Photo: Winemaker Andrew Windsor
In 1993, when the founders of Tinhorn Creek Vineyards bought
the Golden Mile vineyard for their winery site, one of the varieties planted there
That block of Kerner was finally pulled out after the 2016
vintage. Roussanne will be planted instead, undoubtedly a better choice - but
another nail in the Kerner coffin in the Okanagan. Perhaps a dozen wineries
once made Kerner but the number of producers is declining.
I profiled the variety and some of the producers in Chardonnay and Friends,
a 1998 book now
out of print. In memory of Tinhorn Creek’s Kerner, here are a few excerpts that
provide background on the variety. It was planted in the Okanagan in the first
place in the belief the valley was best suited for cool-climate German varieties.
Kerner was a comparatively recent variety at the time.
In 1969 Germany’s
Weinsberg Institute in Württemberg classified a new white grape created in 1929
by crossing Trollinger, a red variety, with the great Riesling. Vine breeder
August Herold called the variety Kerner -- for nineteenth century German poet
Justinus Kerner who had been one of Weinsberg’s leading citizens. It is one of
the most successful new varieties to emerge from German plant breeding. The
vine is vigorous, ripening reliably while maintaining the essential acidity in
the grapes. The variety now has a toehold in vineyards beyond Germany,
including both the Okanagan and Vancouver Island. Exceptionally versatile,
Kerner’s wines cover the field from dry table wines to icewines. The wines are
comparable to Riesling while perhaps slightly fleshier on the palate. The wines
are attractive when fresh and young but also age well.
In her otherwise excellent 1986 book Vines, Grapes and Wines,
Jancis Robinson dismisses Justinus Kerner (1786-1862) as a mere librettist of
drinking songs. In fact, he was one of the most distinguished citizens of
Weinsberg where he lived most of his adult life and where he is buried beside
his wife, a clairvoyant about whom Kerner once wrote a book. He had a medical
degree from the University of Tübingen and ultimately settled his practice in
Weinsberg, becoming district health officer. He also was an accomplished writer
of both popular medical books and of poetry which blended romance, melancholy
and the supernatural. In 1840 composer Robert Schumann set fifteen of Kerner’s
poems to music, including Wanderlied (Travel-song), which opens with the
line “Wohlauf, noch getrunken den funkelnden Wein (Come, one more glass of
shimmering wine). The poem, however, is not a drinking song but a nostalgic
memorial to a friend with whom he had shared wine. Weinsberg was so proud of
its literary doctor that the city gave him a house (now a museum) just outside
a historic medieval castle. Public buildings and city squares have been named
for him; in 1895 a monument to Kerner was erected in Stuttgart, the state
capital of Württemberg. The vintners who work with the Kerner, Weinsberg’s most
successful wine grape, have quite some reputation to live up to.
Sandra Oldfield at Tinhorn Creek only makes icewine from the Kerner
grown in the winery’s Fischer vineyard (named for vineyard manager Hans Fischer
who owned the property before selling it to Tinhorn Creek). The California-born
Oldfield, who had never encountered the variety before coming to the Okanagan,
enjoys the flavours of dry Kerner table wine but dedicates Fischer vineyard
grapes to icewine because this gives Tinhorn Creek a product of appealing
uniqueness amid a sea of Riesling icewines.
Thick-skinned Kerner is well suited for icewine. “It likes to cling to
the vines and does a good job of hanging on the vines when the weather gets
quite cold,” Oldfield discovered. “It holds its acid really well and the fruit
remains healthy.” There are only two acres of Kerner in the vineyard, arranged
in twenty-four rows, only eight of which are reserved for icewine in any year
(the remaining grapes are sold to other wineries for table wine). The stress of
retaining icewine grapes is rotated each year to a different eight rows. “There is a theory that you will kill them
if you use the same vines for icewine year after year after year,” Oldfield
says. Tinhorn Creek limits its
production to a maximum of 2,500 half-bottles of Kerner icewine each year, all
of it sold from Tinhorn Creek’s wine shop, where Oldfield cheerily takes her
turn explaining the variety to visitors.
The final vintage of Kerner
Icewine made by Sandra was 2013. In 2014 she moved up to the presidency of
Tinhorn Creek, handing over winemaking to Andrew Windsor. Born in Ontario and
trained in Australia, Andrew had made Icewine in Ontario. But when he was
confronted with Tinhorn Creek’s Kerner in 2014, he made an orange wine instead,
fermenting the Kerner on its skins.
“We did it in the cellar for interest’s sake,” Andrew told
me last fall as we tasted the wine, which has not yet been released. The winery
made just 75 cases of 500 ml bottles.
“This wine has had no additives at any point,” Andrew said.
“Originally, I had aspirations of making it slightly off-dry because we stopped
making the Icewine. I knew we would need a dessert wine for winemaker dinners.
That didn’t happen. It finished fermenting in about six days to total dryness.
It was on skins for about two weeks. It was very lightly pressed into two
French oak barrels. It sat there for a year, maybe longer, and then we bottled
it in June 2016.”
The wine, which has a lovely orange hue, ended up as an
interesting aperitif wine. “It is not oxidative but, for me, it has that dry,
briny flavour profile that makes you want to eat some olives and hard cheeses,”
Andrew also let me tastes three table wines that are
favourites of the winemaking team. All will be released this spring.
Tinhorn Creek Pinot
is a favourite of Korol Kuklo (left), the assistant winemaker at Tinhorn
Creek (where she has worked since 1998). “We are certainly not known for Pinot
Noir,” Andrew conceded. However, the winemaking here has been tweaked. About
10% of the grapes going into the fermenter as whole clusters. Half the ferment
was with native yeast. A modest quantity of new oak – 10% new, 5% second fill –
ae used for maturing the wine which, traditionally was aged just in neutral
barrels. The result is a rich and juicy style, with spice and cherries in the
aroma and on the palate. I scored it 91 points.
Oldfield Reserve Chardonnay 2015,
with a production volume of 450 cases,
was fermented in new French oak and has aged in French oak. The wine has an
appealing toasty note on the nose and in the finish, sandwiching a rich core of
marmalade fruit flavours. I scored the
barrel sample 93 points. It is expected to be priced $35.
Chardonnay,” Andrew said. “I buy a reasonable amount of white wine and most of
the dollars would go to Chardonnay. Chardonnay easily is the wine we make here
in the Okanagan that is as good as anywhere in the world.”
sneak preview was Tinhorn Creek Oldfield
Reserve Syrah 2014. Andrew had plenty of experience with the variety, both
in Ontario and in Australia, where he worked for Mollydooker Wines in McLaren Vale
but he never had a chance until Tinhorn Creek to co-ferment Syrah and Viognier.
In that and in subsequent vintages, the winery pressed its Viognier and put the
juice into a white blend. The skins, however, were put in the fermented with
the crushed Syrah, adding complexity to the wine.
“This is my
favourite wine that I have made anywhere,” Andrew said. “We don’t make much
Syrah … 800 cases or so. It is an underrated variety. It is a nice change of
perspective from the Bordeaux varieties that dominate the valley.”
The wine began
with the perfumed aromas hinting of stone fruit and black cherry, with a whiff
of white pepper. Densely textured, the wine has flavours of plum and fig, with
black coffee and dark cherry on the finish. I scored it 92 points.
vintages were labelled Oldfield Series. That label is being changed to Oldfield
Reserve “just so that we don’t have to explain to people the wines are reserves,”