Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Black Hills expands its portfolio

Photo: Winemaker Graham Pierce

Look for two new wines from Black Hills Estate Winery, the producer of the legendary Nota Bene red blend.

In September, the winery will add Syrah to its portfolio, releasing 1,200 cases of 2009 Syrah.

The winery is also working on a second-label red wine, part of the strategy of winemaker Graham Pierce to continue refining Nota Bene.

A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (the dominant variety in the wine), Merlot and Cabernet Franc, Nota Bene was first made in the 1999 vintage. On June 11 this year, the winery celebrates its eleven vintages at a so-called Nota Bene release party at the vineyard.

The 2009 Nota Bene was offered to the winery’s on-line customers in early April. While that allocation was snapped up in two days, the winery has obviously kept enough back for periodic sales at the winery on special occasions.

Nota Bene has always been made just with the three Bordeaux varietals grown on the estate vineyard, with all the wine made in each vintage going into the blend.

Now, the winemaker has begun, for the first time, to cull some barrels of wine – about 10% to 15% of total production – when assembling the final blend for Nota Bene. The object is to tweak the intensity and the quality of what is already a fine wine.

Most producers of top quality reds do this. The barrels that don’t make it into the prestige label are either sold to other wineries or are dedicated to lower-priced second labels.

One should never assume a second label wine to be inferior. In any good winery, there is always quite acceptable wine left over after the prestige blend has been put together. I have not tasted the Black Hills second label wine yet but one can be confident in its quality, given this winery’s track record.

Black Hills was established by two couples, Peter and Susan McCarrell and Bob and Senka Tennant. When the McCarrells decided to retire, the winery was sold to a large group of investors in 2007. The Tennants, meanwhile, have moved on the plant a small vineyard of Spanish white varieties on the Naramata Bench and have a winery, Terravista Vineyards, under development.

The new owners at Black Hills, after recruiting winemaker Graham Pierce from Mt. Boucherie Estate Winery, have both refined the property and expanded the portfolio. Almost $1 million has been invested to add new equipment to what was already a modern winery. As well, the vineyard has been converted top drip irrigation, both to conserve water and to improve the quality of the grapes.

The winery released its first Viognier last fall and has begun the Syrah program, using both estate grapes and fruit from two other neighbouring growers.

The winery has discontinued making Chardonnay. After concluding that its two-acre Chardonnay block was on a plot too hot for the variety, the winery in 2008 grafted those vines over to Carmenère and now has about two and one-third acres of that variety, enough to produce about 400 cases a year.

Black Hills was the first Canadian winery to release a Carmenère, a late-ripening Bordeaux red that does especially well in Chile, producing big plush reds. Because the Okanagan’s season is shorter than that in the vineyards of Chile, Okanagan Carmenère wines almost always have intensely peppery flavours. Black Hills discovered there is a strong following for a red with that flavour profile. That was why the Chardonnay block was switched to Carmenère.

On a recent winery visit, I was able to taste two of the current releases plus a barrel sample of the new Syrah. Here are my notes.

Alibi 2010 ($N.A.). A blend of Sauvignon Blanc (about 75%) and Sémillon, this is a lovely aromatic wine, with floral and herbal notes, and with flavours of grapefruit and lime. The crisp, refreshing finish lingers. 90.

Nota Bene 2009 ($53). This is 48% Cabernet Sauvignon, 41% Merlot, 11% Cabernet Franc, a fairly classic blend. Those who collect this wine will find this ripe, rich vintage reflects the house style that has been consistent throughout its history. There is vanilla, eucalyptus and dark fruits on the nose, with flavours of plum, black cherry and chocolate. The ripe tannins give the wine an immediate accessibility but it certainly will cellar well over the next five years. 93.

Syrah 2009 ($N.A.). Dark in colour, the wine begins with aromas of pepper, black cherries and game meat. On the palate, the flavours are generous, with flavours of plums and figs and the spiciness of good deli meats. The wine is full, with the textural elegance of ripe tannins. 90.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Moon Curser Vineyards debuts

Photo: Beata and Chris Tolley

In what may be the most contentious name change yet among Okanagan wineries, Twisted Tree Vineyards & Winery of Osoyoos has become Moon Curser Vineyards.

The new labels, designed by New York artist Andrea Dezsö, will be unforgettable and, to some consumers, unsettling because the illustrations have the feel of, well, illustrations for Halloween.

For those who take the time to get over the labels, the wines are superb.

Proprietors Chris and Beata Tolley opened this winery in 2006. They called it Twisted Tree, inspired by the gnarled old fruit trees that were on the six-acre property. The irony is that every tree had to be removed to plant vines in 2005.

The wines have had a good critical reception from the start. However, the Tolleys decided on a name change for several reasons.

First, the original name overlaps with two other Okanagan wineries: Tangled Vines Winery, which also opened in 2006, and Oliver Twist Winery, which opened in 2007. As well, there is a new wine brand in California called Twisted.

“I have had people write to me and say, ‘I love your Zinfandel, where can I buy some?’” Beata says. “And of course, they are not writing to Twisted Tree; they are writing to Twisted. They make a $15 Zinfandel, which is not what we do here.”

Second, the Tolleys came to the conclusion that Twisted Tree was too bland to really establish a connection with consumers. “It was not the strongest brand presence out there,” Beata suggests.

When they began searching for a new name last year, they consulted widely, including with a California designer of traditional labels. “We liked their work but at the end of the day, we felt we wanted something a little more radical, a little more dynamic,” Beata says.

And that led them to Bernie Hadley-Beauregard, the Vancouver designer behind the labels and brands at Blasted Church Vineyards, Dirty Laundry Winery, 8th Generation Winery (and many others).

“None of Bernie’s names are names that are easily accepted by one and all, which is where his strength lies, frankly,” Beata says. “These are sit up and pay attention names, which is ultimately what you want for your wine. We make wines that are unusual because of the varietals that we grow. We wanted a name that would highlight that. A name like Moon Curser is a little bit unusual but it seemed like a really good fit.”

The name emerged from research into the colourful history of Osoyoos. During a gold rush in the 1860s-1870s, miners working claims in the hills beyond Osoyoos tried to avoid duty when they took their gold into the United States. That meant smuggling it across the border at night. On bright moonlit nights, they cursed the moon which made it hard to evade border agents.

“The moon cursers not only smuggled gold, they smuggled donkeys, horses and everything across the border,” Chris says. “Back in the moon curser days, they would shoot at the border agents. The stories in the museum here say that the people taking their gold across would rather just duke it out with the border agents. There were a lot of gunfights.”

That is the rich history now being mined for the labels. The fox in silhouette on some of the labels represents the wily smugglers while the donkey in silhouette on other labels represents a favourite beast of burden. There are other touches of the south Okanagan – bats hanging from trees, snakes, Ponderosa pine.

Both the new name and the labels are quite singular and not likely to be confused with any other. “I like the idea,” Beata says. “There is a lot of drama in cursing at the moon.”

Here are my notes on the wines that are just being released.

Chardonnay 2010 ($22). Only 60 cases were made with grapes from a one-acre vineyard owned by legendary grower Martin Plut on the west side of Lake Osoyoos. The Muscat clone gives floral and spice notes to the wine, along with citrus and apple flavours. The wine has the elegance of Chablis with a little more weight. 88.

Afraid of the Dark 2010 ($22). This is the new name for the winery’s blend of Rhone whites: Viognier (43%), Roussanne (42%), and Marsanne (15%). This is a mouth-filling wine, with aromas of grapefruit and apricots, with flavours of melons, citrus and honey. The finish is crisp and lingering. The winery made 543 cases. 90.

Viognier 2010 ($28). The winery made 122 cases of this expressive unoaked white, handling the grapes gently so as not to extract bitterness inherent in the skins of this varietal. The aroma recalls a basket of tropical fruits with a touch of spice. The wine has good weight, with flavours of apricots and papaya. 91.

Tempranillo 2009 ($29). This winery is one only a handful in the Okanagan with this Spanish grape varietal in its vineyard. Some 276 cases of this wine was made. The wine begins with aromas of cherry and vanilla, continuing to flavours of plum, cherry, dark chocolate, tobacco and spice. 91.

Border Vines 2009 ($25). This is the new name for what the winery used to call Six Vines – because it includes all six Bordeaux varietals. The blend is Cabernet Sauvignon (29%), Malbec (23%), Carmenère (23%), Cabernet Franc (4%) and Petit Verdot (1%). Production was 1,325 cases. It is a bold red, beginning with aromas of blueberries and cassis and with generous fruity flavours. The finish has a hint of spice and pepper, probably the contribution of the Carmenère. 92.

Merlot 2009 ($25). Production was 271 cases of this plump, generous wine. It begins with aromas of red fruit. On the palate, there are flavours of plums, black currants, roasted nuts, vanilla and chocolate. 91.

Syrah 2009 ($25). The winery, with grapes from three Osoyoos vineyards, made 466 cases of big, generous Syrah. The wine begins with gamey, spiced meat, black cherry and violet aromas. On the palate, there are flavours of black cherry, fig and chocolate with a lingering peppery finish. 92.

Dead of Night 2009 ($38). With a production of 340 cases, this is a unique (for the Okanagan) blend of equal parts of Tannat and Syrah. Moon Curser may be the only winery in Canada growing Tannat, an old French variety that can make big, black and muscular wines. This blend is also black and muscular, with intense concentration. There are aromas of blackberry and cherry, with flavours of red currants, plums, black cherry and chocolate. The wine comes in a bottle with a vivid, even scary, silkscreened label. Get over it. This is a delicious blend. 92.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Naramata Bench Wineries 2011 tasting

Photo: Kettle Valley's Bob Ferguson and Tim Watts

Here is a measure of how well established the Naramata Bench is as a premier wine region in the Okanagan: Kettle Valley Winery is celebrating its 20th anniversary of winemaking this year by the same owners, Bob Ferguson and Tim Watts.

There are two older wineries on the bench, Hillside Estate Winery and Lang Vineyards. Both opened in 1990 and both have been through several ownership changes.

Since those three wineries opened, the Naramata Bench has blossomed. There are now about 25 wineries. The exact count depends on the final outcome of the bankruptcy of the six Holman-Lang wineries. At least two of those – Lang Vineyards and Stonehill – are in the hands of new owners.

The other wineries on the Bench seem to doing well. At least, that is the conclusion that I would draw from tasting their wines, either at the recent Naramata Bench Wineries tasting in Vancouver or at other recent opportunities. There are still a few wineries I have missed, an indication of just how many there are.

The wineries here have succeeded in branding their region, to the point that some have discussed created a Naramata sub-appellation. Naramata is a strong name to have on a wine’s label. Recognizing this, Nichol Vineyards is not waiting for the sub-appellation. Its current releases all proclaim that the wines are “Naramata Village Grown.” The winery is one of several actually within the limits of the village.

The brand is working because, with few exceptions, the wines are good to outstanding. As unfortunate as the Holman-Lang bankruptcy was, at least it has taken some less-accomplished Naramata Bench wines off the market to the benefit of the remaining wines.

Here are notes on Naramata Bench wines that have impressed me this spring.

Black Widow Winery 2010 Pinot Gris ($19.90). Crisp and refreshing, with a slight pink hue, this has flavours of apple and rhubarb and has a tangy finish. 90.

Black Widow 2010 Oasis ($19.90). This is a delicious blend of Schönburger, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris. The flavours are spicy grapefruit and apple, with a juicy texture and a lingering, dry finish. 90.

Black Widow 2010 Syrah Rosé ($21.90). This dry rosé, with an intense hue, takes you to the south of France, with aromas and flavours of pomegranate and strawberry. It is full-bodied for a rosé. 90.

Black Widow 2009 Merlot ($27.90). With a production of only 175 cases, this is the winery’s first single varietal Merlot. Firm in texture and built to cellar for several years, this is a generous wine with flavours of figs, black currants and chocolate. 90.

Black Widow 2009 Syrah ($31.90). This is a plush, ripe Syrah, with aromas and flavours of plum, black cherry and spice and with an appealing note of red liquorice on the lingering finish. 91.

Black Widow 2008 Hourglass ($35.90). The winery’s flagship red, it is a blend of 95% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. It has spent 21 months in barrels, mostly French oak. It is a deep, rich red with flavours of blackberry, black currants and figs; and the structure to age well and develop further complexity. 90.

La Frenz Winery 2010 Sauvignon Blanc ($22). This stands up nicely against many New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs. The wine is zesty and refreshing with aromas and flavours of grapefruit and lime. 90.

La Frenz 2010 Sémillon ($20). Fresh and tangy, this wine has aromas and flavour of gooseberry and grapefruit and has the potential to become fleshy and complex with age (as if it won’t be consumed by the end of summer, alas). 90.

La Frenz 2010 Riesling ($20). Here is a beautifully balanced wine, with a touch of natural sweetness offsetting the acidity so that the finish comes across as dry. There are aromas of citrus fruits and flavours of lime and apples. 90.

La Frenz 2010 Alexandria ($20). This is an excellent Muscat-based blend, packed with juicy tropical fruit flavours including lychee, musk melon and spice. There is a touch of residual sweetness. This is one of the best summertime whites you can buy. 90.

La Frenz 2009 Reserve Chardonnay ($29). This is barrel-fermented in new French oak but the fruit flavours – tangerine, peach – are so intense that the oak becomes just the toasty frame for a very complex wine. It has a lingering finish, with an appealing note of cloves. 91.

La Frenz 2009 Merlot ($25). The winery consistently makes intense Merlot, with cassis, blueberry, plum and spice flavours. The texture is full and satisfying and the finish is long. 90.

Hillside Estate Winery 2009 Pinot Gris Un-oaked ($19.99). This is a juicy and refreshing white with the variety’s classic flavours of pear and ripe apples. 88.

Hillside 2008 Pinot Gris Reserve ($19.99). The winery tweaked the variety by fermenting and aging a portion of this wine in barrel. This is an elegant and structured wine with melon, pear and citrus flavours. 89.

Hillside 2009 Gewürztraminer ($18.99). This has characteristic aromas and flavours of lychee, grapefruit and spice, with a touch of balanced sweetness. 89.

Hillside 2010 Muscat Ottonel ($19.99). This is the winery’s signature white, with floral aromas and with delicately spiced fruit flavours. 89.

Hillside 2007 Mosaic ($36.99). This is the winery’s flagship red, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Verdot. The style is ripe Bordeaux, with flavours of black currants and cedar. The wine is elegant and age-worthy. 90.

Hillside 2009 Malbec-Merlot ($N.A.). This was a barrel sample of a very promising red, with blueberry aromas, with cherry and plum flavours and with a chewy ripe texture. 91.

Howling Bluff Winery 2010 Sauvignon Blanc Sémillon ($19) is a delicious white, with aromas of grapefruit and clover honey. The grapefruit is echoed on the rich palate; and the wine is crisp and tangy on the finish. 90.

Howling Bluff Summa Quies Pinot Noir 2009 ($32). This wine begins with glorious aromas of strawberries. Big and fleshy on the palate, yet with the classic silky texture emerging, this seductive wine has flavours of cherry and strawberry that linger and linger. 92.

Kettle Valley 2008 Sauvignon Blanc ($22). The style here is a peachy, tropical wine with soft acidity that contributes to a luscious texture. 88

Kettle Valley 2009 Gewürztraminer ($18). This wine leaps from the glass with a dramatic aroma of spice and grapefruit, repeating that power on the palate. The finish is dry. 90.

Kettle Valley 2009 Viognier ($24). Full-bodied and satisfying, this wine has flavours of apricot, pineapple and citrus. 90.

Kettle Valley 2009 Chardonnay ($18). This is a fruit-forward Chardonnay, with flavours of peach and tangerine and with a refreshing, tangy finish. 88.

Kettle Valley 2007 Pinot Noir Reserve ($35). A full-bodied expression of the variety, this wine has aromas of raspberry and spice, with flavours of cherry and raspberry. 89.

Kettle Valley 2007 Merlot ($24). This is a brooding, intense expression of the variety, with flavours of black currants. 88.

Kettle Valley 2007 McGraw Merlot ($35). The winery’s premium single vineyard Merlot, this elegant wine tastes of currants and blackberries. The structure is firm and muscular and built to age.

Kettle Valley 2007 Syrah ($35). Here is a bold, meaty Rhone-style wine with flavours of plum and chocolate and with pepper in both the aroma and the finish. 89.

Kettle Valley 2007 Barber Cabernet Sauvignon ($35). This is a big, ripe Cabernet, with aromas of red berries and mint and with flavours of cassis, vanilla and tobacco. The wine is built for aging. 91.

Kettle Valley 2007 Old Main Red ($35). This is the winery’s flagship Bordeaux blend; a big, complex red with chewy, ripe tannins and with flavours of plum, cassis, chocolate and tobacco. 91.

Laughing Stock Vineyards 2010 Pinot Gris ($20). A delicious unoaked Pinot Gris, this is full and juicy on the palate, with flavours of pear, apple and grapefruit. 91.

Laughing Stock 2010 Blind Trust White ($25). This is a white blend built around Viognier; you have to peel back the capsule to find out exactly what is in here. The wine is crisp, with flavours of grapefruit and apple and with a lingering finish. 90.

Laughing Stock 2009 Chardonnay ($26). There was some debate at the tasting whether or not the wine carries too much oak. I don’t think so. The clean, toasty notes of the barrel provide the frame for flavours of citrus and butterscotch. The finish is very long. 90.

Laughing Stock 2010 Viognier ($26). An appealing wine, it has flavours of pineapple, apricot and ripe apple, all built around a firm and crisp spine. 90.

Laughing Stock 2008 Syrah ($34). This is a dark, brooding, earthy red with spicecake aromas and with flavours of plum and black cherry and pepper. 91.

Laughing Stock 2009 Portfolio ($40). This is the winery’s flagship red; it will not be released until November. You were lucky if you ordered some at $35 a bottle during the recent futures offering. It is rich and satisfying, with flavours of plum, black currants, vanilla and liquorice. 92.

Marichel Vineyard 2008 Syrah ($39.90). Muscular and juicy, this is a dark, gamey red with flavours of plum, hints of pepper and earth on the finish. 91.

Marichel 2009 Syrah (barrel sample). This is another meaty red, with flavours of plum, liquorice and figs. The finished wine will match the quality of the 2008.

Marichel 2009 ‘raison d’être’ Viognier ($15). That’s the name of the vineyard from which the grapes were purchased. The wine, light in texture, is crisp with citrus flavours. 87.

Nichol Vineyard 2008 Pinot Noir ($26.90). The winery has released 565 cases of this Burgundian-style wine, which begins with strawberry aromas and has flavours of strawberry, cherry, mocha, with a touch of spice. 88.

Nichol Vineyard 2008 Cabernet Franc ($26.90). This is what I call an honest glass of wine – because the aromas and the flavours are so satisfying: blueberry, cherry and black currant aromas and flavours, with some spice and dark chocolate on the finish. 90.

Nichol Vineyard 2008 Syrah ($29.90). This vineyard was the first with Syrah in the Okanagan and it still makes one of the best. The aromas are complex and alluring: cherry, blackberries, white pepper, iodine. On the palate, there are meaty flavours of plum, blackberry, cherry with white pepper on the finish. Some 470 cases were produced. 91.

Nichol Vineyard 2007 Cabernet Syrah ($28.90). The winery made 578 cases of this wine, a blend of 60% Cabernet Franc and 40% Syrah. This is another satisfying red, with spiced cherries in the aroma and with earthy flavours of plum, blackberry and dark chocolate. 90.

Perseus Winery 2008 Invictus ($29.99). This is a blend built around Cabernet Sauvignon, with four other Bordeaux varietals, This elegant wine is full on the palate, with a sweet core of berry flavours: currants, blueberries, which a touch of spice on the finish. 90. Later this year, the winery will release the 2009 Invictus (91 points) which is more floral in aroma and more vibrant in its berry flavours.

Perseus will be discussed in more detail in a future blog.

Poplar Grove Winery 2009 Chardonnay ($22). A classic Chardonnay with flavours of citrus and nectarines subtly supported by oak. 88.

Poplar Grove The Legacy 2006 ($50). A blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, this elegantly sculptured icon spent two years in French oak and then another 18 months in the bottle before release. It begins with powerful aromas of black currants, blueberries and cedar. On the palate, there are flavours of currants, plums and blackberries. The silky tannins add to the elegance of texture but also to the wine’s ability to age. 92.

Red Rooster 2009 Syrah Reserve ($29.99). This is a bit less intense than the other Syrahs from Bench wineries but is no less tasty, with black cherry flavours and with pepper and spice both on the nose and in the finish. 87.

Serendipity Estate Winery Serenata 2008 ($39.90) is the winery’s first Bordeaux red, a blend dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon that spent 23 months in new French oak. It begins with aromas of vanilla, eucalyptus and red fruit. On the palate, there are flavours of currants, blackberries, chocolate, coffee and tobacco, with a core of sweet fruit nesting in long, ripe tannins. 90.

Therapy Vineyards 2010 Pinot Gris ($19.99). Here is another crisp and refreshing white, with citrus aromas, flavours of pears, apples and citrus and, as the wine warms, peach. 88.

Therapy 2010 Gewurztraminer ($17.99). This wine has delicate spice and rose petal aromas, with flavours of grapefruit and spice. The intensity of the fruit flavours are still developing as the wine settles down after bottling. 87.

Therapy 2010 Alterego ($N.A.). Here is a complex new white blend: Pinot Gris (45%), Sauvignon Blanc (35%), Viognier (10%) and Chardonnay (10%). It is a delicious wine, rich on the palate with flavours of citrus and cantaloupe and a touch of butterscotch on the finish. 89-90.

Township 7 2009 Un-oaked Chardonnay ($17.99). This is an example of the fruit-forward Chardonnays that have been in vogue for a few years in a reaction to over-oaked (real or imagined) Chardonnay. This is a pleasant apéritif with flavours of tangerine and peaches. 87.

Township 7 2009 Chardonnay ($19.99). This winery has a foot in both camps. This is a barrel-fermented Chardonnay that was also aged in oak for 10 months. The oak is quite subtle so that the wine displays its fruit flavours – peach, citrus, ripe cantaloupe. 88.

Township 7 2007 Reserve 7 ($34.99). This is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (55%), Merlot (40%) and Cabernet Franc (5%). It begins with a touch of mint on the aroma. On the palate, there are flavours of vanilla, black currant and chocolate. The texture features silky tannins. This wine benefits from decanting, both to open the flavours and to leave behind the modest sediment the wine – presumably unfiltered – is throwing. 88.

Van Westen Vineyards 2009 Viognier ($24.90). Here is a great expression of the variety’s tropical personality, with flavours of pineapple, guava and apple. 90.

Van Westen Vivacious 2009 ($18.90). Primarily Pinot Blanc with some Pinot Gris in the blend, this is a crisp and, yes, vivacious white with aromas and flavours of apples and a backbone of minerality. 88.

Van Westen Vivre la Vie 2007 ($27.90). This big, ripe wine has 14.9% alcohol but so much fruit and chewy texture that there is no heat on the finish. The wine, which is 100% Merlot, begins with abundant red berries on the nose. Its layered flavours include currants, blackberries and plums with hints of chocolate and vanilla on the finish. 90.

Van Westen Voluptuous 2007 ($29.90). This red is a blend of 67% Merlot, 33% Cabernet Franc. It begins with an alluring aroma of black currants and lingonberries which is picked up in the flavours. 90.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Wine Islands Tasting

Photo: Saturna Island vineyards

It is spring in British Columbia when the wine tasting season is in full flood.

This week it was the turn of the Wine Islands Vintners Association, which assembled 28 of its members and their products in the Empress Hotel’s Crystal Ballroom.

In the time available to me, I was unable to get to every table but, with a little speed tasting, I covered a representative cross-section. Omissions in the reviews below only mean I could not get to every one of the more than 100 products.

The event also served as the launch for Island Wineries of British Columbia, edited by Gary Hynes, the editor of EAT Magazine. It is published by Touchwood Editions and sells for $29.95.

Since I have a somewhat comparable book coming off the press any day, it would be a conflict to review this book. Except to say that it is a handsome book, with superb colour photographs. There are more than enough features to this book that I am happy to recommend it. If I were an island resident, I would be sending gift copies to my friends who live elsewhere.

My book is called John Schreiner’s BC Coastal Wine Tour Guide (Whitecap Books, $20). As the title suggests, I cover not only island wineries but also those of the Fraser Valley and the Lower Mainland (extending as far as Lillooet). While the books overlap, they are so substantially different that – dare I say it – you need both!

The surprise for many readers will be just how many producers there are. Fully a third of the 210 licensed wineries, cideries and meaderies in British Columbia are in the coastal regions. Good wine touring itineraries can be set up without ever driving as far as the Okanagan. Arguably, the infrastructure on the islands – restaurants, accommodation – is even more developed than in most parts of the Okanagan.

While some coastal wineries supplement their vineyards with grapes purchased from the Okanagan, many make wines exclusively from grapes and fruit grown in coastal and island vineyards. These terroirs are substantially different from the Okanagan, producing wines that are distinctive. Climate vagaries make the coast region a tough place for viticulture. However, when nature gets it right, as in the 2o09 vintage, excellent wines are made. And when nature does not get it right, as in 2010, the wine growers dig deep into their pools of skill to make good wines.

Quite a number of wineries make commendable Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, two varieties that generally grow well on the coast and the islands.

Photo: Pinot Noir bunch at Garry Oaks

Both recent vintages (and a few older ones) were on display at the WIVA tasting. Here are notes on some my discoveries.

Blue Grouse Pinot Noir 2006 ($28). Hans Kiltz has had this Cobble Hill winery for sale for some time, apparently without attracting an acceptable offer. When you taste the Blue Grouse wines, you want Hans and Richard, his son, just to keep running it. This is a lovely Pinot Noir, gracefully silky after five years of age, with good concentration of flavour (cherries, plums, spice) and a long finish. 90.

Blue Grouse Black Muscat 2009 ($26). As far as I know, no one else grows this grape in British Columbia. Hans used to make a dessert wine but he has now begun vinifying it as a dry red table wine. It is a brilliant success, an exotic wine with aromas of spice and wild strawberries and flavours of spiced cherries and mulberries. 91.

Church & State Pinot Gris 2009. This is from the winery’s Saanich vineyard where, in future, the winery expects to make primarily sparkling wine. Most of its wines are made in its other facility in the Okanagan. This is one of the best Island Pinot Gris wines, with mouth filling flavours of pears and citrus. It is crisp but very well balanced. 90.

de Vine Vineyards Pinot Noir 2009 “The Vixen” ($24). This is a new winery that opened its tasting room last year on Old West Saanich Road. The winery gets grapes from its young vines but also buys some from the Okanagan. Winemaker Ken Winchester does a fine job. This wine is elegant and delicate, with aromas and flavours of strawberry and with a silky texture. 89.

Enrico Winery and Vineyards Pinot Noir 2009 ($18.50). This is another new winery with a tasting room not far from Mill Bay. This wine is light in colour but comes through with a fuller texture (a Pinot Noir characteristic) and with strawberry and cherry flavours. 88.

Garry Oaks Winery Blanc de Noir 2010 Rosé ($17.99). Even when the vintage is hard, as in 2010, Garry Oaks’s co-owner, Marcel Mercier, is able to deliver good grapes to his winemaking partner, Elaine Kozak. This rosé, made with Pinot Noir and Zweigelt, is a solid dry rosé, tangy and refreshing with flavours of citrus and rhubarb. 90.

Garry Oaks Winery Pinot Gris 2009 ($21.99). Refreshingly crisp, this wine has layers of fruit flavours, including apples and pears. 90.

Garry Oaks Winery Prism 2009 ($19.99). The winery has given a pronounceable name to its Gewürztraminer. It presents aromas and flavours of lime and grapefruit and has a clean dry finish. 90.

Garry Oaks Winery Pinot Noir 2008 ($22.99). The 2008 vintage was almost as tough as 2010 but you would not know it from this wine. It has vibrant flavours of cherry and strawberry and has begun to develop the supple texture of this variety. 89.

Garry Oaks Winery Zeta ($22.99). This is the winery’s Zweigelt, an Austrian red grape that grows well on the islands. A medium-bodied wine, this has an array of red berry flavours, with a spicy finish. 88.

Morning Bay Vineyard Chiaretto 2009 ($14.99). This is a light rosé-style red from varieties in this winery’s Pender Island vineyard. Fresh and crisp, it has notes of strawberry and red currant. 87.

Muse Winery Pinot Gris 2010 “legally blonde” ($19). Here is a crisp white that shows the steely acidity of the vintage. It has flavours of lime and grapefruit and has a tangy finish. Oysters would be in order with this. 87.

Muse Winery Chardonnay/Sémillon 2010 “burgundian beauty” ($19). Made with Okanagan grapes, this wine has some toasty notes in the aroma, with flavours of citrus. The Sémillon adds a nice grassy note. 87.

Muse Winery Pinot Noir 2009 “latitude attitude” ($26). The subtext on the wine labels here refers to entertaining back labels as well as reflecting the larger than life personalities of the owners. This wine is still firm. It has begun to express cherry and strawberry flavours but has the structure to age well for several years. 87.

Rocky Creek Winery Ortega 2010 ($17.90). Winery owners Mark and Linda Holford dealt with the challenge of the cool 2010 vintage by leaving grapes on the vines – as Mark recalls – “until Halloween.” This wine’s vivid aromas (gooseberry, grassy) recall Sauvignon Blanc. It has lime and grapefruit flavours and the acidity, while fresh, is under control. 88.

Rocky Creek Winery Pinot Gris 2010 ($17.90). Here is a crisp, tangy white with flavours of citrus and rhubarb. 88.

Rocky Creek Winery Robin’s Rosé 2010 ($17.90). Mark and Linda brought a tank sample of a wine not yet bottled. The aromas are still developing and should reflect the cherry and cranberry flavours of this Pinot Noir rosé. 87.

Rocky Creek Winery Pinot Noir 2009 ($21.90). This is a fairly intense take on the variety, with cherry and red berry flavours, and a texture that is still developing. 87 – 89.

Salt Spring Vineyards Blattner White 2009 ($19.90). This is the first white wine released in British Columbia from Swiss hybrid grapes developed by Valentin Blattner (hence the name). This wine has peach and tropical fruit flavours with a note of honey and a touch of sweetness. The 2010 vintage, I am told, is totally dry. 88.

Saturna Island Family Estate Winery Pinot Gris 2009 ($15.99). A refreshingly crisp wine with good weight and with apple and pear flavours. 88.

Saturna Island Family Estate Winery Blanc de Noir 2009 ($13.99). This vineyard, for some reason, has a block of Merlot and, of course, it seldom gets ripe. The winemaker in 2009 had the clever idea of making rosé. Almost white, it has flavours of melons and apples and a tangy finish. 87.

Saturna Island Family Estate Winery Rosé 2009 ($15.99). Made with Pinot Noir, this refreshing rosé has flavours of raspberry and strawberry. 88.

Saturna Island Family Estate Winery Pinot Noir 2009 ($N.A.). By bleeding off some juice for the rosé, the winery improved the concentration of the Pinot Noir table wine (a common industry practice, by the way). This is a full-bodied wine with spicy black cherry flavours and even a touch of chocolate. The winery is releasing about 450 cases. 90.

Photo: Ben McGuffie, Jill Ogasawara of SouthEnd Farm

SouthEnd Farm & Vineyards Black Crow 2009 ($16.90). This is a red blend from the only winery on Quadra Island, probably incorporating some Agria. The wine has spicy, gamy flavours of plum and cherry. 87.

Starling Lane Winery Célébration Brut N.V. ($27.90). A fine dry sparkling wine with toasty and bready aromas and with crisp, citrus flavours. 88.

Starling Lane Winery Maréchal Foch 2009 ($23.90). When Island wineries want to make big reds, this is usually the variety of choice. Black in colour and soft in texture, this wine has gobs of plum and chocolate flavours. 89.

Starling Lane Winery Pinot Noir 2009 ($25.90). This attractive wine has ripe flavours of cherry and strawberry, with a hint of smokiness (perhaps from the barrels) and with a supple texture. 90.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Oliver Osoyoos Wine Country is the South Okanagan's new branding

Photo: Adega on 45th Winery

The South Okanagan Winery Association used last weekend’s Banée celebration to reveal that it is rebranding as Oliver Osoyoos Wine Country, with the slogan “Uncork the Sun.”

The objective is raising the profile of this exciting wine region. It extends from the U.S. border to McIntyre Bluff, north of Oliver. The membership includes all by five of the 26 wineries current operating in the area.

The group has a lot of news to communicate these days. Some examples:

* New wineries, two of which are close to the big Jackson-Triggs winery. Hidden Chapel Winery and River Stone Estate Winery are days away from opening their tasting rooms. Adega on 45th Winery (not yet a member) expects to open its tasting room by summer. Intersection Winery (also not yet a member) looks like it might have wine available by the fall.

Hidden Chapel, beside the highway north of Oliver, is operated by Lanny Kinrade with his wife, Deborah Wilde, and his brother Terry. The winery itself is based on a 3 ½ acre vineyard planted exclusively with Cabernet Sauvignon. From this and from purchased fruit, the winery is launching primarily with big reds.

Photo: Lorraine and Ted Kane

River Stone is located beside Tuc-Ul-Nuit Road northeast of Oliver. The business card identifies Ted Kane as the owner and Lorraine, his wife and a busy doctor, as a consumer. The winery is launching with three solid wines: a Pinot Gris, a Malbec rosé and a Cabernet Franc.

Adega on 45th, still under construction, is a handsome winery with a bell tower, set in a vineyard not far from Nk’Mip Winery at Osoyoos. The owners are Fred Farinha and his brother-in-law, Alex Nunes. They are long-time tree fruit growers who replaced their trees several years ago with about 30 acres of grapes. They bring a Portuguese heritage and love of wine to this project.

Photo: Fred Farinha (left) and Alex Nunes

Intersection Winery is the new name that Bruce Schmidt has given to his Parallel 49 Vineyards, which is at Highway 97 and #8 Road south of Oliver.

* Two wineries have changed names this spring. Golden Beaver Winery has become Castoro de Oro Winery (castor is Latin for beaver). The object is to get around the reluctance of sommeliers to put the Golden Beaver label on wine lists.

Twisted Tree Winery has become Moon Curser Vineyards in a rebranding managed by Bernie Hadley-Beauregard (of Blasted Church and Dirty Laundry fame). Chris and Beata Tolley, the winery’s owners, wanted to eliminate the lingering confusion between their winery name and Oliver Twist Winery or Tangled Vines Winery. As always, Bernie has designed provocative labels.

* Two wineries are opening restaurants. Tinhorn Creek Estate Winery’s new Miradoro Restaurant (above), opened in partnership with Manuel Ferreira of Vancouver’s Le Gavroche, is getting rave reviews for both its food and the views from this elegant building high above the valley.

In a few weeks, Hester Creek will open its Terrafina Restaurant in the building that formerly served as its tasting room. The guiding culinary mind here is Jeremy Luypen, the executive chef for the highly-rated Passa Tempo Restaurant in Osoyoos.

Oliver Osoyoos Wine Country’s Banée was the eighth in what is primarily an industry celebration to mark the start of a new season. The idea comes from an old French tradition where winery owners came together after pruning was done to unwind over dinner with their best wines. The Oliver Osoyoos Banée’s timing allowed most wineries rolled out the new whites from 2010 and reds from the two previous years.

The 2010 vintage was a challenging one, with a late spring, a cool summer, a rainy September and then a long, dry autumn. The white wines from that vintage are proving to be packed with flavour, finishing crisply with vibrant but balanced acidity. The two previous years had their issues as well but, for the most part, the reds are very good.

Here are some random notes on excellent wines I tasted during Banée.

Burrowing Owl 2008 Meritage. This is an elegant blend of Bordeaux varietals with classic aromas and flavours of black currants, blackberries and cedar and with long ripe tannins. 91.

Cassini Cellars 2010 Sauvignon Blanc. This is a crisp varietal reminiscent of Sancerre, with herbal aromas and citrus flavours. 88.

Castoro do Oro Heart of Gold 2010. This is a creative blend of Viognier, Auxerrois and Pinot Blanc, with flavours of melons and apricots and with a crisp finish. 88.

Church & State Tre Bella 2010. This is a blend of Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier. The wine begins with herbal and floral aromas. On the palate, there is a touch of honey along with citrus. The texture is rich and satisfying and the finish is dry and lingering. 90.

Desert Hills 2010 Gewürztraminer. This white absolutely slaps you in the face with its vivid spicy aromas and mouth-filling flavours of grapefruit and lime. This delicious wine has a long, dry, spicy finish. 90.

Dunham & Froese Amicitia White 2009. This is an elegant and complex blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Viognier. Rich and full on the palate, it has tropical fruit aromas and flavours of melon and guava. 90.

Gehringer Brothers 2010 Pinot Gris Private Reserve. This delicious wine is juicy on the palate with flavours of citrus and pear. The finish is refreshingly crisp. 90. With this vintage, Gehringer Brothers has switched top screw caps and has launched a new label that is crisp, clean and classy. Jackson-Triggs, take note.

Hester Creek 2009 Character Red. This wine, along with Character White, is a new blend. This is Merlot, Syrah, Malbec and Petit Verdot. It has satisfying flavours of chocolate, tobacco, cherry and plum. The ripe tannins mean the wine is already approachable but also that it can be cellared a few years. 90.

Hidden Chapel Winery Trilogy 2009. This is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (55%), Merlot (35%) and Cabernet Franc (10%). There are flavours of plum, black currants and cherry; and the texture shows excellent concentration and length. 90.

Inniskillin Okanagan Discovery Series 2008 Sangiovese. Here is a concentrated Tuscan red with earthy flavours of plum and red berries. 90.

Jackson-Triggs 2010 Sauvignon Blanc Black Series. The name here refers to a series of astonishingly bland new labels that Jackson-Triggs is rolling out. The wines are way better than the labels. This is zesty and refreshing with grapefruit and lime aromas and flavours and vibrant acidity. 88.

Moon Curser Vineyards 2009 Border Vines. This is the new name for what the winery used to call Six Vines – because it includes all six Bordeaux varietals. It is a bold red, beginning with aromas of blueberries and cassis and with generous fruity flavours. The finish has a hint of spice and pepper. 92.

Nk’Mip Cellars 2010 Riesling. This was a tank sample of a wine due to be released in the fall. By then its attractive lime flavours will be accompanied by a good varietal aroma and perhaps even a touch of petrol. The finish is crisply dry. 90.

Oliver Twist 2010 Oliver’s Choice. This is a tasty Kerner, with a touch of residual sweetness to lift the grapefruit, lime and peach flavours. The balance is so exquisite that the long finish seems dry. 89.

Quinta Ferreira Viognier 2009. This is a restrained white, with notes of pineapple and apricot and with a rich palate. 89.

River Stone 2010 Malbec Rosé. Here is a remarkable rosé, intense in colour and aroma, with flavours of strawberry and red plum. 90.

Road 13 Chenin Blanc 2010. Winemaker J-M Bouchard calls this wine the “star” of Road 13’s wines from that vintage. It is indeed terrific, with lime and apple flavours and with a good backbone of minerals and acidity. 91.

Silver Sage 2010 Gewürztraminer. This wine begins with a delicate rose petal aroma. It is delicately light on the palate, tasting of candy and spice. 88.

Stoneboat Vineyards 2010 Pinot Gris. Here is a fruit bomb beginning with an aromatic nose and showing layers of pear and citrus and peach. The finish is refreshing and crisp. 91.

Tinhorn Creek 2010 Pinot Gris. This winery has an excellent track record with Pinot Gris and this wine – aromas of citrus and pineapple and flavours of citrus and pears – does not disappoint. 90.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Class of 2011: 3 Mile Estate Winery

Photo: Jake and Colleen Gunther

The four owners of 3 Mile Estate Winery, scheduled to open June 15, 2011, researched winery names for a year. They even considered Pigeon Hill Winery before decided to keep it simple. After all, 3 Mile Road branches off Naramata Road just north of their winery.

But Pigeon Hill? It is the name of one of the vineyards here. Jake Gunther, one of the partners, is also a pigeon farmer. The several long, narrow buildings on the property – one not far from the winery – house about 3,000 pairs of birds, producing squab for sale to restaurants and consumers in Vancouver. Before moving to the Okanagan several years ago, Jake was one of the largest pigeon farmers in Abbotsford in the Fraser Valley. And that was just a sideline for Jake, a Winnipeg native who grew up in the Fraser Valley and who also was in commercial door manufacturing for about 30 years.

Colleen, his wife and now the winery’s cellar manager, also comes from a career outside wine. A native of Crowsnest Pass, Alberta, she operated a successful spa in Abbotsford with as many as 37 employees. Before that, she worked in Penticton’s Lakeside Hotel when it opened; and that familiarity with the Okanagan drew the Gunthers back there again in 2004.

Initially, they bought acreage on Naramata Road just with the intention of building a house. Sadly, two deaths in Colleen’s family caused them to set that plan aside temporarily. Then they were able to buy an adjoining property with a house – and a producing vineyard. A chance encounter with the owner led to the purchase of a third contiguous property. In total, they now own 14 acres, nine of it planted to vines, including Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Viognier, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Pinot Noir and Gamay.

“We would never have bought an operating winery,” Colleen says. “We had to learn to walk before doing a winery. We have been busy just learning viticulture and we have gotten quite good at that.” Jake has developed such an enthusiasm for pruning his vines that he hates to stop at the end of the day when it gets dark.

“He uses the pigeon manure to fertilize the vineyard,” Colleen says. “We had some areas of the vineyard that were suffering. The clay gets so hard. We had somebody come in and rip up the soil around the vines and then Jake just put a shovel of this dried manure [around the vines]. Those plants are beautiful now.”

For a few years, they sold grapes to Hillside Estate Winery, located nearby on the other side of Naramata Road. The decision to develop the winery was accelerated by a year when Hillside decided it did not need their grapes in 2010. The Gunthers enlisted Gail and Darryl Rahn as partners. She is Colleen’s sister and he is a BC Hydro manager.

“They live in Revelstoke and will be moving here eventually,” Colleen says. “My husband and I have a lot of business experience. We will get the winery up and running and get those first few years under our belt.”

While dealing with Hillside, they came to know Kelly Symonds, who was then the winemaker there. When she left to join a Vancouver winery two years ago, the Gunthers asked if she would consider making their wine, should they decide to open a winery. “I said to my partners we really need that professional help right now, until we get our feet wet” Colleen says.

Kelly agreed, helping make almost 1,200 cases of wine in 2010 and teaching Colleen how to manage the cellar and its laboratory when the winemaker is not around.

The business plan calls for limiting production to 2,500- 2,800 cases a year. “We want to produce ultra premium wines and not get very large so we can baby the wine” Colleen says.

The winery will launch a fragrant and dry Gewürztraminer, a complex barrel-fermented Pinot Gris and a Viognier dessert wine. When a red wine is available, it will be a blend of the Bordeaux varietals and Syrah. The plan is to call it Trilogy Plus. The Pinot Noir and Gamay vines were not yet fully in production last fall.

The winery building also includes three bed and breakfast suites which, Colleen promises, will be “Five Star.”

“The beauty of this business is the fact that it is our product and we have control,” Colleen says about the winery. “We grow the grapes. We can cut back the tonnage and baby those vines. It is all about what we do. It’s a business, too, and we have to market [the wines]. But the basics of it are just producing a really good product. If you put your heart and soul into it, I just can’t see where you will go wrong.”

3 Mile Estate Winery
1465 Naramata Road,
Penticton, B.C., V2A 4M1.
Tel: 778-476-5918

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Class of 2011: Serendipity Estate Winery

Photo: Judy Kingston

Judy Kingston was a bit emotional this spring when introducing sommeliers and winery visitors to the first wines released by her Serendipity Estate Winery.

“I planted the grapes; I have seen them all the way through and then helped put them in the bottle” she explains. “For me, it was like I was in the bottle. It was a real funny thing for me. It was the first time I had ever done it, offering myself in a bottle to somebody.”

You need to understand two things about Judy:

First, she comes to selling wine after a 25-year career as a practitioner of computer law in Toronto. “I have never sold anything in my life because I’ve been a lawyer. I never had to.”

Second, four years of farming grapes – another thing she had never done before - has forged a passionate relationship with her vines.

“These are the babies I planted,” she says of her 8 ½ acre vineyard. “It’s so soothing when you are out in the vineyard, in the midst of all your vines, just taking care of them. There is nothing I have ever worked on has come close to that.”

The winery is just opening on Debeck Road, next to Therapy Vineyards and a short drive off Naramata Road. The debut wines are a 2007 Pinot Noir, a 2008 Bordeaux blend and a pair of 2010 whites – Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc. Later in the summer, Judy expects to release a Cabernet Franc, a Merlot and a Syrah, all from the 2009 vintage.

With wine shop hours still be determined, it might be wise to call for an appointment. Count on a warm welcome and plenty of passion about the wines.

Wine was not her original passion. “I was going through school as a mathematician,” she remembers. “That was my dream in life.” At the University of Western Ontario, she did a double major: mathematics and computer science. She had to do a thesis to graduate and, on the advice of her thesis advisor, did a paper on computer law, then a new area in American law and an undeveloped field in Canada.

In turn, that took her to law school with a determination to carve out a career in this new field. “I chatted to different lawyers in Toronto,” she recalls. “They said you don’t get new areas of developing law; female lawyers go into family law and estate law – try that.” Eventually, about 1975, one large firm invited her to article and she became one of the first, if not the first, computer lawyer in Canada.

Judy’s impulsive 2006 purchase of a Naramata orchard, soon to become a vineyard, came after a car accident and a decision to switch lifestyles. After moving to the Okanagan late that year, she enrolled in Okanagan College’s viticulture course to gain the skills needed as a grape grower. Later, to add winemaking knowledge, she did a crush at a New Zealand winery.

After the apple trees were pulled out, the property was contoured to eliminate frost pockets and to create good south and west-facing slopes. It was planted in 2007 with Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc. This year, two acres of Pinot Noir will bring the vineyard to almost 10 ½ acres.

“I don’t think I can farm more than I have got here,” Judy says. “It’s a lot of work.”

Photo: Jason Parkes with a bottle of Serenata

She shares the winemaking with Jason Parkes who also has had colourful careers, first as a construction explosives technician and then as rock musician with a critically acclaimed punk band called Glasshead. When the revenues from music slowed down in 2003, he also took a job in the vineyard at Hainle Vineyards.
Circumstances propelled him into winemaking there and then at Adora Winery, the custom crush facility where Serendipity’s wines were made before Serendipity built its own cellar.

“I’m glad this wine thing found me,” Jason says, no longer working as a musician and song writer. “I make wine with passion and stress. I have nothing left for music.”

Serenata 2008 ($39.90) is the winery’s first Bordeaux red, a blend dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon that spent 23 months in new French oak. It begins with aromas of vanilla, eucalyptus and red fruit. On the palate, there are flavours of currants, blackberries, chocolate, coffee and tobacco, with a core of sweet fruit nesting in long, ripe tannins. 90.

Pinot Noir 2007 ($39.90) spent three years aging in older barrels before being bottled. The style might be called old world, with slightly porty flavours of fig and black olive as well as spicy cherry and plum. The barrel-aging has given wine a polished texture. 88.
The Sauvignon Blanc, said to be done in the New Zealand style, and the Viognier were not available for tasting when I visited the winery last month.

Serendipity Estate Winery
990 Debeck Road,
Naramata, BC, V0H 1N0.
Tel: 250-496-5299.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Foxtrot Vineyards releases its 2008 Pinot Noir

Naramata Bench’s tiny Foxtrot Vineyards this week has begun to release the fifth vintage of its Pinot Noir, one of the most coveted and expensive ($54.95) Pinot Noirs in the Okanagan.

Is it also the best? One of these years, someone with deep pockets will organize a blind tasting to deal with that question.

If it were up to me, we would line up the Stewart Family Reserve Pinot Noir from Quails’ Gate.; the Platinum Pinot Noir from CedarCreek; the Stripe Label Pinot Noir from Blue Mountain; one of the Kettle Valley Pinot Noirs; one of the Meyer Family Pinot Noirs; the new Pinot Noir from Howling Bluff and the new one from La Frenz; and Foxtrot. For good measure, I might also find one from Road 13, the top one from Nk’Mip Cellars, one from Seven Stones. And finally, Burrowing Owl’s Pinot Noir, just because your are not supposed to grow good Pinot Noir on Black Sage Road but Burrowing Owl doesn’t know that.

It would be a spectacular tasting; and I have certainly forgotten a few other choice examples (there are several interesting Vancouver Island Pinots as well). The point is that Pinot Noir is emerging as a signature red varietal in British Columbia.

Foxtrot certainly ranks among the producers that have been raising the bar for this variety.

The winery is owned by Torsten and Kicki Allander. The wines are made by their son, Gustav, and Nadine Kinvig, Gustav’s wife and a graduate of Lincoln University in New Zealand.

A former pulp and paper engineer, Torsten and his family retired to the Okanagan in 2002, buying a Naramata Bench property that included a house with a view and a vineyard that had been planted a decade earlier exclusively to the Dijon 115 clone of Pinot Noir. The vines are all growing on their own roots.

After selling his grapes for several vintages, Torsten decided to find out whether his little vineyard could generate a world-ranked Pinot Noir. He arranged to have the first two or three vintages made at the nearby Lake Breeze winery. He provided Lake Breeze with, among other things, the new French oak barrels he determined to be critical to making quality Pinot Noir. Several years, Foxtrot built its own cellar and brought its winemaking home.

All of the preceding vintages have received acclaim from wine critics and sommeliers, some of whom have noted the increasing finesse of the wines.

There is no magic here. The impeccable vineyard always carries a low crop, ensuring good flavour concentration and texture. The grapes are gently destemmed, with whole berries falling into the fermenters. The fermentation involves cultured yeasts. Torsten and Gustav have not been happy with trials they have done using wild yeast. The wine is made primarily with free run juice.

The barrel program is similar to what some of the great houses in Burgundy do. Foxtrot uses only new French oak, (Tronçais and Allier). The 2008 vintage was aged 16 months in barrel. However, this is by no means a wine where the oak stands out; the rich fruit flavours have assimilated the oak seamlessly.

Foxtrot Pinot Noir 2008 displays deep garnet hues and shows alluring aromas of cherries, plums, raspberries and spice. The fruit flavours carry through on the palate and on the long, long finish. The texture is the classic velvet of the ripe tannins that have become a hallmark of the Foxtrot style. The wine is at once powerful and elegant. 95.

A note to those who buy the wine: lay a few bottles away for two or three years at least. As delicious as the wine is now, it will be even better and more seductive with additional age.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Ruby Tuesday Winery becomes Ruby Blues Winery

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Photo: Prudence Maher with the red shoes

Visitors to the Ruby Tuesday Winery on Naramata Road this year will notice two differences this year.

First of all, the name is changing to Ruby Blues Winery. It is an almost imperceptible change since only one word changes on the “flying shoes” label.

This is how small the change is: recently, a crew spent the day at the winery to bottle the new releases. At the end of the day, winery owner Prudence Maher asked the person who was checking the labels for correct application to the bottles what she thought of the new labels.

“What new labels?” the individual asked.

When the winery opened in 2009, its original name was drawn from a 1966 Rolling Stones song, Goodbye Ruby Tuesday. It was one of the songs that Prudence recalled from her adolescence (she was born in 1953).

The refrain goes like this:

Goodbye, ruby tuesday
Who could hang a name on you?
When you change with every new day
Still I’m gonna miss you...

The irony is that Prudence is going to miss the name. A year ago, her small winery was sued by Ruby Tuesday Inc., the giant American restaurant chain with about 900 locations – only one of which is in Canada (Niagara Falls). She makes wine, they serve wine and they thought it a conflict.

At first, Prudence thought about taking the restaurant chain on. “I wanted to fight and I had the lawyers working for me and the chances were pretty good that we could win,” she said in a recent interview. “However, it takes years and years and tons of money ... Toward the end of the year, my lawyer convinced me that, for the quality of my life, it would be smarter for me to change the name and just go on with life.”

The new name still has an allusion to music, this time to a song by The Beatles.

“Rather that fighting for years and spending thousands of dollars on a negative subject, we decided to move on and do what we always said: Catch your dreams before they slip away,” Prudence says.

The second change in the tasting room is that the winery will also be selling shoes.

It all came about because the model for the shoes on the wine labels here was a pair of winged shoes that Prudence had found several years ago. She left one with the label artist and has the other in the winery tasting room. Of course, visitors would ask about the shoe and Prudence would joke that shoes would soon join wines in the shop.

That might have remained a joke. However, a friend has a Vietnamese wife who had visitors from Vietnam last year. “They had the fanciest shoes on,” Prudence recalls.

In no time, she had designed her own fancy shoes and ordered 170 pairs of ladies shoes from a cobbler in Vietnam. There are two styles; one sells for $95 a pair and the other for $75. The brand is Dear Prudence.

“They are very high-heeled, very feminine, probably nothing to walk in the vineyard with,” she says. “They are meant to walk from home to the car and to the restaurant and then back. They look extremely fancy.”

It all adds to the fun of visiting this winery’s tasting room, where the slogan is: “The cost for a tasting is a smile.”

And she means it. She and Beat, her husband, initially opened the Red Rooster Winery, expanding from a tiny winery on a side road to a showpiece on Naramata Road. After they sold it in 2005 to Andrew Peller Ltd., Prudence found how deeply she missed running a tasting room and kibitzing with visitors. That is why she launched what is now Ruby Blues.

“For me, this is playing,” she says. “I just do it a little bit different than what everybody else is doing. I love to play.”

Monday, April 4, 2011

Faustino wines: where tradition meets contemporary styles

Photo: Alvaro del Santo y Mora

Perhaps the last place you would expect to find a portrait of Christoph Willibald Gluck, the 18th Century German opera composer, is on a bottle of Spanish wine.

Yet there it is on Faustino V Reserva 2005, a specialty listed wine in British Columbia and selling for $25.

Gluck is also on the labels of several other Faustino wines. Gluck has company. A portrait of Rembrandt, the Dutch painter, graces the labels of Faustino I Gran Reserva 1999 ($38 in the Liquor Distribution Branch’s speciality store) as well as labels of other of Faustino’s reserve wines.

Apparently, no one at Grupo Faustino, Spain’s largest family-owned wine group, remembers why these portraits were chosen when the 150-year-old winery began bottling Rioja wines under its own labels in 1931. Those distinctive labels are memorable to fans of Spanish wine, even if they seem a little dated among compared with contemporary labels.

At the recent Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival, Grupo Faustino was unique among the Spanish wineries in having two tables, side by side. One table featured its traditional Rioja wines and labels. The next door table featured the more contemporary wines (and labels) from the wineries that the group has elsewhere in Spain.

Although there were about 35 other Spanish wineries at the show this year, fifteen minutes at these two tables was an excellent introduction to the roots of Spanish winemaking as well as to the innovative winemaking now going on.

Later on, I pulled aside Alvaro del Santo y Mora, the winery’s export manager, for a conversation about the group and its wines. “We have adapted to the new trends [in the wine market] without forgetting our winemaking traditions,” he said.

Bodegas Faustino, the group’s best known Rioja winery, produces the traditional Gran Riserva and Riserva reds that one identifies with Rioja. These wines are made primarily with the Tempranillo grape, are aged as much as 30 months in oak and then in bottle before release. These are long-lived reds. The winery’s current offerings include a Faustino I Gran Reserva from 1964.

The Faustino I Gran Reserva 1999 was the oldest wine among those shown at the festival. Somehow, the Rembrandt on the label seems just right. Like an Old Master Painting, this richly flavoured wine – plums, figs, black olives, vanilla – comes in a frame created by the beneficial effects of bottle aging. 91.

The Faustino V Reserva 2005 is also a satisfying traditional Rioja – a wine with the polished texture of ripe tannins and oak aging. On the palate, there are flavours of plum, vanilla and chocolate. 90.

The family probably has been making wines in this style almost since the winery was established in 1861. That was during a golden age of Rioja when vineyards and wineries were being opened to compensate for the collapse of French wine production during the phyloxera epidemic.

Of course, Rioja wine production goes back to Roman days, stalling during the Islamic conquest of Spain and then reviving after the region was reconquered in the late 15th Century by the Christians. The Spanish ships sailing to the New World were all provisioned with wine, no doubt including reds from Rioja. Since some of the earliest European explorers of the British Columbia coast were Spanish, it is just possible that Rioja was the first wine consumed here.

Today, Grupo Faustino considers itself the largest vineyard owner in Spain, with a total of 2,100 hectares including 850 hectares in Rioja. “They were farmers first,” Alvaro del Santo says of the family. “That’s the key point.” These vineyards include many 50 to 100-year-old vines, always an advantage when growing premium wine.

Those extensive land holdings now support seven wineries, four in the Rioja and three in other Spanish appellations. Innovation, as opposed to traditional winemaking, marks most of the newer properties.

Bodegas Campillo, one of the Rioja wineries, operates from a 1980s winery designed to resemble a French chateau. While traditional Rioja is generally aged in American oak, many of the Campillo reds are aged in French oak or in a combination of French and American.

Marqués de Vitoria was the original Faustino winery in Rioja. Recently, it has moved into the production of organic wines. One of the reds, an excellent unoaked Tempranillo under the “Ecco” brand, is listed in British Columbia.

Ecco Organic 2009 ($14.99) is a juicy red bursting with flavours of cherries and plums. This combination of price and quality makes the wine a candidate for summer barbecue drinking. 88.

If Spanish wine, which has been selling well already in British Columbia, gets an added lift from the Playhouse Wine Festival, you can expect Alvaro del Santo to introduce additional wines from the group, if only because wine consumption in Spain declined with the recent crash of the Spanish economy. Grupo Faustino used to sell between 60% and 70% of its wines in the domestic market. Today, 60% of its wines are being exported.

One of the group’s brands that should be made available here is Bodegas Portia, a spectacular new winery that the group opened last fall in Ribera del Duero. Grupo Faustino spent an astonishing 38 million Euro to build a striking winery designed by British architect Norman Foster. It is a three-storey, star-shaped building, designed to that the grapes are delivered to the top floor and gravity looks after moving them from press to fermentation to barrel. There is so much modern winemaking technology here that groups taking the 90-minute tour are not allowed to take interior photographs.

Portia Primo 2007 ($32 if listed here) is 100% Tempranillo, a dark, full-bodied red with flavours of black currants and blueberries set against subtle French oak notes. 90 points. This was one of the red wines served last fall at the Nobel Prize awards dinner. A very good example of modern Spanish winemaking, it deserves to available in our markets.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Mission Hill releases Oculus and friends

Given the size of its portfolio, Mission Hill Family Estate Winery has new releases almost every month.

One looks especially forward to the new releases when they include Oculus, the star of the house. The 2007 Oculus is from one of the strongest red vintages in the Okanagan this decade.

Mission Hill wines are released in four tiers, with the Legacy tier being the top one. Oculus is the crown of that tier. The three other Legacy wines – Quatrain, Compendium, both red blends, and Perpetua, a Chardonnay – were released last fall. These are wines for connoisseurs.

The next tier is called SLC, or Select Lot Collection. The most recent SLC releases came out last year. Priced roughly between $22 and $37 a bottle, these also deliver the level of quality that appeals to collectors and connoisseurs.

The current releases include wines from the Reserve Tier and from the entry level Five Vineyards tier. These are very good wines that you can afford to drink week in and week out.

It is a credit to winemaker John Simes and his team in the vineyards and the cellar that the quality is consistent across the portfolio.

Here are my notes.

Mission Hill Oculus 2007 ($80). This is the tenth vintage for the wine that is the ultimate in Mission Hill’s portfolio. The blend is Merlot (50%), Cabernet Sauvignon (24%), Cabernet Franc (21%), Petit Verdot (5%). It is a big wine with muscular, but ripe, tannins, a structure to enable to wine to age 10 or 15 years. I accelerated that aging process by decanting the wine aggressively; then by tasting it over three days. As expected, the wine opened layer upon layer of flavour. The initial aromas were primarily oak and dark chocolate; plum and cherry aromas developed with time. On the palate, the flavour layers revealed plum, currants, figs, chocolate, with a hint of spice on the finish. With time, a core of delicious ripe fruit flavours emerged. The wine already is throwing a little sediment, a good sign in that it shows great care was taken not to strip anything from the wine with overly aggressive filtering. Collectors – surely the target market – understand the benefits of aging and then decanting a fine red like this. 94-96.

Mission Hill Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2009 ($18.99). The winemakers built complexity into this wine by barrel fermenting about 17% of the blend and leaving it on the lees for 3 ½ months. This imparted a richness on the palate. The wine begins with herbal and citrus aromas, opening to flavours of citrus and even a touch of peach. The dry finish gives this a flinty austerity recalling a white Graves. 88.

Mission Hill Chardonnay Reserve 2009 ($18.99). The winery’s ability to deliver consistent quality Chardonnay vintage after vintage is remarkable. I gave the previous vintage the same score as this elegant wine. The wine begins with aromas of tangerines and spice. The palate is rich, with citrus and tropical fruit flavours and with a lingering note of cloves on the finish. The wine has just the right amount of acidity to give it a bright and lively finish. 90.

Mission Hill Riesling Icewine 2009 Reserve ($59.99). Very few varieties match Riesling when it comes to making Icewine. Mission Hill now has several plantings of Riesling in its Kelowna area vineyards. This wine was made from grapes picked on December 7, 2009, at temperatures low enough that the juice before fermentation was 41.5 Brix – effectively, the percentage of natural sugar by volume. This is ideal for Icewine. The wine’s honeyed citrus aromas include a hint of petrol, classic with Riesling. The palate is richly concentrated with flavours of citrus and apricots. The sweetness is nicely balanced with fresh acidity, giving the wine a refreshing finish. 91.

Mission Hill Five Vineyards Chardonnay 2008 ($13.99). Here’s great value in Mission Hill’s entry-level Chardonnay. Light, easy to enjoy, this wine has aromas and flavours of citrus and peach with a light hint of oak and butterscotch and a crisp tang on the finish. 87.

Mission Hill Five Vineyards Pinot Grigio 2009 ($15.99). Year in and year out, this is one if Mission Hill’s top selling wines, for a good reason: it is absolutely delicious. It begins with herb, citrus and peach aromas, continuing to flavours pear and citrus, with a hint of anise on the finish. 90.

Mission Hill Five Vineyards Pinot Noir 2009 ($19.99). It is remarkable that a wine selling at this price was barrel-fermented in French oak. Mission Hill is really serious about its Pinot Noirs. This medium-bodied charmer has notes of raspberry and strawberry. The time in oak has helped the wine develop the classic silky texture of Pinot Noir. 88.

Mission Hill Five Vineyards Cabernet Merlot 2008 ($16.99). One sees the Oculus template at work here: the blend is Merlot (47%), Cabernet Franc (28%), Cabernet Sauvignon (20%), Petit Verdot (5%). However, this is a red for drinking now – medium bodied, with notes of red berries and herbs in the aroma, and with flavours of plums and cherries. 87.