said that he spends 80 percent of his time thinking about Pinot Noir. Certainly, my professor did not spend that much time in prayer! The religion of Pinot Noir is much more demanding, apparently.

“We hired Grant based on his interest in Pinot Noir,” Quails’ Gate president Tony Stewart says. “If Grant had it his way, we would probably make only Pinot Noir. Not to say that he does not like making the other wines. He does, but his goal is to make the Pinot Noir as best as he can. The other wines make it possible for us to invest in the Pinot Noir program.”

Grant, who was born in Vancouver to parents from New Zealand, began his winemaking career in New Zealand. Prior to returning to Canada, he made six vintages with Ata Rangi, a winery in New Zealand’s Martinborough district. Ata Rangi’s Pinot Noirs are among New Zealand’s best.

Ata Rangi proprietor Clive Paton, Grant’s former employer, was one of those presenting their wines at the Vancouver tasting. The others were Oregon vintner Ken Wright, owner of Ken Wright Cellars, California vintner Kathy Joseph, owner of Fiddlehead Cellars, and, of course, Grant of Quails' Gate.

Each winemaker was represented by Pinot Noirs which, if available, would sell for $45 and up. The tasting also included two Burgundies of a comparable price.

The tasting was organized primarily so that four dedicated producers could come together to enjoy and share their superb wines. No doubt, a sub-theme for the Canadians in the tasting audience was how would the Quails’ Gate Pinot Noirs show against leading examples from elsewhere.

The answer: very well indeed. The wines were tasted blind. When I learned what the wines were, I was pleasantly surprised to see that my first and second picks were both Quails’ Gate wines. On the other hand, there was not much more than a point or two difference in quality among these wines, all of them 90 plus pointers. Except for the Burgundies, which were not yet showing their potential.

The fact is that young Burgundies may lack the power and the immediate drinking appeal of New World Pinot Noirs. All Pinot Noirs improve with a little age but none as much as Burgundy.

The bad news is that there are no wines from Ata Rangi, Ken Wright or Fiddlehead in either the Liquor Distribution Branch or Everything Wine. However, they are names to keep in mind when you travel to those regions or to other places in the world where these labels might be sold.

Look for the Ata Rangi 2006 Martinborough Pinot Noir or the companion single vineyard wine, the Ata Rangi 2006 McCrone Pinot Noir.

Don McCrone is an Oregon grower who now also has a small New Zealand vineyard. Ken Wright Cellars showed the tasting two Pinot Noirs from the McCrone vineyard, including a very fine one from 2006.

Fiddlehead is a boutique winery near Santa Barbara that makes Pinot Noir from its vineyard there as well as from a vineyard in Oregon. Both are wines made with an incredible devotion to the variety.

In fact, all show that. Ata Rangi’s Clive Paton actually said: “We make our Pinot Noir from a passionate heart.”

The Quails’ Gate Stewart Family Reserve Pinot Noirs are available, both at $45 a bottle. The current release is from the 2007 vintage while the 2006 vintage may still be in wine stores and certainly in restaurants.

I have scored the 2007 Quails’ Gate at 91 points, both this week and in a previous review. Then, I described the wine this way: “It is a seductive wine, beginning with a rush of berry aromas in the glass. The velvet texture adds to the wine’s seduction. This is a very elegant wine.” My recent notes echo that.

This week, I scored the Quails’ Gate’s 2006 a point higher. I believe that merely reflects how the wine benefitted from an extra year in the bottle.

These are beautiful wines that are getting better vintage by vintage, both through improved farming (Ken Wright says “farming is everything”) and more sophisticated winemaking.

“None of us is making wine the same way we were five years ago,” Grant says.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Remembering winegrower Cal Knudsen

Photo of Argyle wines courtesy of Jason Tomczak

C. Calvert (Cal) Knudsen, whose memorial service took place today in Seattle, is remembered in British Columbia as a forestry executive - but in Oregon, they know him as a wine industry pioneer.

In 1971 he began planting 125 acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on a property in Dundee Hills. It was then one of the single largest vineyard projects in Oregon. The following year, he teamed up with winemaker Dick Erath to launch the Knudsen Erath Winery.

When that partnership ended in 1987, he led a group that invested in Argyle Winery, another Oregon producer that had been started by Australian winemaker Brian Croser. Cal was Argyle’s chairman from 1990 until he stepped down two years ago, at the age of 83, having become ill with cancer.

On this side of the border, he is better known for having been the chief executive of MacMillan Bloedel Ltd. for seven years, beginning in 1981.

Previously a senior executive with Weyerhaeuser in Tacoma, Cal was recruited to resolve a corporate crisis at what was then British Columbia’s major forest company. MB’s board had fired both its chairman and its CEO after a series of miscalculations – included an ill-fated ship charter – cost the company millions.

Cal showed up just as the economy was going into recession. He had to make some tough decisions to turn MB around, including laying off so many people that the local headline writers dubbed him “King Kut”. But he got the job done and MB thrived for a number of years before being taken over, ironically, by Weyerhaeuser.

I doubt Cal enjoyed being as tough as he had to be. He was a thoroughly decent man and, as I discovered, an engaging man to share a drink with.

When he first arrived in Vancouver, he was staying at the Sylvia Hotel. Having learned from his biography that he was also a wine man, I invited him to come to a meeting of my amateur winemaking club, reasoning that he was new in town and needed some socializing. He actually came one evening.

I was then writing for The Financial Post and thus interviewed him on a number of occasions. Both of us had difficulty leaving enough time to talk about trees because we both preferred to speak of wine. Had I known then, as I learned later, that he was on Richard Nixon’s transition team, we would never have discussed trees at all.

A native of Tacoma and a lawyer by training, he became interested in wine as a tourist in Europe in 1954. It was an interest he nurtured for years before buying vineyard land in Oregon. There is an amusing tale that he lost the first property he wanted to buy when the seller learned Cal intended to grow wine grapes. The seller was a fierce teetotaller.

Cal certainly was not. In 1985 I was researching an article on Port, a wine I knew nothing about at the time. So I set out to locate and interview people who did know something about it, among them Cal Knudsen.

By the time he replied to my letter, the article had been completed. No matter, he said. He had little chance to share Port with someone and he was not going to pass this one up. He arranged to host a lunch at the Vancouver Club for the two of us in a private room. He arrived carrying under his arm a bottle of Sandemans 1945 , a Port from the vintage of the century.

Getting at the wine was an entertainment in itself. The Club had to produce a decanter, a funnel and some muslin so that he could strain the wine. Not only had the crust broken loose; the 40-year-old cork disintegrated into the wine. However, the strained wine was superb. At Cal’s urging, we had it before, during and after our three-hour lunch. There was not a lot of work done later that afternoon at either MB or The Financial Post.

The story reflects his genuine passion about wine. Both the Erath Winery, as it is now called, and Argyle are leading producers in Oregon. Argyle still gets 40 percent of its grapes from the Knudsen Vineyard, now run by his daughter and his three sons. Cal left a remarkable legacy.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Just released: Wineries of British Columbia, third edition

Young vineyard near Okanagan Falls

We know that the British Columbia wine industry has grown but the scope of that growth is astounding.

In 1994, I began to develop my family of books on British Columbia wine with the first edition of The Wineries of British Columbia. That book was 220 pages long and included 40 profiles (two of which never became wineries).

A decade later, the second edition was released. This volume had something like 130 profiles in its 376 pages.

Whitecap Books, my publisher, has just released the third edition of The Wineries of British Columbia. This book, which should show up about mid-May, is a hefty 496 pages (and only $30). The 160,000 words profile about 200 wineries, several of which are either just opening or still under development.

This is the longest book I have ever written. It took me two years of interviewing and writing. So much has changed in just five years that little of the 2004 text could be copied into the new book without substantial revision.

This book is the latest word on the British Columbia wineries. Even so, it is a snapshot of a moving landscape. Shortly after the manuscript was locked down, I came across Cerelia Vineyards, a new winery just opening near Cawston in the Similkameen Valley. And I just interviewed Judy Kingston, a former technology lawyer, whose Serendipity Estate Winery opens a year from now near Naramata.

I guess I should start working on the fourth edition!

In fact, I anticipate that the pace of change will slow, at least until the economy settles down. This may not be the best of economic climates in which to start a winery and it certainly is not a good time to try selling. During the time I was writing the book, several wineries and vineyards were on the market. I can think of four at least where the deals fell apart over the lack of financing.

Having said that, there are still acres and acres of new vineyards up and down both the Okanagan and the Simikameen. Those skinny vines now protected against wind and rodents by milk cartons will be producing grapes for new wines and new wineries in a few years.

The biggest surprise in researching this book was the surge in the number of wineries over the past five years.

For wine lovers, this is great news. The selection of wines is much larger than it was and the business is more competitive. That is one reason why B.C. wine prices, after rising steadily for a decade, have levelled off or, in many examples, have declined this year. The average price of a bottle of VQA wine was $18 last year. I am guessing that this year’s average will be between $15 and $16, the first time that the VQA average has dropped since 1992.

Even as prices level off or decline, the quality of British Columbia wine continues to rise. That is because the new plantings from early this decade now are hitting their productive prime. It is also because there have been big investments made recently in modern winemaking equipment and well-trained winemakers.

The 2008 white wines just coming to market are some of the best I have ever tasted from the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys.

For wine tourists, this industry growth is a boon. If you have not taken a vacation in wine country for a few years, you will not even recognize some of the new wineries. In fact, you consider a trip this year. There are fewer tourists in wine country this year and wineries have more time for those that come.

Even if your previous wine tour was just last fall, there are discoveries out there this year. Midway between Oliver and Osoyoos, Adrian Capeneata has just opened his rather grand Cassini Cellars right beside the highway. You can't miss it.

Three new wineries are opening in East Kelowna sometime this year: Camelot Vineyards, The View Winery and Sperling Vineyards. Camelot expects to open its tasting room this spring.

This summer, Hester Creek will complete a vast new winery partly buried into the hillside, with a tasting room whose windows command a fabulous view over the valley.

In the Similkameen, an enthusiastic couple from Saskatchewan are just opening a winery near Cawston which they call EauVivre.

If you travel to Creston where the excellent Skimmerhorn Winery opened two years ago, at least one new winery should open this year.

Saltspring Island’s third winery, Mistaken Identity Vineyards, will open this spring. Later this summer, a new winery, 22 Oaks, will open near Duncan.

I have to say it: you need a program to stay in the game. I hope that’s my new book.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

McWilliams titillates with Lovedale Semillon

McWilliam winemaker Phillip Ryan

Any list of the 100 wines to drink before you die should surely include the McWilliams Mount Pleasant Hunter Lovedale Sémillon – ideally the 1998 vintage, the Library vintage currently on release.

The bad news is that the only examples of any Lovedale Sémillon in Canada appear to be samples brought here recently by McWilliam winemaker Phillip Ryan, the chief winemaker at the company’s Mount Pleasant winery.

The good news is that there are a few other Hunter Valley Sémillons in wine stores. These should also show off the variety’s ability to become quite wonderful with age.

Sémillon is one of the few white varieties (Riesling is the other) with a spectacular ability to age. It is no accident that this is the variety grown in Sauternes in France when there are other varieties that might handle that region’s climate a little better.

This is a grape that has lots of acid at maturity (like Riesling). Young Sémillon wines taste very much of lemon and lime, as Phillip illustrated with a 2009 Lovedale. (Lovedale is the name of the vineyard.) The acid is an excellent preservative which, as the wine ages, becomes less aggressive while maintaining the freshness of the wine.

The Sémillon vine came to Australia in the 1800s by way of cuttings from South Africa (which, in turn, secured the vines from France). For many years, it was the backbone of Australian white wine production until, about 30 years ago, serious acreages of Chardonnay were planted. Chardonnay swept aside most other varieties as the most popular white variety.

Chardonnays also age but not nearly as long as Sémillon, which explains why Sémillon did not completely get swamped. The best examples have always come from the Hunter Valley, a valley north of Sidney where vineyards and coal mines manage to co-exist. For a long time, the variety was called Hunter Riesling; some wineries still hang on to the name. However, viticultural research several decades ago established that the vine was not at all related to Riesling.

At McWilliam, and no doubt elsewhere in the Hunter, winemakers produce Sémillon with minimal intervention. The Lovedale Vineyard’s grapes are hand picked and, to absolutely avoid oxidation, go into bins with dry ice. More carbon dioxide is introduced when the whole clusters are pressed and when the juice is stored in tank at very low temperatures. There it is allowed to settle until the juice is crystal clear. Then it ferments for several weeks and remains in stainless steel, again with a cap of CO2, for a few months, when the wine is bottled. The quick passage from grape to bottle keeps the wine as fresh as possible.

The bottles (all under screw cap these days) are put away to age gracefully. The current vintage of Lovedale Sémillon in the Australian market is 2003, although you can buy the 2006 at the cellar door.

When Hunter Sémillon ages, it develops honeyed flavours of tangerine and nuts, with a rich, dry finish. It is a robust food wine but, really, it is best enjoyed with good friends on a quiet evening. There is something profoundly contemplative about an older Hunter Sémillon.

In Australia, one hears of legendary bottles. Phillip rhapsodized about a 1953 Lovedale Sémillon he enjoyed a few years ago with the late, great Australian wine personality, Len Evans. I would be surprised if there were many stashes, if any, of old Sémillon in North America.

Phillip has been titillating tasting events with Lovedale Sémillon, of which he makes only 2,000 to 3,000 cases, in order to draw attention to the McWilliams wines that are in the market. Here, the winery’s strongest brand is Hanwood (named for another of that company’s wineries.)

The Hanwood wines include an excellent Chardonnay, a spicy Shiraz, a soft Merlot and a solid Cabernet Sauvignon, all selling for either $15 or $16 a bottle. These are well-made wines showing considerably more individuality than one usually gets from Australia these days in this price range.

With any luck, McWilliams, which is 25% owned by Gallo, will soon bring more of its Shiraz wines into this market. The top of the line the Maurice O’Shea Hunter Valley Shiraz, named a legendary winemaker who preceded Philip at the Mount Pleasant winery. This is a rich, elegant wine from vines planted in 1890.

Since there is no Lovedale Sémillon in our wine stores, the option is to explore the few other Sémillon wines that are available.

Everything Wine has a few bottles of a Hunter Sémillon from Poole’s Rock ($26). This is a 21-year-old winery with a rising reputation. It makes its Sémillon much the same way as Phillip makes his.

In the B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch, the Hunter Valley Sémillon offerings include a 2005 from Bimbadgen Estate ($17 for a half bottle); and a Wyndham Estate 2003 Sémillon (only three bottles remaining in the province!). There are two other Australian Sémillons – 30 bottles of Burge Family 2004 ($40) and 790 bottles of Peter Lehman Sémillon 2005 and 2006. The later two are from other regions but should show good aging potential as well.