Friday, November 29, 2013

Kim Crawford acclaims vintage of a lifetime

Just as New Zealand’s Kim Crawford Winery proclaims its 2013 Sauvignon Blanc as its best ever vintage, Jancis Robinson has rained on the Sauvignon Blanc parade.

In a late October article in the Financial Times, she wrote: “Although there was a time when other non-European countries were deeply envious of New Zealand’s having an emblematic grape … this is decidedly out of fashion. Diversity is in …”

Her comment was triggered by attending a New Zealand wine tasting in London hosted by three top New Zealand wineries. They brought a total of 50 wines and not one was Sauvignon Blanc. They were showing Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling.

A few days after that article, I found myself sharing a glass of wine (Red Rooster Pinot Blanc!) at Vancouver International Airport with Mark Rattray, a New Zealand winemaker on his way back home after working the vintage for Skimmerhorn Winery in Creston.

As an aside, he is one of two New Zealand winemakers working for Creston wineries. Dan Barker makes the wine for Baillie-Grohman. Both have been doing this for several years, taking advantage of the fact that vintage in the northern hemisphere corresponds to the off-season for winemaking down under.

I mentioned the Jancis Robinson comment to Mark. He replied that Sauvignon Blanc may be out of fashion in Britain but markets in the United States and China still can’t get enough of it.

Jancis was not dissing Sauvignon Blanc. She was just pointing out that 85% of the New Zealand wine sold in Britain is Sauvignon Blanc and suggesting, perhaps, that New Zealand has too many eggs in one basket.

I would agree that New Zealand has very exciting Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling. While Pinot Noir’s fashion has been rising for almost a decade, I wonder whether consumers have overcome the “anything but Chardonnay” syndrome.

New Zealand has had Sauvignon Blanc vineyards in the Marlborough region (top of the south island) for at least 40 years. The Kim Crawford winery, which was founded in 1996, has its Sauvignon Blanc vineyards in Marlborough.

Anthony Walkenhorst, Kim Crawford’s chief winemaker, says: “We only got serious about growing Sauvignon Blanc in Marlborough 30 to 40 years ago, so that’s as far back as we can go in comparing vintages. The 2013 vintage will easily be among the best … or the best of the past 20 to 30 years.”

The 2013 vintage in Marlborough benefited from exceptional grape growing weather, with warm days, cool nights and with rain when required but none at harvest. In fact, it was the driest season in Marlborough in 70 years. The result: healthy grapes full of flavour.

Now the British may choose to miss out on a vintage of a lifetime. We don’t have to. Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc 2013 is among the 31 New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs listed in British Columbia.

If it was a vintage of the lifetime for Kim Crawford, it stands to reason that most of the 2013s will also be very good. In going through the LDB’s list, I see that many of the Sauvignon Blancs still are from 2011 and 2012. A number of them currently are being sold at a slight discount, including an earlier vintage of Kim Crawford. It is $17.99 until the end of the year. I wonder if the discounts are an effort to move older vintages before the fabulous 2013s get here.

Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc is the only 2013 I have tasted. It lives up to its billing. Here is my note.

Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc 2013 ($19.99). This is a classically dramatic Sauvignon Blanc, with aromas of lime, grapefruit, guava, herbs and fresh green grass exploding from the glass. The herbal and lime flavours carry over to the tangy and refreshing palate. The mineral backbone and the fresh acidity give the wine a laser-sharp focus. The zesty finish is long and lingering. 92

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Class of 2013: Kismet Estate Winery

 Photo: Suhki (l) and Balwinder Dhaliwal

On the winery’s website, the Dhaliwal brothers, who own this winery, explain that “the name Kismet is derived from the Punjabi word 'destiny'. We consider ourselves lucky to be able to consider Canada our home that provided us with endless possibilities. This has been a long time dream of our family to share our labour of love and hard work directly with customers.”

The Dhaliwal brothers had farming in the blood before coming to the Okanagan. “When I was 14 years old, I was driving a tractor on a farm,” says Sukhwinder (Sukhi for short). “We came from the farming area in India, the Punjab.” He came to the Okanagan, where he had relatives, in 1989 at the age of 20. His brother, Balwinder, born in 1974, joined him in 1993. Both have worked in, and managed, vineyards ever since for major producers including Mission Hill and Vincor.

They bought their first property in 1996 and planted grapes the following year. “After that, we never stopped,” says Balwinder (who sometimes goes by the name of Bill). Now, they operate about 130 acres of vineyards in the South Okanagan and sell grapes or manage vineyards for well-known wineries such as Laughing Stock Vineyards and Black Hills.

It speaks well of the brothers that Laughing Stock once lauded them on that winery’s website with these comments:
“Sukhi and his brother, Balwinder (Bill) moved to BC over 20 years ago and have grown their own vineyard management business to look after over 100 acres in the South Okanagan. We are thrilled to have them as the custodians of our 15 acre Osoyoos property, the Perfect Hedge Vineyard, for the past 5 years. The Dhaliwals attention to detail in the vineyard, and their ability to 'read the leaves' to make irrigation decisions is second to none.”
Growing grapes obviously introduced the brothers to wine. “We didn’t drink wine when we were in India,” Suhki says. “As soon as we started dealing with those wineries, we starting getting some free wine.”

In time, that led them to open their own winery as well. Suhki explains why: “The first thing is that we grow good quality fruit; and we think if we make our own wine, we can make very good quality wine. We have all the varieties. Secondly, I think we can make a little bit more money. And the third thing is that we really would like to have our own winery. That’s our hobby.”

It is a pretty serious hobby that is designed to grow to making 5,000 cases a year, with a processing facility amid the vines and a wine shop beside the highway. The consulting winemakers have the benefit, as Suhki says, of many varieties, including rare blocks of Grenache and Mourvedre.

The winery began selling its first wines in late summer. A tasting room, located just off Highway 97, is expected to open in 2014.

Here are notes on the wines.

Kismet Viognier Viognier 2012 ($18). This wine begins with aromas of citrus, pineapple and apricot. The palate is a rich bowl of fruit flavours, including apricot, apple and mango. The texture is full with a define spine of minerality. 91.

Kismet Saféd 2012 ($17). To forestall the question, Saféd means clear. This white blend is 63% Sauvignon Blanc, 25% Sémillon and 12% Orange Muscat. This makes for a somewhat exotic wine, with aromas of spice and orange peel and with spice and citrus flavours on the palate. The finish is crisp and dry. 88.

Kismet Mantra 2011 ($20.99). This is 49% Merlot, 17% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Cabernet Franc and 17% Petit Verdot. The wine begins with aromas of vanilla and black cherry. On the palate, there are flavours of cassis, black cherry, vanilla and mocha with an elegant hint of cedar on the finish. The wine is structured to age for several more years before it reaches its peak. 88-90.

Kismet Malbec Syrah 2011 ($19.99). This is a 50/50 blend of two red varietals that do well in the South Okanagan. The Syrah brings a touch of pepper to the aroma and to the finish which complements the black cherry and vanilla aromas and flavours. This again is structured to develop to its peak over the next several years. 88-90.

Kismet Estate Winery
9580 Road 20
Oliver BC V0H 1T0
T 250.408.9800

Monday, November 25, 2013

Blue Mountain's refined bubbles

Photo: Blue Mountain winemaker Matt Mavety 

Just in time for the festive season, Blue Mountain Vineyards and Cellars has released three vintage-dated sparkling wines in addition to its old standby, the Non-Vintage Brut.

These are excellent wines, as are the four table wines released at the time.

In the tradition of Champagne, the vintage sparkling wines have rested in bottle on the yeast lees for three to seven years before being disgorged. It is remarkable that the prices are so reasonable, considering how long these wines have tied up Blue Mountain’s capital.

Compare that to some  vintage Champagnes. Bollinger La Grande Année 2004 is $150. Krug Vintage 2000 is $276. Roederer Rosé Brut 2007 is $87. Blue Mountain is leaving money on the table. Who says that B.C. wines are too expensive?

The table wines included three whites. I learned something about them from taking my time and tasting them over two days: these wines improve with decanting. The techniques employed by Blue Mountain winemaker Matt Mavety give the whites texture and structure so that they can be cellared for three to seven years.

Most whites are 40% fermented in barrels (older barrels) and aged on the lees for perhaps six months.  Then the barrel fermented wines are blended with the tank fermented wines and bottled in the spring after vintage. The tight texture of young wines means that they need a bit of time to open. I wonder how many other fine whites benefit from being decanted?

Here are notes on the wines.

Blue Mountain Brut NV ($23.90). This elegant but inexpensive bubbly has New Year’s Eve written all over it. The wine, with fine, persistent bubbles, is crisp on entry and on the finish but with a creamy mid-palate. There is a hint of bready aromas and flavours of fresh apples and citrus. The finish is refreshing. 90.

Blue Mountain 2005 Reserve Brut R.D. ($39.90). This wine spent seven years on the yeast lees before being disgorged in March 2013. The blend is 60% Pinot Noir, 35% Chardonnay and 5% Pinot Gris. The prolonged sur-lies aging promotes a fine mousse with delicate bready aromas. The winery’s own notes speak of strawberry on the nose and palate. I found the finish crisp and even austere. Yet this is a fine, complex wine that more than holds its own against Champagne. 91.

Blue Mountain 2006 Blanc de Blancs R.D. ($39.90). This is 100% Chardonnay. The wine was aged sur-lie for six years before being disgorged in March 2013. This is a very refined wine, with bready aromas and citrus and apple flavours. The crisp finish, with an acidity that is still bracing, gives this wine a brilliantly focussed personality. 92.

 Blue Mountain 2009 Brut Rosé ($32.90). Made with 84% Pinot Noir and 16% Chardonnay, this wine has a lovely blush hue. The aroma suggests strawberries and apples and this carries through to the creamy palate. The finish is crisp and clean. This wine is so delicious that you probably want to buy it by the magnum. A bottle is not enough. 94.

 Blue Mountain Pinot Blanc 2012 ($17.90). The wine has aromas of peaches and apples. On the rich palate, there are flavours of apples and stone fruit. The flavours and aromas were clearly more generous on the second day. It was this wine that got me thinking that Blue Mountain whites, which are good to begin with, benefit from decanting. 90.

Blue Mountain Pinot Gris 2012 ($20.90). This wine begins with the complex aroma of lees, pears and citrus fruits. On the rich palate, there are flavours of pears and apples with a lightly spicy finish. 91.

Blue Mountain Sauvignon Blanc 2012 ($18.90). Think of Sancerres, not New Zealand. The wine begins with herbal and citrus aromas. On the palate, there are flavours of grapefruit and grapefruit rind. The finish is spicy and dry, almost austere until the wine has a chance to open up. 88-90.

Blue Mountain Gamay Noir 2012 ($20.90). The wine begins with a cherry hue and aromas of cherries. On the rich, ripe palate, there are flavours of cherry and strawberry with a touch of spicy mocha on the finish. 90.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Naramata neighbors: Figaro and Portfolio

Photo: Laughing Stock's David Enns
By coincidence, two wines came across my desk from Naramata Bench wineries that are almost neighbours.

Laughing Stock Vineyards is right on Naramata Road while Terravista Vineyards is a few kilometres up hill. If I were throwing a dinner to show off two classy Naramata wines, I would certainly recommend Terravista’s Figaro with the fish course and Laughing Stock’s Portfolio with the meat course.

Other than being focused on quality, these two wineries have quite different approaches. Laughing Stock, which opened in 2005, has a portfolio of eight or ten wines. The flagship is Portfolio, a Bordeaux blend made every year since 2003, the winery’s inaugural vintage.

Laughing Stock is a comparatively large winery among its Naramata Bench colleagues, making perhaps 6,000 cases a year. Owners David and Cynthia Enns are not planning to grow much larger. David’s focus, as a winemaker, is to build more complexity into his wines than is there already.

To that end, he has added to his fermentation tool kit three concrete eggs and, as of this vintage, two 500-litre clay amphorae. The latter, made in Italy, are the first in any Okanagan winery. They are being used in the production of rosé and a Viognier/Marsanne/Roussanne blend.

Terravista’s Figaro is a Roussanne/Viognier/Marsanne blend. The Roussanne portion of Figaro is fermented in French oak 500 litre puncheons and the Marsanne (with a small portion of Viognier) in older French 225 litre barrels (5+ yr old). The remainder of Viognier in Figaro is fermented in stainless steel fermenters.
The wine does remain sur lie for the winter.  Bottling is not until late May.

Terravista is a 1,700-case capacity winery that was opened in 2011 by Senka and Bob Tennant. Previously, they were one of the two couples who opened Black Hills Estate Winery in 2001 and then sold it in 2007.

When the Tennants decided to return to the wine industry, it was with quite a different model that either Black Hills or Laughing Stock. Terravista makes just two white wines. Figaro is made from purchased grapes and a wine called Fandango is made from two Spanish varieties grown at Terravista – Albariño and Verdejo. Fandago was released earlier this year to critical acclaim.

Together, these wineries are among the most interesting on the Naramata Bench. Here are notes on the wines.

Terravista Figaro 2012 ($23.90). The wine begins with aromas of pear and apricot, leading to flavours of apple and pineapple. The finish is dry and crisp, with a fine spine of minerality. 90.

Laughing Stock Portfolio 2011 ($42). This is a blend of 42% Merlot, 32% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Cabernet Franc, 7% Malbec and 2% Petit Verdot. The wine spent a total of 19 months in French oak (45% new). The accounts for the svelte and polished texture of a wine that is bright and elegant. There is an abundance of red fruit in the aroma, with flavours of black currant, cherry and chocolate. The finish is long. While this wine is already drinking well (if you decant it), it should continue to improve in bottle for at least 10 years. 92.

Harper's Trail: the first winery in Kamloops

Photo: Harper's Trail proprietors Vicki and Ed Collett

There is an organization of financial executives that has invited me for several years to choose the wines for their final dinner of the season, and to speak about the wines.

The wines are always from British Columbia, that being a region in which I fancy I have some knowledge.

This year, I stayed with British Columbia while throwing my audience a curve by choosing wines from Harper’s Trail Estate Winery in Kamloops.

After the group got over its surprise … “A winery in Kamloops?” … the comments on the wines were all positive. I expected that, having tasted the Harper’s Trail wines previously.

Harper’s Trail is the first winery in Kamloops. It opened its tasting room this summer, a few months earlier than Privato Vineyard and Winery, the city’s second winery. The latest list of licensed wineries includes a third Kamloops winery called Sagewood. Next spring, Monte Creek Ranch Winery will be the community’s fourth winery. That is enough for a good day of wine touring.

The Harper’s Trail wines are well distributed in restaurants and private wine stores. You can find a list on the winery’s website.

If Harper’s Trail is unfamiliar, here is the profile I have written for the next edition of John Schreiner’s Okanagan Wine Tour Guide. It will be published next spring.

Harper’s Trail Estate Winery                         Opened 2012
2720 Shuswap Road,
Kamloops BC  V2H 1S9
T 250.573.5855
When to visit: Mid-May to mid-June 11 am – 7 pm Friday through Sunday; daily 11 am – 6 pm (to 7 pm Friday through Sunday) from late June to September 1; daily 11 am – 5 pm September 2 to mid-October.

What makes this vineyard special is same thing that has enabled Lafarge to operate a cement plant nearby since 1970: the underlying limestone in the area, which is quarried for cement but also benefits grape growing. Ed Collett, who owns Harper’s Trail with his wife, Vicki, points to the cliff above the south-sloping vineyards. “That whole side hill is lime rock,” he says.

This property on the north side of the Thompson River is about 16 kilometres (10 miles) east of Kamloops. Formerly, it grew hay and grazed cattle in what is quintessential British Columbia range country. The winery is named for Thaddeus Harper, the 19th-century American-born rancher who once owned the vast 15,569-hectare (38,472-acre) Gang Ranch, one of the first farms to use sturdy gang ploughs. Ed bought his modest slice of ranch country in 2007 after he had conceived the idea of developing a winery. He acquired a taste for wine during travels to Chile on business for the mining equipment company he has run since in 1987.

The desire for a winery emerged during Okanagan wine tours. Ed remembers relaxing at a bed and breakfast overlooking a vineyard and remarking: “I’ve got to get myself one of these.” He began planting vines in 2008. He currently has 11.7 hectares (29 acres) of vines and has plans for more in stages as he and vineyard manager John Dranchuk determine what varieties will succeed. “You have to take baby steps,” Ed notes. “We are further north [than most vineyards] but obviously, it is not a deterrent for us.” The cold winters led to the removal of Merlot while a 2008 planting of Cabernet Franc succeeded so well that more was planted in 2012, followed with 2.4 hectares (six acres) of Pinot Noir and Gamay in 2013. Riesling, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay also are succeeding. Wind machines combat early autumn frost. Ginseng shade-cloth on the vineyard’s borders breaks the valley’s constant winds. Propane cannons deter the birds. “All of this is new to the Thompson,” the vineyard manager says. “This was the first vineyard with wind machines and bird bangers.”

The first several vintages, which included three different Rieslings, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, a white blend, a rosé and a Cabernet Franc, were made for Harper’s Trail at Okanagan Crush Pad in Summerland.  A tasting room opened at the vineyard in the summer of 2013. The temporary winemaking facility used for that vintage is being replaced in 2014 by a new winery. There are future plans for a restaurant and for walking trails on the property.

Here are notes on the wines, all made from grapes grown on the estate vineyard.

Harper’s Trail Pioneer Block Dry Riesling 2012 ($20 for 450 cases). The winery describes this dry wine with 10.8% alcohol as being made in the “Rheingau style.” It begins with appealing aromas of lime and apple, delivering flavours of lime, lemon, and orange peel. It has a fine mineral backbone that contributes to a good texture. 91.

Harper’s Trail Silver Mane Block Riesling 2012 ($20 for 513 cases). This is made in the style of a Mosel Riesling, with only 8.5% alcohol but with 25 grams of residual sugar – three times as much as the Dry Riesling. The aromas were not as developed as those of the Dry Riesling but the flavours and the full texture telegraph the potential of this wine with a few more months of aging. The tangy acidity is well balanced by the sweetness on the palate. 89.

Harper’s Trail Pinot Gris 2012 ($18 for 319 cases). The wine has a slightly coppery hue, the result of giving the wine some skin contact to enhance colour and flavour. It has aromas of apples and pears with appealing fruit flavours and with a crisp, dry finish. 90.

Harper’s Trail Chardonnay 2012 ($22 for 392 cases). The wine begins with aromas of peach and citrus. On the palate, subtle oak frames the flavours of peach and citrus and the hint of cloves. The finish is bright and refreshing. 90.

Harper’s Trail Field Blend White 2012 ($17 for 347 cases). A light and refreshing white, this is a blend of Riesling and Chardonnay. It has aromas and flavours of apples and lime with a crisp mineral backbone. 89.

Harper’s Trail Cabernet Franc 2012 ($25 for 138 cases). The wine begins with aromas of blackberries and black cherry and delivers mouth-filling berry flavours. The texture is juicy, thanks to the ripe tannins, and the wine drinks easily. 90.

Not reviewed are the Gewürztraminer 2012 ($18 for 136 cases) and the Rosé 2012 ($17 for 93 cases), probably because they are sold out.

Not yet reviewed is the Late Harvest Riesling 2012 ($20 for 445 cases of half bottles). I am saving this and other dessert wines for a blog that will be posted early in the holiday season.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A record year for BC Icewine

 Photo: The Icewine harvest at Summerhill Pyramid Winery

Here’s hoping that consumers still have a taste for something sweet: British Columbia’s winemakers are likely to produce about 300,000 litres of Icewine this, or double the 2012 production.

Some 29 producers have registered to turn 1,000 tons of grapes into Icewine this year. The harvest began November 20-21, the third earliest Icewine harvest in British Columbia. The earliest harvests were November 3, 2003 and November 19, 2011.

One winery, Little Straw Vineyards in West Kelowna, was able to pick some grapes early on the morning of November 20, stopping when the temperature rose during the day, and finishing that night.

Several consecutive days of frigid weather in the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys have given producers a generous window for the harvest.

The jump in production this year is due primarily to the fact that the necessary harvest conditions occurred early, when a lot of fruit was still hanging on the vine and when the berries were plump and healthy.

“To make superb Icewine, the first thing you need is perfect grapes,” says Ezra Cipes, the chief executive at Summerhill Pyramid Winery. “We had a growing season that produced perfect grapes [and] we had temperatures that froze our grapes on the vine to produce this delicious nectar.”

The difference between an early Icewine harvest and a late one is major. In the 2012 vintage, 142,800 litres of Icewine were produced from a harvest of 476 tons by 27 producers. In that vintage, a little Icewine was picked on January 1, 2012 and most was picked between January 11 and January 15.

Derek Kontkanen, one of the winemakers at Jackson-Triggs, estimates that vines can lose as much as 25% of their fruit in each additional month that the Icewine harvest is delayed. The berries are eaten by birds and bears, or knocked from the vines by wind. They also lose weight by shrivelling on the vine; and there is always a risk of rot if winter turns wet.

The regulations for making Icewine are quite specific. Grapes for Icewine must be frozen to at least -8ºC before being picked and they must be crushed at that temperature as well.

That is the minimum. Most winemakers prefer the grapes to be frozen to between -10ºC and -12ºC.  The colder temperatures freeze more of the water fraction in the grapes and the juice squeezed from the press is sweeter. At -12ºC, Jackson-Triggs and Inniskillin Okanagan were getting juice that measured 45 brix – effectively 45% sugar.

The freezing not only concentrates the sugar; it also concentrates acidity and flavours. In the best Icewines, the piquant acidity balances the sweetness so that the flavours are clean and appealing.

Few winemakers want the temperatures to be much colder. If the brix reading gets above 50, it is difficult to get a healthy ferment because the high sugar content kills the yeast cells.

The volumes of Icewine produced each vintage vary greatly, usually depending on weather conditions. However, the small production in 2009 probably had more to do with industry pessimism about the demand for expensive wines after the 2008 recession. The following table is provided by the BC Wine Institute.

Tons left for Icewine
Estimated litres

In 2001, I wrote the world’s first book on Icewine, called Icewine: The Complete Story. Now out of print, it shows up used on Amazon. I also produced a 12,000-woes monograph for the International Wine and Food Society which is the basic primer on Icewine. The text remains on my computer and I would be happy to send it to anyone who requests it. Email me at

The photo below is of Riesling grapes for Jackson-Triggs Icewine.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Poplar Grove Legacy 2007 wins the 2013 Red Icons tasting

Photo: Red Icon wines for 2013 

Poplar Grove’s Legacy 2007, that winery’s flagship Bordeaux red, was the clear favourite at this year’s Iconic Reds Tasting.

This was the sixth such tasting organized by SIP Wines, the VQA store in Richmond. About 100 participants tasted 18 very good wines in just a little over two hours. The wines, all of which had been decanted earlier, were poured one after the other.

The identities of the wines were not revealed until every ballot had been turned in and was being tallied. The seven top wines were ranked.

The icon wines are the top wine or wines in each winery’s portfolio, usually selling between $40 and $80 a bottle. These are often small lot wines – 200 to 500 cases – selected from the best barrels in the cellar each vintage. There is more prestige than profit in small lot wines.

The prestige is important, of course. These wines signal to the market that the winery is serious about raising the bar. Consumers who won’t spend the big bucks for icon wines usually conclude - accurately, I believe, - that most of the other wines in the portfolio are made to rising levels of quality.

Buy a bottle of Petales D’Osoyoos for $25 or a Hester Creek Characters for $20 and you will understand my view that an icon wine is the tide that can lift all the wines in the portfolio. First, the superb viticulture necessary to make an icon influences how all of the vineyards are managed. Secondly, the leading edge winemaking skills and equipment that produce icons are available for the rest of the portfolio.

Some of the icon wines are made in commercial volumes, which I would define as more than 1,000 cases. These include Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin, Black Hills Nota Bene, Laughing Stock Portfolio and Painted Rock Red Icon. I believe the Mission Hill icons also are produced in greater than small lot volumes but the winery does not always disclose production volumes.

The Okanagan is likely to be taken more seriously on the global scene when some producers make significant quantities of their best wines and sell them nationally or internationally. Mission Hill’s flagship icon is Oculus. It sells for $80 at the winery but in China, where it is also marketed, it fetches about $300 a bottle.

Ic0n wines may seem expensive in the context of the B.C. market, where the average price of a VQA wine is $18. However, on the international market, our icon wines are fairly priced for their quality.

To make that point, SIP owner Simon Wosk inserted a Bordeaux wine into the tasting, to see how British Columbia’s wines stack up against a comparably priced Old World wine. Chateau L'Argilus Du Roi 2009 from Saint-Estèphe sells in the Liquor Distribution Branch for about $48. The group ranked it 17th.

The wine was certainly acceptable but, even in a blind tasting, it was a marked contrast to the British Columbia icons. The wine is a bit rustic with some brettanomyces on the nose. The British Columbia wines all were clean and the fruit flavours usually were fresher. There is no question that our wines are in the game, and then some.

The list below begins with the seven top wines as chosen by the tasters. The six lined up behind Legacy were scored closely to each other.

The remaining wines are listed alphabetically because SIP’s backroom boys did not crunch the numbers for all. Judging from my own scores (nothing below 88), you would be happy with any of these wines on your table. Limited quantities of some of these wines can be purchased at the SIP.

I have included winery tasting notes where available and added a few of my own where required.

1. Poplar Grove Legacy 2007 ($50). This is 71% Merlot, 17% Cabernet Franc and 12% Cabernet Sauvignon. The winery’s notes: “Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon each spend 2 years in French oak barrels and up to 2 – 3 more years in bottle developing in our cellar prior to release. The Legacy 2007 offers deeply concentrated and mature colour. The nose gathers aromas of currant, coffee and cedar. Initial flavours of blackberry briar and ripe plums are followed by hints of leather, spice and vanilla. Silky tannins and elegant fruit meet a balanced backbone of acidity creating depth and complexity. A sweet ripeness makes this wine dangerously delicious. The finish is heartbreakingly long, like a French kiss goodbye at the train station.”

2. Church & State Quintessential 2009 ($55 for 750 cases). This wine is a blend 0f 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Cabernet Franc, 20% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot and 5% Malbec.    Here are the winery’s notes: “Dense and dark in colour, with ultra black cherry and cassis aromas complexed by notes of coffee, baker’s chocolate, pencil shavings and graphite aromas. On the palate, there is dark concentrated black cherry fruit and gorgeous tannin structure producing great richness and length, but with impeccable balance. The wine coats and totally fills your mouth, and a staggering array of complex flavours continue to linger in your mouth long after swallowing. Drink now through 2020, possibly aging longer, depending on your preferences and individual assessment of the wine over the years.”

3. Lake Breeze Tempest 2009 ($45).  The blend is 50% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Cabernet Franc. The winery’s notes:   “The sum is greater than the parts in this classic Bordeaux style blend. The wine was aged in new French oak barriques for 15 months and is rich and full bodied. Full of flavours and aromas of plum and cassis followed by hints of spice and chocolate.”

4. NK'Mip Mer'r'iym 2010 ($50). A blend of 47.8% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35.2% Merlot, 6.5% Cabernet Franc, 5.6% Malbec, 4.9% Petit Verdot. The winery’s notes: “The wines were fermented in separate lots and pressed into a combination of French and American oak barrels. We began with 28 potential lots from various vineyard blocks within the three vineyards and a total of 350 barrels – all to make a 20 barrel blend. After hours of trials and tasting we determined the percentages of each varietal in the blend. In the end we hope we got it right. It is a wine that is not necessarily about power but more of balance and harmony – about elegance and length – important qualities in any marriage.”

5. Hester Creek The Judge 2010 ($45).  This is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. The winery’s notes: “Heady aromas of leather, cassis, blackberry, vanilla and hints of tarragon lead to a palate filled with vibrant cherry, allspice, caramel and cigar box combining to create a soft round mid-palate. The wine finishes with long supple tannins making it approachable in its youth and at the same time showcasing its ability to age for 5-8 years.”

6. Clos Du Soleil Signature Red 2010 ($39.90 for 275 cases).  This is 48% Merlot, 34% Cabernet Sauvignon and 9% each of Malbec and Petit Verdot. The winery notes: “Unfiltered and unfined, there are notes of cassis and blackberry that greet the nose. They are echoed on the palate with a soft note of oak that complements the dark berry fruit balanced with good acidity and black plum freshness. Decanting this wine opens up multiple layers of ripe black fruits in addition to darker essences of cocoa and espresso. The finish is long and leaves you pondering the complexity of this very structured wine.”

7. Laughing Stock Portfolio 2011 ($42). The blend is 42% Merlot, 32% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Cabernet Franc , 7% Malbec and 2% Petit Verdot. The winery’s notes: “The resulting wine has a nose of dark dried berries, cedar and a hint of clove. On the palate, black cherry and bramble with anise and thyme notes. More elegant in body from the cooler vintage, it has a great structure and long finish.

Black Hills Nota Bene 2011 ($52.90). This is 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc. These are winemaker Graham Pierce’s notes: “This complex and delicious blend comes charging out of the glass with a bouquet of blackberry, cherry, plum and chocolate. The palate delivers rich dark fruits with a hint of sage brush and notes of fine cocoa tannins. Notable for its beautiful balance, it should hold well through 2020 or decant and drink now.”

Cassini Cellars The Godfather 2010 ($70). This is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah. The winery’s notes: “Nice integration of oak and dark fruit flavours  like cherry, black currant and plums gives this wine a rich and complex taste with silky tannins to round out the wine to enjoy now or put down for years to come. Drink now to 2020.”

Gray Monk Odyssey Meritage 2010 ($34.99).  This is a blend of 46.05% Merlot, 45.43% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5.68% Malbec and 2.84% Cabernet Franc. My notes:  “The wine begins with earthy aromas of sage and dried fruit. On the palate, there are flavours of black currant and sour cherry, framed by oak.”

Mission Hill Compendium 2010  ($50). This is a blend of 41% Cabernet Sauvignon, 38% Merlot, 21% Cabernet Franc.  The winery’s notes: “It is a dark, dense and brooding giant of a wine, featuring a complex mix of black currants, blueberry, licorice, mint and dark chocolate. The palate is rich and full-bodied with muscular tannins and well-focused flavours.”

Mission Hill Quatrain 2009 ($50). This is Merlot 35%, Syrah 30%, Cabernet Sauvignon 20%, Cabernet Franc 15%. The winery’s notes: “The 2009 Quatrain is full bodied, yet soft and approachable with fine tannins and a round, fruit forward palate. Merlot and Syrah blend seamlessly and are from the finest parcels along the Black Sage and Osoyoos benches. Notes of plum, dark cherry, blueberries and pepper fill the glass, along with subtle hints of licorice, clove, tobacco and vanilla. This well-structured wine displays fine tannins and bright acidity to frame its exotic spice and ripe fruit notes.”

Noble Ridge King's Ransom 2009 ($65). This is 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 50% Merlot. The winery’s notes: “The higher percentage of specially selected Cabernet Sauvignon in combination with our Merlot brings characteristic dark cherry, raspberry, tobacco, leather and dark chocolate flavours. The aromas of cherries and licorice are rich and complex. Round, full-bodied mouth feel is complimented by soft yet firm tannins. Built to age in your cellar for another 5-10 years.”

Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin 2008 ($45) This is 60% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Cabernet Franc, 5% Malbec, 3% Petit Verdot. The winery notes: “This rich full-bodied wine features a deep intense ruby colour, and deliciously persistent aromas of ripe red raspberry, dark chocolate with toasty caramel and vanilla notes. Opulent notes of blackberry fruit, spice and pepper grace the palate with a well-rounded tannin structure and fruit-driven lingering finish.”

Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin 2009 ($45). This is 58% Merlot, 26% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Cabernet Franc, 7% Petit Verdot and 2% Malbec.  My notes from a recent tasting at the winery: “Complex, elegant and, at the same time, luscious, the wine begins with aromas of vanilla, black cherry and cassis. On the palate, there are flavours of black currant, dark chocolate and espresso. Ripe tannins give the wine concentration and ageability.”

Painted Rock Red Icon 2010 ($55). The blend is 21% Merlot, 39% Cabernet Franc, 11% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Petit Verdot and 11% Malbec. The winery’s notes: “The blend is well balanced and complex. The nose reveals notes of leather, berries,   smoke, ink, and a touch of dusty earth. The palate is well structured, striking the perfect balance between acidity and bold tannin. The long finish unfolds with berries, smoke and savoury tones.”

Road 13 Fifth Element Red 2009 ($49). The blend is 68% Merlot, 22% Syrah and 10% Cabernet Franc. The winery’s notes: “Be prepared for an alluring medley of intense black fruits that are supported by an engaging sultry, savoury characteristic that is notoriously Okanagan. The nose and palette project pure harmony and continue to amaze with integrated, complex layering of rick tobacco and black sage. The intensity of the Syrah gains momentum on the finish and has the classic notes of braised red and green peppercorns. The wine is well integrated and will continue to be a benchmark wine well into 2017.”

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

JoieFarm unveils its wine family

Photo: JoieFarm's Michael Dinn and Heidi Noble

Heidi Noble and Michael Dinn, the owners of JoieFarm Winery, have created a new tag to designate premium reserve wines: “En Famille.”

They explain that their definition of family includes relatives, staff and “committed grape growers.” And the growers are credited on the back label of the wines.

I think this is more than just good public relations. With a very tiny vineyard of its own, JoieFarm is unusually reliant on growers.

In an interview with me last year, Michael discussed both the advantages and disadvantages of relying on growers.

“Because we were dealing with growers, we did not have to deal with the huge capital costs of land,” he said of the winery they launched in 2004, literally on a shoestring. It would be hard to find another couple in the Okanagan who started with such limited resources and levered them to such major success.

They recognized when they started that they might have to deal with inconsistent quality when buying grapes from many outside sources.

“There was the reason for us to be doing blended wines,” Michael said. “It was one of the reasons we made The Noble Blend and the Rosé. Even wines like the Chardonnay and the Riesling that were single varietals were blended from multiple vineyards.  That was a key part of the whole equation – making sure your eggs are not all in one basket. You have to have the ability to mitigate what a grower might do – or not do, so to speak.”

I asked Michael: “Can growers hand you nasty surprises?”

He replied: “We don’t get them anymore because we are so hands on. Probably there are six, seven, eight visits made each year, outside of fruit sampling. You have to make those visits regularly or people will do what they want.

“It is not like they are bad but self-interest overtakes in some cases; and in other cases, they just do not know. It has to do with the transition of the economy here from tree fruits to grapes. You are not dealing with multi-generational viticulturists here.”

Giving growers credit on the back labels is simply part of the good grower relations that JoieFarm cultivates. The payoff is evident in the consistent quality of the JoieFarm wines.

Here are notes on the 2011 wines that JoieFarm released this fall.

JoieFarm “En Famille” 2011 Reserve Chardonnay ($30 for 408 cases). This wine was a gold medal winner at the 2013 Decanter World Wine Awards. It is an elegant wine with aromas of citrus and quince and a delicate toasty note of lees contact. On the palate, there are flavours of tangerine and ripe pineapple. The oak aging and the regular lees stirring contributed to a lush and rich texture; yet the wine still has bright and refreshing acidity. Like a good Burgundy, this cork-finished wine will age well. Three different growers contributed to this wine. 91.

JoieFarm “En Famille” 2011 Reserve Gewurztraminer ($28 for 150 cases). In this instance, the grapes are from the winery’s own vineyard where the vines are cropped sparing about two tons an acre (try asking a grower to crop that low!). This wine is intense and concentrated, with aromas of rose petals, ginger and citrus. On the palate, there are flavours of citrus and spice, with a very long finish. The wine is balanced to finish in the rich and dry style of an Alsace Gewürztraminer. This won gold and best in class at the 2013 Los Angeles International Wine Competition. 91.

JoieFarm “En Famille” 2011 Reserve Pinot Noir ($30 for 204 cases). Three vineyards contributed grapes to this wine which actually represents the 12 best barrels in the cellar. The winery says this is the most masculine Pinot Noir it has yet made. It begins with earthy cherry aromas. On the palate, the cherry flavours mingle with coffee and cola. 91.

JoieFarm  2011 Pinot Noir ($24 for 488 cases). The other barrels in the cellars were evidently quite good as well. This was a gold medal winner at the 2013 Northwest Wine Competition. It begins with aromas of cherries, raspberries and spice and it echoes those on the lively palate. The initial firm texture softened overnight to the classic silky texture of Pinot Noir. Three vineyards contributed to this wine. 90.

JoieFarm 2011 Gamay ($24 for 530 cases). All the grapes for this came from Bryan Hardman’s Deep Roots Vineyard. He is opening his own winery and may be keeping some of the Gamay for himself. This is a generous wine that blows a lot of Beaujolais  out of the water, with its earthy aromas of cherry and its savoury flavours of cherry and blackberry. There is an intriguing note of pepper on the finish. This wine, closed with a screw cap, won a best of class gold medal at the 2013 Riverside International Wine Competition and gold at the Northwest Wine Competition. 90.

JoieFarm 2011 PTG ($24 for 530 cases). Another winner of a best in class gold at Riverside, this wine is 50% Pinot Noir from the Hollenbach and Albrecht vineyards and 50% Gamay from Deep Roots. It begins with aromas of raspberry and pepper, leading to flavours of raspberry, cherry and blackberry and savoury notes on the finish. 90.

If the term is unfamiliar, PTG is short for “Passe-Tout-Grains.” It is a phrase that Burgundian winemakers use for blends of Pinot Noir and Gamay.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Lake Sonoma Winery comes to Canada

Photo: Wine partners Dan Zepponi and Tony Stewart

Because of the disparity in taxes and mark-ups, California wines often are cheaper in the United States than in Canada.

Lake Sonoma Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, which has just been listed in British Columbia, is a rare exception. The cellar door price at the winery is $40. In British Columbia liquor stores, the same wine is $26.99.

There are comparable deals on Lake Sonoma Dry Creek Zinfandel, which is listed here at $24.99, and Lake Sonoma Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($23.99 but not yet listed). Both of those wines sell for $35 at the winery.

Canadians are getting the break because Lake Sonoma is a joint venture between Tony Stewart, president of Quails’ Gate Estate Winery, and Californian Dan Zepponi, who was president of Mission Hill Family Estate Winery from 2007 to 2009.

The strategy behind the joint venture is to use the Quails’ Gate marketing structure to sell these California wines in Canada. Because Lake Sonoma is new to the Canadian market, the partners sharpened their pencils when it came to pricing to give Canadians the better deal.

“We’re wine people,” Stewart says. “Wine should have value. There needs to be more value put into the consumer’s glass. ”

Four or five years ago, Stewart had begun thinking of investing in an Australian winery. When he discussed the idea with Zepponi, who was then in the Okanagan, the Californian persuaded him it would be a far better idea to invest in California. Not only would the business be in the same time zone, but California wines were gaining market share in Canada while Australian wines were struggling.

Not long after Zepponi returned to California, the two formed a partnership to produce a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon under the Plume label. Several vintages of that wine have been listed here at $30 a bottle. Recently, a Plume Chardonnay has been released but it is not yet here.

Last year, the partners were able to buy Valley of the Moon Winery, one of the oldest wineries in California (circa 1863) when it was sold by the Heck Group, producers of Korbel Champagne. It is a 45,000-case winery, roughly the same size as Quails’ Gate.

“It is strategic because Quails’ Gate has got to a certain size,” Stewart told the Globe & Mail. “Having a U.S. operation of a similar size means there can be synergies in viticulture; and oenology team members can move back and forth. It provides the opportunity to gain access to the U.S. market. And we’re a partner in a wine distribution agency for Western Canada” which would get California wines for its portfolio.

The purchase included several brands including Lake Sonoma Winery, a brand that was launched in the 1970s. Zepponi says it would be impossible to register Lake Sonoma under today’s strict appellation rules. The name recognition of the Sonoma appellation makes this grandfathered brand all the more valuable.

Lake Sonoma is drilling deeper to make sub-appellation wines within the overall Sonoma appellation. The Russian River Valley is renowned for Chardonnay wines. Dry Creek is a narrow 16-mile valley notable for its 100-year-old Zinfandel plantings while Alexander Valley at the north end of Sonoma County is a highly-regarded Cabernet Sauvignon terroir.

While Valley of the Moon has 40 acres of vineyards, it contracts select blocks of grapes in the various sub-appellations, taking advantage of Zepponi’s deep contracts.

Zepponi’s family arrived from Italy to grow grapes in California about a century ago. His father partnered with the deLeuze family to operate ZD Winery. Ultimately, the Zepponi family sold its interest in the winery but Dan and his siblings continued in wine careers. Prior to coming to Mission Hill, Dan had been the senior vice-president for production at Beringer Estates. After buying grapes for Beringer, cherry picking for Lake Sonoma is relatively easy.

Here are notes on the wines.

Lake Sonoma Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2012 ($23.99). This is an elegant wine, with nicely understated oak and buttery notes that frame aromas and flavours of citrus and nectarine. 90.

Lake Sonoma Dry Creek Zinfandel 201o ($24.99). The wine begins with aromas of spice and blackberry, leading to cherry and blackberry flavours. The flavours are bright and lively. The texture is full and nicely balanced; this is not a Zin with over the top alcohol. 90.

Lake Sonoma Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ($26.99). The wine begins with the classic minty varietal aroma, along with aromas of black cherry and black currant which are echoed on the palate. The tannins are firm but ripe, with a core of sweet red berry fruit and vanilla showing through as the wine opens. 90-91