Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Winemaker Ann Sperling: Miss Versatility

 Photo: Ann Sperling

The new releases from Sperling Vineyards and from Clos du Soleil were both made by Ann Sperling. They are a demonstration of her versatility as a winemaker.

It is in her blood, of course. Through her mother, she is a member of the Casorso family. Her forbears first planted grapes in Kelowna in 1925 on what is now the longest continuously farmed vineyard in B.C. by the same family.

 Ann grew up around grapes because her father, Bert Sperling, took over Pioneer Ranch – the Casorso vineyard – in the 1960s. Naturally, Ann began working in the wine industry after university, eventually carving out a distinguished career nationally and internationally.

Until 2008, however, she had not made wine commercially from Pioneer Ranch grapes. In that year, Ann’s family and her siblings decided to launch Sperling Vineyards.

At the same time, the owners of the Clos du Soleil winery in the Similkameen engaged Ann as their consulting winemaker. There was a bit of serendipity involved here. Spencer Massie, one of the principals at Clos du Soleil, attended high school in Kelowna with Ann.

The difference between these two wineries is the sort of thing that fires a winemaker’s enthusiasm. Clos du Soleil is based on a relatively young vineyard planted entirely with Bordeaux varieties. Spencer and his partners are committed to wines reflecting their appreciation of all things Bordeaux.

Sperling Vineyard benefits from mature vines, including 45-year-old Maréchal Foch and 35-year-old Riesling. As well, the newest releases are from Burgundy varieties. When the Sperling/Casorso family decided to launch a winery in 2008, they planted 8.5 acres of Pinot Noir and 1.5 acres of Chardonnay with an eye to making sparkling wine.

There can never be a routine vintage for Ann, given the differences between these two wineries. Meanwhile, she ensures that she stays even sharper by consulting with Ontario wineries and, with husband Peter Gamble, managing a small premium winery in Argentina.

Here are notes on recent releases.

Sperling Brut 2009 ($40). This elegant sparkling wine is primary made with Pinot Blanc, a variety with a good Okanagan track record for making bubble (see Steller’s Jay Brut). This wine spent 36 months on lees, developing an appealing aroma of toast and yeast. The apple notes of the variety come through on the palate. The wine has a crisp finish. The 2010 sparkling wine, to be released next year, is based on Pinot Noir. 90.

Sperling Chardonnay 2012 ($30 for 100 cases). This wine was aged in big oak puncheons. Ann would have preferred used white wine barrels. When none were available, she opted for new puncheons because the wine would pick up less oak from the larger vessels. The strategy worked brilliantly. This has the brightness and freshness of Chablis, with apple and melon flavours and with a fine backbone of minerals. 90-91.

Sperling Pinot Noir 2012 ($26). The second Pinot Noir from Sperling, this wine has an appealing ruby hue, with aromas and flavours of cherry and strawberry on a concentrated palate. There is spicy fruit on the finish. The wine is showing well now but has so much potential to develop in the bottle that it should be cellared a few years. 90.

Sperling Old Vines Foch 2011 ($26).  Many acres of Maréchal Foch, a French hybrid, were pulled out in the Okanagan in 1988. Happily, the Sperling family made no such rash move, with the result that their winery now can offer a really big red every year. This is a delicious wine with flavours of plum and black cherry and an almost gamey delicatessen aroma. The texture is juicy, thanks to the soft tannins of the variety. 91.

Clos du Soleil Capella 2012 ($24.90). This is Sauvignon Blanc with eight per cent Sémillon. The wine has lime and grapefruit both on the aroma and on the palate. It is zesty and refreshing with crisp but lingering finish. 90.

Clos du Soleil Signature 2011 ($39.90). The winery made 10 barrels of this wine in the 2011 vintage, a significant volume for a small winery. This is 64% Merlot, 23% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Cabernet Franc, 6% Malbec and 5% Petit Verdot. It has good weight on the palate, with aromas of black currant and with flavours of black currant, chocolate and liquorice. There are spicy blackberry notes on the finish. This is definitely a candidate for cellaring for five to 10 years. 91.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Tinhorn Creek wins Cabernet Franc blind tasting


Cabernet Franc is a variety of rising importance in the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys.

That prompted the British Columbia Wine Appreciation Society to put together a comparative blind tasting this week, pitting eight B.C. Cabernet Francs against four from elsewhere in the world.

The winner, by a wide margin, was the Tinhorn Creek Oldfield Selection Cabernet Franc 2010. Tinhorn Creek has been making Cabernet Franc since 1996 but this was the winery’s first reserve tier example.

With a few minor exceptions, no Cabernet Franc was planted in British Columbia prior to 1992. It has disappeared mostly into Meritage blends until recently, when we have begun to see more and more varietals released.

The 2011 vineyard census shows that there were 517 acres (209 hectares) of Cabernet Franc growing in BC, making in the number five red after Merlot (1,600 acres), Pinot Noir (949 acres), Cabernet Sauvignon (755 acres) and Syrah (545 acres).

A new census is expected to be done this summer. I think it will show that Cabernet Franc has moved ahead of Syrah. Growers have pulled out some Syrah because of issues with viruses and vine decline, and Cabernet Franc often is the choice to replace it.

This is confirmed by the 2012 British Columbia Wine Grape Crop Report. Cabernet Franc has moved into fourth place, in tonnage harvested, ahead of Syrah. The tonnage of Cabernet Franc that year was 1,371 compared to 1,327 tons of Syrah.

The reasons for Cabernet Franc’s rise:
  • Cabernet Franc is more winter hardy than Syrah.
  • Cabernet Franc ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon.
  • And Cabernet Franc, grown well, makes very interesting red wines.

It does reflect the terroir. The Ontario and the French wine in this tasting are from cooler terroirs than the others. There is 600 hectares of the variety in Ontario. In cooler terroirs, the vegetal side of Cabernet Franc tends to assert itself. As the results show, the palates of a Vancouver audience find riper wines from warmer climates more appealing.

It is an ancient variety with such a complex history that it is hard to say whether it originated in Spain of France. The only certainty is that it is the parent both of Cabernet Sauvignon and of Carmenère. It is the sixth most widely planted variety in France. It shins on its own in the Loire and is usually part of the blend in Bordeaux reds.

Here is how the tasters ranked the wine;

Tinhorn Creek Oldfield’s Selection 2010 ($34.99). Here are my notes when I reviewed this wine on its release last year: The wine begins with appealing aromas of vanilla, plum, black berry and black currants. There is a satisfying gob of sweet berry flavours on the palate – flavours of blackberry, raspberry, spice and tobacco. The finish just won’t quit. The wine is drinking well now but will age well for another seven years. 93.

Trapiche Broquel Cabernet Franc 2009 ($19). This was a bargain from Argentina. Personally, I think the group over-scored the wine but it is a pleasant bottle all the same.

Poplar Grove  Cabernet Franc 2009  ($34.90). Bold and ripe, this is a rich and satisfying wine with not a trace of Cabernet Franc’s feared veggie notes.

Burrowing Owl Cabernet Franc 2011 ($33). Another bold and ripe wine in the classic Burrowing Owl style.

Perseus Winery Small Lots Cabernet Franc 2011 ($29.99). This is made with grapes from the Similkameen Valley. Another big, ripe red that I thought a delicious wine to drink.

Church & State  Cabernet Franc 2010 ($25 but sold out). The touch of mint on the nose reminded us this was a Cabernet Franc.

Hester Creek Cabernet Franc Reserve 2010 ($28.95). A seductive wine. I scored higher than the group.

Cosentino Winery The Franc Cabernet Franc 2012 ($26.99). This California winery makes Cabernet Franc both from Lodi and Napa grapes. This is the Lodi version.

Fairview Cellars Cabernet Franc 2011 ($29.90). The winery makes about 300 cases a year and has a solid following for this varietal. The bad news is that a hailstorm slightly  reduced the winery’s Cabernet Franc yield in 2013.

Cassini Cellars Collector’s Series Cabernet Franc 2011 ($29). This is a brambly, spicy wine.

Vineland Estate Cabernet Franc Reserve 2010 ($40). I liked this wine better than the group. I think the notes of mint and red berries are typical Ontario Cabernet Franc.

Domaine Bernard Baudry Chinon 2010 ($26.47).  This wine was an unexpected disappointment, marred by both excessive vegetal flavours and by a disturbing amount of brettanomyces.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Foxtrot tweaks some of its labels

Two of the three new wines from Foxtrot Vineyard have slight but important changes to the labels. There are a couple of stories here.

First, there are no label changes to the centerpiece of the Foxtrot range, the Pinot Noir from the 17-year-old Dijon 115 clone vines in the estate vineyard on the Naramata Bench. The 3.5-acre vineyard produces enough fruit for about 500 cases annually of a superlative Pinot Noir.

For those who complain that there is never enough to meet the demand, Foxtrot’s owners – Torsten and Kicki Allander and their son, Gustav – extended the planting last year. With cuttings from the original vineyard, they planted 2,700 additional direct-rooted vines. And there is room for at least that many more vines in the future.

Meanwhile, Foxtrot has begun to make selective purchases of grapes from other vineyards, primarily Naramata Bench vineyards. Keep an eye peeled for a 2013 Pinot Noir rosé from one of the newest producers added to the Foxtrot stable, but under the Wapiti label.

The first vintage of Foxtrot Pinot Noir was made in 2004. It was not too long before sommeliers began pressing the Allanders to add a premium Chardonnay to the portfolio. They began doing that in the 2008 vintage.

For several vintages through at least 2010, the Chardonnay label gave credit to the Coolshanagh Vineyard. This is a property northeast of Naramata owned by a businessman named Skip Stothert. (He owns Green Roads Recycling Ltd., an innovative paving company.)

The  Coolshanagh Vineyard does not appear on the 2012 Foxtrot Chardonnay because Stothert, a great Chardonnay fan, has decided to have the grapes reserved for his own label. He arranged to have Okanagan Crush Pad produce the wine instead.

There are no plans announced yet for the release of the wine. In a recent email, Stothert told me he is not planning a public tasting room on his property. “I have a wine building and will apply for a license but will continue with OCP well into the future,” he said. “Those are our plans at this point. We feel we have the best of both worlds. A full fledged winery obligation would definitely cut into my skiing, Mexico, other planned trips.”

His plans to produce for his own wine caused Foxtrot to look for other well-grown grapes. The 2012 Chardonnay comes from 16-year-old vines in a vineyard not far from Foxtrot. It is not named on the label, however.

The current non-estate Pinot Noir on the Foxtrot website, the 2010 vintage, is identified as Erickson Vineyard. But the 2011, just being released, is identified as Henricsson Vineyard.

It is the same vineyard under new ownership.

Foxtrot has been buying the Erickson grapes for several vintages while Arne Ericson, the owner, was trying to sell the vineyard at a price that did not fit into the budgets of the Allander family.

The Ericson is such a good wine that Vancouver’s toney Hawksworth restaurant had it on its list. One evening, Torsten was dining with Peter Henricsson, a wine collector friend as well as a fellow Swede. When Peter expressed admiration for the wine, Torsten warned that Foxtrot expected to stop making the wine after the vineyard was sold.

A week later, Peter – a West Vancouver businessman who has been very successful in high technology - bought the vineyard and asked the Allanders to farm it for him. In return, Foxtrot has put his name on the label.

Whatever vineyard is on the labels, these are three impressive wines.

Foxtrot Chardonnay 2012 ($46.15 for 390 cases). This wine, to be released in March, begins with appealing aromas of citrus with an underlying hint of butter and oak. The wine delivers flavours of tangerine and guava, with a crisp and vibrant finish. The classic Burgundian structure suggests this wine, while good now, has plenty of upside with several years in the cellar. 90.

Foxtrot Pinot Noir 2011 Henricsson Vineyard ($46.15). Don’t be misled by the light ruby colour. The wine was only bottled in October and is developing its silken elegance and body in bottle. The wine begins with aromas of cherry and spice which are echoed on the palate. 91.

Foxtrot Pinot Noir 2011 ($56.40). This wine is simply totally indulgent, beginning with aromas of strawberries, a melange of red fruits and spice. On the palate, it delivers a medley of fruits from strawberry to plum, with spice notes on the finish. The texture is silky while the acidity is fresh enough to give the wine longevity. The winery suggests it will age for 15 or more years. 93-95.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Three vintages of The Referènce from Blackwood Lane

Tiny Blackwood Lane Winery, with an almost secluded location on 8th Avenue in Langley, is one of those rare VQA wineries able to offer verticals of its icon wine.

That wine is a Bordeaux blend with a great name - The Referènce – and the quality of the wine lives up to the name. The winery’s website lists two available vintages, the 2006 and the 2007. Carlos Lee, the winery owner, has just released the 2008.

This is certainly a case of “no wine before its time,” to recall the great Paul Masson advertising slogan from the 1970s.

“True to its pedigree, it is a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec,” Carlos says in a covering note with the sample. “The wine has been extensively aged in both barriques and puncheons. In fact this holds the record: a five-year journey from crush to bottle. Needless to say, there is no substitution for TIME. It is really amazing what one can accomplish if we had all the time in the world.”

The winery, which began marketing wines in 2007 and which opened its tasting room two years later, was founded by Carlos Lee (left) and Charles Herrold. Charles subsequently became involved with a winemaking project in Washington State, selling his interest in Blackwood Lane to Carlos in 2011.

Obviously, Charles has his finger prints on the currently available vintages of The Referènce. However, Carlos would have finished the 2008, getting it from oak to bottle.

There is a strong familial style to the wines, giving The Referènce the consistency desired by collectors; this is, after all, a wine for collectors and for special occasions.

Since $100-plus wines are not in everyone’s budget, you can satisfy your curiosity by booking a winery tour and tasting. The website lists that as costing $50 but no one would expect a winery just to give away icon wines. That strikes me as a good deal.

The tasting room is open for drop-in visitors as well. The range of wines begins with a $29 red blend and includes a couple of wines described as “Canadian Ports.”

Here are notes – mine and the winery’s – on the three vintages of The Referènce.

The Referènce 2006 ($150). Here is what the winery says about it. “Our finest Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot grapes were selected and cool fermented separately to create this balanced and age worthy Bordeaux-style blend. New French barriques with extra tight grain were used for the first year and the wine spent its final year in Allier, Nevers, Jupille, and Tronçais forest puncheons that allowed reduction of the wine while maintaining its fragrant fruit and complex spice character. Over 80% free run juice gives the Referènce fine-grained natural tannins that result in extraordinary length of finish. Look for dark cherry, boysenberry, cassis, chocolate, cigar box and cedar aromas with high notes of eucalyptus, pencil shavings and violets. Approachable now but has the acidity and structure to enjoy for the next two decades.”

I might beg to differ on the longevity. I think the wine is ready now and should hold at this level for three to five years but not for 20. It has refined, silky tannins. It begins with aromas of cassis, vanilla and red berries. On the palate, the cassis mingles with plum and black cherry. 92.

The Referènce 2007 ($99).  The winery notes, for the most part, repeat those of the 2006 vintage regarding the making and aging of the wine.  “Look for dark cherry, plums, cassis, chocolate, cigar box and cedar aromas with high notes of figs currants and spice. Approachable now but has the acidity and structure to enjoy for the next two decades.”

I won’t quarrel with the longevity forecast this time. The wine is slightly bigger and richer than the 2006 and the tannins, while polished, have the firmness to go the distance. The wine begins with aromas of plum, cassis, spice, vanilla and oak. On the palate, there are notes of black cherry, boysenberry, vanilla, espresso and dark chocolate. The finish is very long. 94.

 The Referènce 2008 ($99).  This is not yet on the winery website, so I am guessing the price is unchanged from the previous vintage. This is a riper, fuller and darker wine that the previous vintage, beginning with aromas of cassis and vanilla. The leads to flavours of cassis, black cherry, dark chocolate, vanilla and coffee. The texture is still firm, but not hard, and the wine certainly is age worthy. There is a very long finish with notes of cedar and spice. 95.


Friday, February 14, 2014

James Cameron buys Beaufort Winery

Photo: James Cameron (courtesy Wikipedia)

Filmmaker James Cameron’s purchase of Beaufort Vineyard & Estate Winery near Courtenay, which was confirmed this week, should prove a big boost for all Vancouver Island wineries.

Indeed, it is a win for the entire B.C. wine industry to have attracted someone with Cameron’s global status.

Vancouver Island’s low profile and largely insular wineries will find they have suddenly acquired international recognition on Cameron’s coat tails.

Perhaps the first beneficiary is a new winery and vineyard consulting firm called First Leaf which did the due diligence on the purchase for Cameron. First Leaf has been set up by Tilman Hainle, a former Okanagan winemaker, and architect Marilyn Palmer.

“We’re thrilled to have Cameron as our first client, and hope to be involved in the further planning activities for this project,” Hainle said in an email.

Cameron plans to release a statement within a few weeks on his plans for Beaufort, a 34-hectare (84-acre) property currently growing 3.2 hectares (eight acres) of grapes. It is believed that Cameron is planning agricultural development in addition to viticulture.

In 2012, Cameron spent NZ$20 million to buy two large rural properties, comprising more that 1,000 hectares. The properties are at Wairarapa, not far from the New Zealand capital of Wellington. The Cameron film, Avatar, was made in New Zealand and he is working on a sequel there. The properties include a dairy farm. He is also planting 650 walnut trees.

In December, he told the National Post: “There’ll also be tree crops, grains, produce; it will be quite a mixed bag. But really, I think of it as an experimental station to look at various sustainable agriculture approaches.”
The Beaufort winery was opened in 2008 by Susan and Jeff Vandermolen. They had purchased the Comox Valley property in 2005 after leaving careers in the oil industry.  
“We look forward to working with the Camerons to carry on with the Beaufort Vineyard & Winery, and will do what we can to assist them in integrating with other local agri and culinary businesses in the Comox Valley and on Vancouver Island,” Jeff and Susan said on their Facebook site. “We are committed to staying on through the transition period and the next harvest and vintage, and then we'll see where it goes from there.”

Mark Timmermans, the new general manager at Beaufort, says: “Our plans are to keep on with the work that Jeff and Susan have started. I think James was really impressed with the way things have been running here, and he loved this piece of land. We’re going to be carrying on business as usual with the winery. If there are going to be plans for change, it will be after a decent period of time once we have got everything figured out. Jeff and Susan have done a wonderful job.”
Cameron is the subject of a long and occasionally edgy profile on Wikipedia. Apparently, he can be hot-tempered. “Sam Worthington, who worked with Cameron, stated on The Jay Leno Show that Cameron had very high expectations from everyone: he would use a nail gun to nail the film crew's cell phones to a wall above an exit door in retaliation for unwanted ringing during production,” according to Wikipedia.
Cameron was born in Kapuskasing, Ontario, in 1954. When he was 17, his family moved to California, where he developed his interest in filmmaking. He made his first film in 1978 and was soon working as a special effects director. He established his reputation for making successful films with the Terminator films that starred Arnold Schwarzenegger. He is better known for his film about the Titanic and, of course, Avatar, two of the highest grossing films of all time.
He is well known for his environmentalism and, since 2012, his advocacy of vegan diets. “In October 2013, a new species of frog Pristimantis jamescameroni from Venezuela was named after him in recognition of his efforts in environmental awareness, in addition to his public promotion of vegetarianism,” according to Wikipedia.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Okanagan Crush Pad thinks outside the box

Okanagan Crush Pad's Matt Dumayne

It seems that pushing the boundaries of winemaking is a way of life at Okanagan Crush Pad Winery.

Matt Dumayne, one of the OCP winemakers, hosted a Vancouver tasting recently that began with a so-called orange wine. This is actually a technical term referring to a white wine which has had prolonged skin maceration and may have picked up some colour.

The OCP wine is from the 2013 vintage. It is a blend of 50% Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay that was fermented on the skins and left on the skins.

“It is completely natural, with no sulphur, no enzyme and no yeast,” Matt said in early January. “There has been absolutely nothing added to it.”

By now, the wine may have been transferred into two clay amphorae that have just been delivered to OCP from a supplier in Tuscany. The wine may spend another six to eight months before being released. Whether consumers will understand such a wine remains to be seen. But there is no question that the wine’s esoteric qualities will find enough fans to support it.

All of the other wines being released by OCP, under such labels as Haywire and Bartier & Scholefield, are mainstream – but all show notes of original winemaking.

OCP is a Summerland winery that began marketing the Haywire wines in 2010. It also operates as a custom crush winery, with Michael Bartier as the senior winemaker. Labels that started here before moving into wineries of their own have included Harper’s Trail, Sage Hills, C.C. Jentsch Cellars and Platinum Bench. Current client wineries include Perseus, a Penticton winery. Matt serves as the Perseus winemaker.

OCP differentiated itself from the start by retaining Alberto Antonini (right), a consulting winemaker from Italy. It would be an understatement to call him provocative.

He appears to have influenced OCP’s major commitment to fermenting and storing some of its wines in concrete. This was the first winery in the Okanagan to have egg-shaped concrete fermentation tanks alongside traditional stainless steel tanks. Antonini once remarked that he smells life in a concrete tank but all he smells in stainless steel is “death.”

“In the early days [of winemaking], people were fermenting in clay or oak or cement,” he has said. “There is so much more life in those containers.”

He has also influenced OCP to ferment with the native yeasts. “When I started [making wine], there were no commercial yeasts and the grapes fermented very well,” says Alberto, who started his career more than 25 years ago with the Frescobaldi winery. He argues that commercial years are isolated “1,000 miles away” and the wines will not express the sense of place compared with wines made with the native yeasts of Okanagan vineyards.

You can find plenty of winemakers to give you an argument. I know a couple who think concrete tanks make no difference and, because they are harder to clean, may nurture deleterious yeasts and bacteria. Alberto argues that a good steam cleaning is enough to keep the vessels sanitary but not sterile.

The bottom line is how the wines taste. The Haywire Wild Ferment Pinot Gris 2012, which was fermented with native yeast in concrete, is clean and refreshing, with a fullness on the palate that can be attributed to the lees contact it had in concrete.

OCP also consults with a friend of Alberto’s, a Chilean viticulturist called Pedro Parra. His back-to-basics thinking on vineyards is reflected in his self-proclaimed title: a terroirist.

One of the first things Pedro did for OCP was study the winery’s 10-acre Switchback Vineyard, planted entirely to Pinot Gris. His work has identified five different blocks within that vineyard, flagging individual qualities of the blocks, leading to optimal management.

“The vineyard is all organically farmed,” Matt Dumayne says. “We are about to receive certification on that. It has been three years since we switched over and I notice the vines have gone through a transformation – smaller bunches, smaller berries, less crop – as they are adjusting to the removal of fertilizers. But the flavours that are coming out are more intense.”

Pedro and Alberto are now advising on the development of a biodynamic vineyard that OCP will begin planting this spring in the Garnet Valley, just north of Summerland.

“We are planting 12 acres this year; 25,000 own-rooted Pinot Noir vines are going in,” Matt says. “The property is 312 acres. Sixty or seventy acres will be planted, 70 % of that Pinot Noir. The balance will be Riesling and Chardonnay.”

The wines released so far under the various OCP brands already are very well made, with an emerging sense of place. Here are notes drawn from several recent tastings.

Haywire Pink Bub 2012 ($25 for 100 cases). This pink sparkling wine is being released for the Valentine season. It is 51% Pinot Noir, 49% Chardonnay (or close to those numbers because a dosage of red wine is added when the wine is disgorged. It is fresh and delicious, with hints of cherry and with a green apple crispness. 88.

Haywire The Bub 2012 ($25). This is the second vintage of a white sparkling wine, made with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The wine displays a creamy texture and fresh flavours of apple and peach. 90.

Haywire Switchback Pinot Gris 2011 ($23 for 1,000 cases). Lean and lemony, this wine expresses the crisp austerity of a cool vintage. This is a classic wine for shell fish. 88.

Haywire Switchback Pinot Gris 2012 ($23 for 971 cases). Both the warmer vintage and improving techniques the vineyard have come together to produce a richly satisfying Pinot Gris, with aromas and flavours of citrus and peach. 90.

Haywire Switchback Wild Ferment Pinot Gris 2012 ($29.90 for 200 cases). This wine shows excellent intensity, with stone fruit aromas, flavours of peach, apricot and pear and with good weight on the palate. 91.

Haywire Canyonview Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011 ($35 for 413 cases). Grapes from the Canyonview Vineyard near Summerland (not owned by OCP) have produced award winning wines for several producers. This wine, which was aged in old French oak and then transferred to concrete eggs for further aging, is a light but pretty wine, with aromas and flavours of cherry and strawberry and with a classic silky texture. 90.

Haywire Canyonview Pinot Noir 2012 ($35 for 413 cases; not yet released). This vintage is darker and fuller, with spicy cherry aromas. On the palate, it is a silken with plum and cherry flavours. 90-91.

Bartier Scholefield Sauvignon Blanc 2012 ($23 for 125 cases). Crisp and fresh, this wine has herbal and citrus aromas with delicate flavours of lime. 89.

Bartier Scholefield Chardonnay 2012 ($23 for 101 cases). This unoaked Chardonnay has tropical notes of citrus and pineapple, with a fresh and crisp finish. 90.

Bartier Scholefield White Table Wine 2011 ($20). This straight-forward white has melons and apples on the palate. The finish is crisp and refreshing. 89.

Bartier Scholefield Rosé 2011 ($17). The winery’s website still shows the 2010 vintage; the winemakers believe that, contrary to conventional wisdom, rosé wines can take a bit of age. The 2011 vintage has the lively acidity that will preserve its appealing strawberry and cranberry aromas and flavours. The wine is made with Gamay grapes. 89.

Bartier Scholefield Red Table Wine 2011 ($20 for 408 cases). This is a blend of Syrah, Pinot Noir and Gamay. The Syrah brings appealing notes of pepper to the aroma. There are spiced cherry flavours. The wine has the weight of a good Beaujolais.

One of the OCP clients is the Penticton-based Perseus Winery and Vineyards. The recent vintages have been made primarily at the OCP winery. The winemaker for the 2010, 2011 and 2012 vintages was Tom DiBello. Here are notes on recent releases.

Perseus Pinot Gris 2013 (Not yet released). Winemaker Matt Dumayne stopped the ferment to leave a trace of residual sugar. That was a good idea: it gives the wine a juicy texture and it lifts the aromas and flavours of peach, pear, apples and citrus. 90.

Perseus Viognier 2013 (Not yet released). Made from grapes grown on Black Sage Road, this shows a classic viscous texture. It beings with an appealing perfumed aroma, leading to flavours of apricot and pineapple. 90.

Perseus Gewürztraminer 2012 ($14.99). This begins with appealing aromas of citris and spice. On the palate, there are flavours of grapefruit and apple. The Muscat side of this variety expresses itself with very slight spicy bitterness on the finish. 89.

Perseus Merlot 2011 ($21.99). This is a vibrant wine with flavours of blueberry and black currant. Ripe tannins give it a fleshy texture. 88.

Perseus Syrah Malbec 2011 ($28.99). Dark in hue, this begins with aromas of black cherry and vanilla. On the palate, there are flavours of black cherry and chocolate, with white pepper and spice on the finish. 90.

Perseus Invictus 2010 Select Lots ($32.99).  This is 56% Merlot, 29% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Petit Verdot, 4% Cabernet Franc and 2% Malbec. It begins with inviting aromas of vanilla and plum, leading to flavours of plum, black currant and chocolate. The long finish has notes of spice and cedar. 90.

Perseus Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 Select Lots ($49.99). Considering that 2010 was considered a cool vintage, it is a surprise to see an alcohol content of 15.1%. The fruit is so rich and ripe that there is no heat on the finish. It begins with aromas of cassis, vanilla and spice. The berry flavours are complex and layered. The structure is firm enough to give this wine longevity in the cellar. 90.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

High V’s from Van Westen

Photo: Rob Van Westen

Winemaker Rob Van Westen has “played” through more injuries than the average hockey player.

The first time I met him, he was wearing a monstrous cast after having survived a tractor rollover.

His most recent injury, if memory serves, was a collar bone so seriously broken in a fall that the bone had to be held together with metal to heal. He had surgery after the 2013 vintage to take out the screws. In a recent email to his clients, Rob said: “My shoulder is letting me work although it needs a hot tub to loosen the muscles at night. It is so great to be back physically working with upper body strength increasing daily after that 14 month ordeal of mending and re-mending the collarbone.”

Throughout all that, he has managed to make interesting wine for ten vintages now. He may have been hurting but it never showed in the wines. The latest releases are no exception.

The other bit of good news is that the tasting room at Van Westen Vineyards is to be open regularly in the coming season. It will open from 11 am to 5 pm Friday and Saturday from the Easter weekend to July; and then daily to mid-October. Rob is generally available by appointment at other times.

Located just off Naramata Road, the winery has operated irregular hours in the apple packing house that Rob converted into a winery. The informality of the place – a few upended barrels – is part of the charm. And there has always been a good chance that Rob will take guests on a barrel tasting.

Meanwhile, you can find some of his wines in the VQA stores and other private wine stores, as well as in restaurants. For private clients, Rob loads his truck several times a year and delivers the wine personally.

As the pun in the headline suggests, the DNA of a Van Westen wine is that each one has a name beginning with V. He released an Icewine a few years ago called Vice, renaming it Vicicle to get around a trademark issue.

Here are notes on the latest V’s.

Van Westen Viognier 2012 ($N/A for 242 cases). This wine begins with appealing aromas of pineapple and apple and opens to deliver a bowl of fruit flavours – apricot, mango and apples. The texture is rich with that trademark Viognier spine of tannin and mineral. The finish lingers. 91-92.

Van Westen Vino Grigio 2012 ($19.90 for 530 cases). Rob’s take on Pinot Grigio begins with aromas of apple and pear, leading to flavours of apple, melon and citrus, with mineral notes. The dry but fruity finish is persistent. 90.

Van Westen Vivacious 2012 ($19.90 for 530 cases). This is another interpretation of Pinot Blanc, with a dash of Pinot Gris and barrel fermentation for a portion. A full-bodied white with 13.8% alcohol, it has layers and layers of flavour, including apple, melon, Asian pear and tangerine.  89.

Van Westen Vixen 2012 ($19.90 for 100 cases). This is 60% Pinot Gris, 40% Pinot Blanc and 100% delicious. It begins with tangerine aromas, leading to flavours of grapefruit, tangerine, guava and baked pears, with a honeyed note on the finish that suggests a touch of botrytis. 91.

Van Westen Voluptuous 2010 ($29.90 for 218 cases).  This is 67% Merlot, 33% Cabernet Franc. It spent 18 months in barrel, one-third new French oak, and aged further in bottle before its November, 2013 release. Even so, I took the precaution of decanting it which, I believe, helped the wine open both its aromas and its textures. It begins with black currant and coffee aromas. It delivers a good dollop of sweet fruit to the palate, with notes of black cherry and chocolate. 90-91.

Van Westen Voluptuous 2009 ($29.90) This vintage is not quite sold out but if you come across any in wine shops or restaurants, jump on it. It shows the ripeness of the 2009 vintage with its full-bodied texture and appealing flavours of black cherry, black currant, chocolate and espresso. 92.

Van Westen/DiBello 2012 Pinot Noir aka VD ($39.90). This is the wine that Rob makes with Tom DiBello, the winemaker at Burrowing Owl. I will bow to the tasting notes provided by Rhys Pender, who has a more articulate palate (he is am MW after all). “A brooding, complex wine with intense aromas of dark chocolate-coated black cherry, raspberry and mulberry along with underlying clove, burlap and graphite. The palate starts with a soft, silky texture and flavours of ripe strawberry and cherry before intriguing liquorice, pipe tobacco, earth and mineral notes reveal themselves on the long finish.” I agree, with the caveat that wine needs decanting and breathing to show all of that. My score: 90.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Sonoma Wineries on their 2014 tour

Photo: Rodney Strong winemaker Rick Sayre

Perhaps because the Napa Valley casts such a long shadow, the wineries of the Sonoma Valley seem to have a bit of an uphill battle to get listings in British Columbia.

Currently, the B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch lists 43 wines from Sonoma against 96 from Napa.

It is not as if there are not plenty of Sonoma wineries that want into this market. In early February, 21 Sonoma wineries very in Vancouver for what has become an annual tasting. Most of those producers had four wines each.

A large number were designated as “spec” wines – meaning the agents are offering them to restaurants and private wine stores, having failed to get listings in the public system. And that will never change, given the vast number of wines available and the limited shelf space available.

If grocery stores are opened to the sale of wines, that might create an additional channel. However, that channel likely will be filled with mass volume brands. Most grocery stores are unlikely to tie up shelf space with premium-priced wines that will just get dusty. Indeed, it is a surprise to find the BCLBD currently has 236 bottles of Kistler “Les Noisetiers Chardonnay at $85 a bottle.

But I digress. There were about 75 wines on show at the Sonoma tasting, far more than one could taste and make notes on during three hours. I managed to taste enough to come away impressed, as I always do when Sonoma comes to town or when I travel to Sonoma.

Sonoma is both an older and bigger wine region than Napa. The first vines were planted in Sonoma in 1814 and there now are about 24,000 hectares under vine. The first vines were planted in Napa in 1838 and there now are about 18,000 hectares under vine. There are slightly more wineries in Napa and you can bet that some buy Sonoma fruit.

The Sonoma vintners embellished their tour with some special events, one of which was a blending seminar hosted by Rick Sayre, a veteran winemaker at Rodney Strong Vineyards. Guests were grouped in teams of five, given components for a Meritage blend and challenged to make their own blends to compete with Rodney Strong Symmetry. That is a superb $80 red that is, of course, a spec wine you need to search out in private stores.

Whether any of the teams came close to Symmetry is debatable. But all produced quite acceptable blends because all of us were working with outstanding components.

Rodney Strong is venerable name in Sonoma wine. His colourful beginning was recounted by the late Leon Adams through several editions of The Wines of America.

“In 1960, when Rodney Strong was 33, he disbanded his Rod Strong Dance Quartet after performing on Broadway and at the Lido in Paris ‘because I didn’t want to be an old dancer’,” Adams wrote. His grandparents had been wine growers in Germany. He set out to bottle bulk wine in California; then he formed partnerships to produce wines sold by mail order, which was quite a novel idea at the time.

He was part of the first postwar California wine boom. His group, which established the 13th bonded winery in Sonoma, went public in 1970, soon got overextended, and was in receivership four years later. The winery went through several ownership changes before being acquired in 1989 by its current owners, the Klein family.

Strong, who later quipped that he knew he could be an old winemaker if not an old dancer, stayed as a consultant with Rodney Strong Vineyards until retiring in 1995. He died in 2006 after a distinguished career as a winemaker.

Rick Sayre, who led the Vancouver blending seminar, has been at the winery since 1979. He had previously worked with André Tchelistcheff, a towering figure in California winemaking (who died in 1994). Sayre has a fund of Tchelistcheff stories, including a memory of being in France with him when they were presented a totally faulted wine. Tchelistcheff muttered a noncommittal comment that left the French vintner beaming. Sayre later asked why he had not been frank in his criticism.

“That wine looked like it needed a friend,” Tchelistcheff replied.

Let me tell you that the wines from Rodney Strong Vineyards – and from the other Sonoma wineries – have plenty of genuine friends.

Chardonnay comprises 29% of all the vines in Sonoma. This is a great terroir for that varietal. In general, Sonoma Chardonnay, even if it has been in barrel and through malolactic fermentation, still has good bright acidity that pops the tropical fruit flavours and leaves the wines ever so refreshing.

The same can be said of Sonoma Pinot Noir. That variety accounts for 18% of the plantings.

The other varieties that are the backbone to Sonoma are Cabernet Sauvignon (22%), Merlot (14%), Zinfandel (9%) and Sauvignon Blanc (4%).

Sonoma Zinfandels invariably are elegant while the Sauvignon Blancs from this region have the piquant acidity that gives them a crisp, refreshing lift.

Here are the superb Sonoma wines I was able to taste and recommend. Most will be found in private wine stores. In particular, the Rodney Strong Brothers Ridge Ridge Cabernet takes one’s breath away with its rich, ripe fruit as well as its elevated price. A real bucket list wine.

  • Davis Bynum Chardonnay 2012, Russian River ($29.99).
  • Davis Bynum Jane’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011 ($39.99).
  • Dry Creek Sauvignon Blanc 2013 ($22.95).
  • Dry Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ($26.95 in the LDB).
  • MacRostie Winery Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2012 ($29.99 in the LDB).
  • MacRostie Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($34.99).
  • MacRostie Wildcat Mountain Vineyard Chardonnay 2012 ($44.99).
  • MacRostie Wildcat Mountain Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010 ($49.99).
  • Pedroncelli Signature Selection Chardonnay 2012 ($17.95).
  • Pedroncelli Mother Clone Zinfandel 2011 ($19.95).
  • Rodney Strong Chalk Hill Chardonnay 2012 ($26.99 in the LDB).
  • Rodney Strong Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($29.99).
  • Rodney Strong Symmetry Red Meritage 2010 ($79.99).
  • Rodney Strong Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ($99.99 in the LDB).
  • Rodney Strong Alexander’s Crown Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ($99.99).
  • Rodney Strong Brothers Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ($99.99). 
  • Schug Carneros Chardonnay 2012 ($36.49).
  • Schug Carneros Pinot Noir 2010 ($37.49 in the BCLDB).
  • Schug Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2012 ($30.49).
  • Schug Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ($35.49).
  • Seghesio Alexander Valley Sangiovese 2010 ($43).
  • Seghesio Sonoma Zinfandel 2012 ($34.99 in the LDB).
  • Seghesio Cortina Vineyard Zinfandel 2011 ($52.99).
  • Seghesio Old Vine Zinfandel 2011 ($49.97 in the LDB).