Monday, January 15, 2018

Nota Bene and friends at Sun Peaks

Last weekend at the winter wine festival at the Sun Peaks Resort, I was able to lead a seminar of iconic wines of British Columbia.

The seminar was inspired by my 2017 book, Icon: Flagship Wines from British Columbia’s Best Wineries. The book gives detailed comments on more than 100 wineries and their top wines. In December, the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards announced that the book has been judged the best Canadian wine book in 2017.

The ten wines that I presented were, with one exception, from wineries participating in other events as well at the festival.

The exception was Black Hills Estate Winery which generously dipped into its library to provide from Nota Bene 2015. One can hardly talk about iconic Okanagan wines without talking about that wine. When the first vintage of Nota Bene (1999) was released in 2001, it developed a remarkable cult following almost immediately. The reason, at least in my view, was that it stood out from the small handful of red Bordeaux blends then being produced in the Okanagan.

Sixteen vintages later, the wine retains its cult status, even though there are numerous  other premium red wines available. I think the recent vintages of Note Bene also are significantly better than earlier ones (as delicious as they were). That reflects excellent viticulture, a well-equipped winery and a decision in 2012 to increase the barrel aging of the wine from 12 months to 16 months. The extra barrel time has produced a richer wine with a polished texture.

Last summer, Andrew Peller Ltd. paid a reported $30 million to acquire Black Hills. That was certainly generous but in wine, as in sports, you need to pay up to add a super star to the team.

If Nota Bene was a star in last week’s Sun Peaks seminar, the other nine wines easily held the attention of the guests during the two-hour, sold-out tasting. I should note that the seminar was sponsored by Tastefull Excursions, the leading Kamloops wine touring company that also provides transport services for Sun Peaks Resort.

One object of my book was to identify wines that can be laid down in a collector’s wine cellar. Thus, the book includes a number of Pinot Noirs, Rieslings, sparkling wines and Chardonnays as well as red blends, all of them age-worthy. Unfortunately, I overlooked Viognier and white Rhone blends, which age moderately well. I included neither Pinot Gris nor Sauvignon Blanc, usually because the producers had more impressive flagship wines but also these whites typically are best with two years.

Pinot Noir, which is becoming British Columbia’s signature red grape, was represented by two producers. Quails’ Gate Stewart Family Reserve Pinot Noir 2015 ($50) is the reserve Pinot from a winery that has been growing the variety since 1975. Nikki Callaway, the current winemaker, makes the wine with delicacy and restraint.

Privato Woodward Collection Tesoro Pinot Noir 2014 ($34.69) is from a winery in Kamloops operated by John and Debbie Woodward. While they have an estate vineyard, they source premium Pinot Noir grapes in the north Okanagan. This is a full-bodied wine with a lot of power for a Pinot – and a lot of awards.

The other wines all were red blends, almost always with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc; occasionally also with Petit Verdot and Malbec. Black Hills Nota Bene 2015 ($59.90) has already been discussed.

Covert Farms Amicitia 2014 ($29.80), the great bargain of the tasting, comes from the vineyard at Covert Farms north of Oliver. The winery does not label the wine organic but the owners strictly follow organic practices in the vineyard. This particular vintage also includes three per cent of Syrah.  

Culmina Hypothesis 2013 ($46) is the third vintage of this blend from Culmina Family Estate Winery, operated by Donald and Elaine Triggs, and daughter Sara. This is 38% Merlot, 36% Cabernet Franc and 26% Cabernet Sauvignon. Subsequent vintages will include Petit Verdot and Malbec. This wine is showing increasing complexity with increasing vine age in the Culmina vineyard.

Desert Hills Mirage 2012 ($36.90) is now sold out. One of the most mature of the blends offered in the seminar, it showed the benefit of laying these reds in the cellar for a few years. This blend includes five Bordeaux varietals.

Fort Berens Red Gold 2015 ($44.99). This is a new premium red from Fort Berens Estate Winery in Lillooet. The wine won gold at the Intervin competition and scored 94 points from me. It is a blend of 43% Cabernet Franc, 31% Cabernet Sauvignon and 26% Merlot. Its appeal includes bright, brambly flavours.

Hester Creek The Judge 2014 ($45) is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. The winery began making this premium blend in 2007. The wine has always been remarkable for the richness of its fruit and texture. That reflects grapes from an excellent vineyard fermented with cutting edge technology and then aged in barrel for 26 months. Given the quality, I have always considered that the wine underpriced. Don’t tell the winery I said so.

Moon Curser Dead of Night 2014 ($37.30). This wine, from Moon Curser Vineyards in Osoyoos, is a blend of 50% Syrah and 50% Tannat. Moon Curser is the only winery in the Okanagan with Tannat in its vineyard. Jancis Robinson has described this as a “powerful, characterful, often tannic variety at home in south-west France and Uruguay but becoming global.” A few years ago, Moon Curser’s Chris Tolley hit upon this brilliant blend. The Syrah adds flesh to the bones of Tannat that makes the wine drinkable on release. It has the structure to age at least 15 years, however.

Noble Ridge Vineyard and Winery at Okanagan Falls may have stolen the show at the tasting with two its King’s Ransom Meritage wines from arguably the two finest vintages so far in the Okanagan.

Noble Ridge King’s Ransom Meritage 2009 ($65), which is no longer available, is 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and 50% Merlot. Noble Ridge King’s Ransom Meritage 2014 ($69.90) – some of the 130 cases still may be available – is a blend of 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, with small amounts Cabernet France and Malbec.

These wines were shown last in the tasting so that the guests could compare the vintages. Both wines are delicious, full-bodied with rich dark fruit and a hint of toast and vanilla from 24 months barrel aging.

The bottom line? One of the guests said he had not previously been a regular consumer of British Columbia wines. “This has changed my mind,” he said.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

40 Knots: a high-energy winery

Photo: Brenda Hetman and Layne Craig

Brenda Hetman and Layne Robert Craig, her husband, have injected refreshing energy into Comox-based 40 Knots Vineyard & Estate Winery since they acquired it in July, 2014.

The initial developer of this winery, Bill Hamilton, found himself overwhelmed by the wine business. The many demands of winegrowing, from pruning a large vineyard to selling a good volume of wine, even if sound, are daunting. Brenda and Layne, who came from outside the wine business, are younger. Their enthusiasm seems to have staying power.

A recent email from the winery set out an ambitious program of events at the winery during the winter. Beginning January 13, there are mixology classes every Saturday to mid February; and there is a Valentine’s fashion show on February 8. Check the winery web site for times and ticket prices. Hats off to the owners for not leaving the winery dark over winter.

The wines reflect the terroir of a vineyard whose soil is glacial till. It is literally meters from the Salish Sea.

“With the assistance of winemaker Michael Bartier, we craft wines distinctly shaped by this windswept, sun-soaked vineyard in which we farm using traditional methods,” Brenda writes. Increasingly, they have adopted organic and biodynamic farming practices.

“We do not irrigate our vines,” Brenda continues. “We use the line only to get our liquid kelp out in the early summer.” Not irrigating forces the vines to send roots deeper into the soil. It also prevents the vines from being overly vigorous.

What struck me in tasting the wines reviewed below was this: while the alcohol levels are generally moderate, the flavours are fully ripe. That is a sign of excellent viticulture.

Vancouver Island vineyards typically have lower heat units that those of the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys. Varietals like Syrah and Merlot will not ripen on the island, no matter how good the viticulture. Yet consumers also want big wines. 40 Knots, along with some other island wineries, source those late ripening grapes in the Okanagan. Language on the label general makes it clear when grapes come in off the island.

The 40 Knots vineyard succeeds with earlier ripening varieties, including Schönburger,  Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir.

One of the most successful is Siegerrebe. The wines are lively and fruity. The only problem is some consumers have trouble pronouncing the name of the grape. It is Zee-ger-eeb-eh.

40 Knots thought they had resolved the problem by calling their wine Ziggy, only to run into a strange trademark fight. Ziggy is also the name of their vineyard dog.

Since last February, Loblaws Companies Ltd. has been objecting to 40 Knots using Ziggy on a wine label. Loblaws apparently has five Ziggy trademarks related to their delicatessen. 40 Knots is trying to have them expunged on the grounds they have not been used. Loblaws has until early in January to file evidence they have been used.

It may seem preposterous that consumers would confuse a wine from 40 Knots with a Loblaws deli. But big companies typically defend trademarks. If they don’t, there is always a risk that other businesses will begin using the trademarks and the trademarks lose their individual value.

Good luck to 40 Knots. However, my advice to consumers who like this excellent wine is learn to pronounce the name of the variety.

Here are notes on the wines.

40 Knots Ziggy Siegerrebe 2016 ($22.90). Siegerrebe, an under-appreciated white variety, is a godsend for the cooler vineyards on Vancouver Island and the Fraser Valley. An early ripening aromatic grape, Siegerrebe invariably delivers exuberant tropical aromas and flavours. This wine is an example: aromas and flavours of spice, grapefruit and lime with a crisp, dry finish. 90.

40 Knots Unoaked Chardonnay 2016 ($22.90 for 414 cases). The grapes for this wine were grown, and very well grown, in the Comox Valley. The alcohol is just 11.9% but the flavours are ripe. Light, dry and refreshing, this wine has aromas and flavours of apples and pineapples. It is well balanced with a tangy finish. 90.

40 Knots White Seas 2016 ($19.90 for 545 cases). There are six white varietals, including Pinot Gris, in this blend. The wine had a long, cool fermentation in stainless steel to preserve the fruit basket of flavours (apple, pear, lime, lemon). The finish is crisp and refreshing. 90.

40 Knots L’Orange 2016 ($36.90 for 126 cases). This is a blend of Schönburger and Pinot Gris, fermented and aged on the skins in a terracotta amphora. The wine is exotic, with aromas of coriander and with flavours of orange zest, oriental spices and even a hint of tobacco. It is dry and crisp on the finish. I am of two minds about orange wines but this wine’s clean flavours are quite food friendly. 90.

40 Knots Rosé 2016 ($22.90 for 567 cases). This wine has an appealing pink hue, leading to aromas and flavours of cherry and cranberry. The wine is lively and refreshing on the palate and crisply dry on the finish. 90.

40 Knots Pinot Noir 2016 ($29.90 for 398 cases). The low alcohol (10.6%) gives this estate-grown Pinot Noir a refreshing lightness. It has aromas and flavours of cherry mingled with a peppery spice. 88.

40 Knots Stall Speed Merlot 2016 ($29.90). Stall Speed is the tag used when the winery purchases Okanagan varietals that cannot be grown successfully on Vancouver Island. The grapes for this wine are from the Cerquiera Vineyard on the Black Sage Bench farmed by Michael Bartier, who is also the consulting winemaker for 40 Knots. This is a big, ripe wine with aromas and flavours of black cherry and plum. There is a hint of licorice on the finish. 90.

40 Knots Extra-Brut 2014 ($36.90). This traditional method sparkling wine spent two years on the lees before being disgorged. It has the classic biscuit notes of lees aging, along with lemony aromas and flavours. Racy acidity gives this a tart finish. I would suggest three years on the lees for the next vintage would better soften the acidity. 88.

40 Knots Safe Haven 2016 ($21.90 for 350 ml). This is a fortified Maréchal Foch with grapes, the winery says, from one of the oldest Foch plantings on Vancouver Island. The aroma of chocolate, fig and cherry is already evident when the bottle is opened. In the glass, the colour is deep. On the palate, the wine is luscious with more chocolate and fig flavours and with soft tannins. The finish goes on and on. 91.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Mirabel releases a Chardonnay

Photo: Mirabel's Doug Reimer

Kelowna’s Mirabel Vineyards has just released a remarkably elegant Chardonnay, rounding out a Burgundian-inspired portfolio that began with the release of a premium Pinot Noir late in 2016.

A portion of both of those wines has been aged in new François Frères oak barrels, the cooperage of choice for many Pinot Noir and Chardonnay producers. Except for Okanagan Crush Pad in Summerland, whose winemaker, Matt Dumayne, makes the wines for Mirabel. Most Crush Pad wines are fermented and aged in concrete.

Doug and Dawn Reimer, the owners of Mirabel, insisted that their wines be aged in a combination of oak and stainless steel.

“I guess I am just sort of old school,” Doug says. “There may be nothing wrong with the concrete tanks. I am not a real modern guy. I don’t like modern houses. I don’t like anything too modern, except for my phone.”

Then, with a chuckle, he admits that concrete tanks, or the equivalent, have been used in making wine at least since the Roman Empire. Over the past century, oak barrels and stainless steel have come to dominate winemaking, with concrete making a comeback only recently. Anthony von Mandl’s new Martin’s Lane Winery makes its exceptional $100 Pinot Noirs with a combination of stainless steel, concrete – and François Frères barrels.

In my view, Doug Reimer, also a wine collector with an eclectic palate, is on the right path with his “old school” preference for some oak aging for his wines.

Mirabel Vineyards came about because the Reimers, members of a leading Canadian trucking family, purchased East Kelowna property in 2005 to build their dream home. The property is on a sun-bathed slope above the Harvest Golf Course and, at the time, was an apple orchard.

They cleared the apple trees to make room for a vineyard, having decided that vines are more attractive that trees. They had consultants analyze the soils and recommend grape varieties.

“We lucked out,” Doug says. “It is a fabulous property and a fabulous piece of soil. It is only six acres and that is all we can plant.”

In 2006, they planted most of it with three clones of Pinot Noir. The final one and a half acres will be planted with Chardonnay in the spring of 2018.

For a number of years, the Reimers sold their Pinot Noir grapes primarily to Meyer Family Vineyards and to Foxtrot Vineyards, two of the Okanagan’s leading Pinot Noir specialists. It gave the Reimers the opportunity to assess what could be produced from their fruit. The first Pinot Noir from Mirabel was made in 2015 and subsequently was released at $70.

“We wanted to produce something that was going to be awesome,” Doug says. “With six acres, we can only do the best with what we have. We are only going to produce the best.”

The 2016 Chardonnay, just being released, is produced with fruit purchased from a Naramata Bench vineyard. Mirabel will need to purchase grapes for several more vintages until the estate Chardonnay begins producing in three or four years.

“As soon as our Chardonnay comes in, the wine will all be estate grown,” Dawn says. The portfolio will then also include a Pinot Noir rosé (the first was released in the summer of 2017) and a sparkling Pinot Noir. The 100-case cuvée for that was made in the 2017 vintage and will not be released for two years.

By limiting itself to just estate-grown grapes, Mirabel will never be a large producer.  The volume of the debut Pinot Noir was 237 cases; the Chardonnay was 185 cases; the rosé was 100 cases.

Here is a note on the Chardonnay.

Mirabel Chardonnay 2016 ($40). The aromas and flavours are rich and tropical, beginning with orange peel and buttery notes on the nose. The bright citrus flavours are supported subtly by toasty oak. Good acidity gives the wine a refreshing finish as well as the potential to develop in the cellar for the next five years. 93.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Pentâge wines: always worth the drive

Photo: Julie Rennie and Paul Gardner

The Pentâge winery, just south of Penticton, sometimes flies just below the radar because it seems to be hidden on a hillside overlooking Skaha Lake.

It is worth figuring out how to find it, if only to see the massive barrel cellar that Paul  Gardner and Julie Rennie carved from the rock.

Paul also makes interesting wines. The 19 varieties he grows on two mountainside vineyards give him lots of blending opportunities. He crafts wines that invariably are full of flavour. For those who cannot find the winery, Pentâge last year launched a wine club, so that the wines will find the consumers.

Here is an excerpt on the winery from John Schreiner’s Okanagan Wine Tour Guide.

Pentâge Winery opened its tasting room only in 2011, eight years after opening the winery. The reason: it took Paul Gardner eleven years to plan and dig the massive 500 square-metre (5,500 square foot) cave from the crown of hard rock commanding this vineyard’s million-dollar view of Skaha Lake. Cool and spacious, this cave accommodates barrels and tanks of wine in a feat of engineering unlike anything else in the Okanagan, except perhaps the Mission Hill cellar. You can even appreciate the ambiance without a tour by peering through the gigantic glass doors at the front of the cave.

This was a derelict orchard when Paul and Julie Rennie, his wife, were so enchanted with the property in 1996 that they decided to change careers and planted grapes three years later. Julie, the Scots-born daughter of a marine engineer, was executive assistant to a well-known Vancouver financier.  Paul, born in Singapore in 1961, spent 20 years as a marine engineer before tiring of going to sea. “I got caught up in winemaking in the early ‘90s,” he remembers.

Now, he spends most of his time in the winery’s two Skaha Bench vineyards, which total 6.5 hectares (16 acres), growing so many varieties – including even Zinfandel - that one vineyard is called the Dirty Dozen. “I would still rather make small lots of interesting wine than big tanks full of wine,” he says. An example of an eccentric but delicious wine is the 2011 Cabernet Franc Appassimento Style where he mimicked Amarone by drying the grapes 58 days before crushing them.

Here are notes on recent releases.

Pentâge Fizz Blanc 2016 ($19.90). This delightful lightly sparkling wine (sealed with a screw cap) blends Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Viognier, Gewürztraminer and Muscat. It is crisp and refreshing with flavours of apple, pear and peach. 90.

Pentâge Chardonnay 2013 ($21.90). This barrel-fermented Chardonnay has a Chablis-like freshness, surprising and delightful in a wine that is five years old. The wine has citrus aromas and flavours of apple and citrus. Bright acidity has given this wine the remarkable longevity of a good white Burgundy. 91.

Pentâge Hiatus 2013 ($22.90). This is a blend of 37% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Cabernet Franc, 17% Merlot, 10% Malbec, 2% Petit Verdot and 2% Tempranillo. This complex blend is eminently drinkable. It begins with aromas of cassis, cherry and vanilla. On the palate, there are flavours of cherry and plum with a peppery spice on the finish. 90.

Pentâge GSM 2013 ($29.90). This is 40% Grenache, 40% Syrah and 20% Mourvedre. It begins with aromas of black cherries and plum mingled with white pepper. This is echoed on the palate, along with notes of leather and licorice. 91.

Pentâge Syrah 2013 ($25.90). Imagine drinking a Christmas fruitcake that finishes dry. This wine begins with aromas of plum, black pepper and vanilla, followed by flavours of rich, dark fruit punctuated with black pepper on the finish. 91.

Pentâge Cabernet Franc Appassimento Style 2013 ($34.90 for 500 ml). This wine achieves it intensity of flavour because the grapes are partially dried in the air before being fermented. It is the technique for making Italy’s renowned Amarone wines. The cassis aromas jump from the glass. On the palate, a bomb of sweet fruit - blackberry, black cherry, black currant - explodes in the mouth. The richly concentrated palate leads to a lingering porty but dry finish. 93

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Hillside honours Vera Klokocka's legacy

Photo:  Hillside winemaker Kathy Malone

A few years ago, Kathy Malone, the winemaker at Hillside Cellars, decided to graft Muscat Ottonel onto the trunks of the winery’s one row of Cabernet Sauvignon.

The row had always underperformed, likely because it was on the same irrigation system as the adjoining rows of Muscat. The Cabernet Sauvignon was simply being over-watered.

The attempt to graft Muscat onto the Cabernet Sauvignon was a complete failure. “Thank God, they failed,” Kathy says now. At the time that happened, she learned that the row was possibly the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon in the Okanagan.  She has allowed the Cabernet Sauvignon to regenerate.

“We have split the irrigation controls so we can control that row separately,” Kathy said recently. “This is the third year. Next year I will personally do the vineyard management on it and we will see what we can get from those vines. Maybe it would produce a barrel.”

Today, Hillside is owned by a partnership led by Duncan McCowan. But this Naramata Road property has a long and colourful history.

It was an orchard in 1979 when it was purchased by two Czech immigrants, Vera and Bohumir Klokocka. Five years later, they began replacing the fruit trees with grape vines, including Muscat. 

The row of Cabernet Sauvignon was planted in the mid-1980s. If there is an older block, it might be in the Hester Creek vineyard, which was developed originally in 1968 by Joe Busnardo. An inveterate experiment with vines, he claimed to have planted as many as 128 different varieties. He could hardly have missed Cabernet Sauvignon.

Hillside, however, was the first Okanagan winery to bottle a Cabernet Sauvignon varietal wine. That wine was one of the reasons that Sal D’Angelo established D’Angelo Estate Winery in 2007, not far from Hillside.

At the time, Sal also operated a winery near Windsor in Ontario. In 1985, he had begun vacationing in the Okanagan because the climate was beneficial to his health. One summer, having met Vera, he brought along a bottle of his Ontario red wine while asserting that the Okanagan was not growing good reds.

She disputed that by opening a bottle of Hillside Cabernet Sauvignon. It changed Sal’s and he bought vineyard property on the Naramata Bench in 2004. He has since sold the Ontario winery.

In addition to that legacy row of Cabernet Sauvignon, Hillside now also buys the variety from a nearby grower (and winery partner) who has a good site for the late-ripening variety. That vineyard was planted 10 years ago. “I never thought we could ripen Cabernet Sauvignon on the Bench,” Kathy says, “but I love it.”

Two of the varieties planted by Vera and Bohumir still are among Hillside’s flagship wines. The Muscat Ottonel, made in a dry aromatic style, is snapped up quickly on release. In recent years, Hillside has planted more of this variety.

There is also a Vera and Bohumir story about that variety. The owner of a small vineyard from which they sourced cuttings for their plants identified variety as Pinot Blanc. The Klokockas, who had formerly worked for the Czech national airline, did not know much viticulture, but enough to know the grapes tasted nothing like Pinot Blanc. They settled on the name, Klevner, because it tasted like an aromatic German white with a variety of names. Several early releases of Hillside Muscat were labelled as Klevner until, in 1992, a visiting grape expert from France identified the grape correctly.

After Bohumir died in 1995, Vera sold the winery. She currently lives in Nova Scotia where, with cuttings from Hillside, she is planting some Muscat Ottonel.

Gamay is another variety planted initially by Vera and Bohumir. There is a legacy block near the winery. Hillside also buys Gamay and Pinot Noir from another grower on the Naramata Bench.

A decade or so ago, Hillside was buying grapes from other regions in the Okanagan. Since Kathy Malone moved to Hillside in 2008 from Mission Hill Family Estate, Hillside has converted to using Naramata Bench grapes exclusively.

Here are notes on the current releases.

Hillside Viognier Reserve 2016 ($22 for 341 cases). Twenty-nine percent of this was barrel-fermented and aged five months in barrel. The remainder was fermented in stainless steel. The portions were then blended. The wine begins with aromas of citrus and green apple which are echoed on the palate. There is also a good spine of minerals. 90.

Hillside Pinot Gris Reserve 2016 ($22 for 329 cases). Fifty-one percent was fermented in Tokaj and Eastern European barrels (17% new). This was combined after six months with the portion that was fermented in stainless steel. The wine begins with aromas of spice and pear, leading to tropical fruit, pear and vanilla on a rich palate. 91.

Hillside Muscat Ottonel 2016 ($22 for 830 cases). This wine won a double gold and was best of class at this year’s Cascadia Wine Competition. It begins with aromas of rose petals and spice. The flavours are surprisingly intense, with notes of grapefruit mingled with spice. The finish, which is quite persistent, is dry. 92.

Hillside Gewürztraminer 2016 ($19 for 1,475 cases). The winery draws Gewürztraminer fruit from six Naramata Bench vineyards, including its own. Juicy in texture, the wine begins with a note of spice on the nose, leading to flavours of lychee, peach and grapefruit. 90

Hillside Pinot Noir 2014 ($22 for 495 cases). This wine, aged eight months in French oak (20% new), has aromas and flavours of cherry and raspberry. An earthy forest floor spice on the finish adds complexity. 90.

Hillside Gamay Noir 2014 ($22 for 378 cases). This wine was aged eight months in French (27% new) and Hungarian barrels. It has aromas of raspberry and cherry with a hint of spice and white pepper. The fruit is echoed on the silky palate and on the lingering finish. 92.

Hillside Merlot Cabernet Franc 2013 ($24 for 399 cases). This wine, which is 51% Merlot and 49% Cabernet Franc, begins with brambly aromas (blackberry, cranberry) and delivers flavours of plum and black currant. The wine has been aged in barrel for 13 months. 90.

Hillside Cabernet Franc 2015 ($26 for 174 cases). This wine is available exclusively to members of Hillside’s wine club. The wine begins with aromas of raspberry and cherry leading to flavours of blackberry and cherry. 91.

Hillside Cabernet Sauvignon Howe Vineyard 2014 ($34 for 186 cases). This is also a wine club exclusive. Aromas of cassis and sweet red fruit jump from the glass. On the palate, there are flavours of cassis, cherry and dark chocolate. The firm structure signals this is a wine for aging. 92.

Hillside Mosaic 2013 ($44). This is a blend of 38% Merlot, 25% Malbec, 23% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Cabernet Franc and 3% Petit Verdot. The wine was aged 17 months in small French barrels (38% new). This is a complex wine with the potential to age at least 10 years. It begins with aromas of cassis and vanilla. On the palate, there are flavours of cherry, plum, cedar and chocolate. 93.

Hillside Soirée en Blanc NV ($40 for 500 ml). Only 33 cases were made of this fortified Muscat Ottonel; it is only available in the wine shop. An interesting wine, it tastes like a Muscat grappa. 90.

Hillside Soirée NV  ($40 for 500 ml). This is a fortified (Port style) wine anchored around Syrah and Merlot. The winery has developed a solera style for this wine, meaning it is a blend of multiple vintages. It is as tasty as a good fruit cake. 92.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Black Hills releases $100 Cabernet Sauvignon

Photo: Black Hills winemaker Graham Pierce

Since the first vintage of Black Hills Nota Bene in 1999, the anchor of the blend has almost always been Cabernet Sauvignon.

That speaks volumes for quality of that varietal from this site. The vines were first planted in this Black Sage vineyard in 1996. Cabernet Sauvignon generally ripens a few days later that either Merlot or Cabernet Franc, the two other Bordeaux grapes in the Nota Bene blend. However, if the grapes are grown carefully, as they are at Black Hills, Cabernet Sauvignon yields ripe flavours, along the structure that makes Nota Bene age-worthy.

The 2014 vintage one of the best red wine vintages ever in the Okanagan. Assistant winemaker Tamara Feist suggested to Graham Pierce, the winemaker, that Black Hills should release, for the first time, a single varietal Cabernet Sauvignon.

“We have thought about doing a straight Cabernet for a number of years,” Graham says. “Often times, I don’t want to pull out a bunch of our best wine. I want to put it all the best wine into Nota Bene. It rarely makes sense to pull some wine out of there.”

In 2014, however, a good deal of top-rate wine was produced. “Tamara, my assistant, said, ‘Why don’t we just bottle the one barrel?’” Graham recalls. “One barrel is not going to make a big difference either way.”

So a choice lot of Cabernet Sauvignon was selected. It went into a new French oak barrel for two years. It was then bottled and aged another year in bottle before release.

There are obviously not many bottles of this wine: just 23 cases, priced at $100 a bottle. It will be available primarily to the Black Hills wine club.

Unfortunately, Graham and Tamara did not produce a single-varietal Cabernet Sauvignon in 2015.

“We will look at doing it again,” Graham says. “At this point we have not earmarked anything going forward; maybe from something we have in the cellar right now. From 2016, we still have those wines and we have not yet bottled them. We might look at doing something from that vintage.”

He also describes the 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon as a trial balloon. “We want to see what happens in the market. It seems to me, trying the wine so far, it was a great idea. If we have great success, we will be more likely to do it again.”

So far, just a handful of Okanagan producers have released wines in the $100 range. Fairview Cellars Iconoclast, which is a Cabernet Sauvignon, is $130. Mission Hill Oculus, a Bordeaux blend, is $135. Martin’s Lane Winery has $100 Pinot Noir while CheckMate, a sister winery, offers most of its Chardonnays at $100 and up.

What makes the Black Hills Cabernet Sauvignon worth $100?

“I didn’t price the wine, of course,” Graham says. “Wine pricing for me is difficult because I am not a marketing guy. But there are a lot of wines out there at this price point as well. If any of those other wines are worth $100, this certainly is. Single vineyard, 24 months in barrel, a year in bottle. It has all of the quality hallmarks. It is from this awesome estate vineyard. The wine is delicious. It is one of the top wines we have ever produced here, that is for sure.”

For those whose budget is more limited, Black Hills also will release an excellent 2016 Chardonnay next spring at $30.

Here are notes on the wines.

Black Hills Chardonnay 2016 ($29.90). This elegant wine begins with aromas of citrus and apple, with a touch of butter and vanilla. The refreshingly bright fruit flavours are framed very subtly by the oak, in a flavour balance that is close to perfection. 92.

Black Hills Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($100). This wine was doubled decanted and then half a bottle was set aside until next day, simulating how the wine might taste in another three to five years. The wine opened up wonderfully, starting with aromas of cassis and oak. On the palate, there were layers of flavour, starting with dark fruits and finishing with notes of cocoa and coffee. The fully ripe tannins gave the wine a rich and generous texture. 95.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Ann Sperling: Jack-of-all-trades winemaker

Photo: Winemaker Ann Sperling

Ann Sperling’s jack-of-all-trades ability as a winemaker is remarkable. At Sperling Vineyards in East Kelowna, those skills are on display in wines running the gamut from sparkling to Icewine, with a natural wine to boot.

I have recounted her story in numerous books. Here is an except from John Schreiner’s Okanagan Wine Tour Guide.

The history of north Okanagan grape growing and winemaking lives here. This winery has been launched by the Sperling family whose Casorso ancestors planted Kelowna’s first vineyard in 1925 and were among the original investors in what is now Calona Vineyards.

The story began when Giovanni Casorso came from Italy in 1883 to work at Father Pandosy’s mission before striking out on his own (he was once the Okanagan’s largest tobacco grower). His sons planted several vineyards. Formerly known as Pioneer Ranch, the 18.2-hectare (45-acre) Sperling Vineyards was planted initially in 1931 with grapes and apples by Louis and Pete Casorso. When Pete retired in 1960, Bert Sperling, his son-in-law, switched to entire property to vines, both wine grapes and table grapes. The grapes here include a 50-year-old (in 2014) planting of Maréchal Foch, a 1976 planting of Riesling and a planting of indefinite age of Perle of Csaba, a Muscat variety once grown widely in the Okanagan. Recent plantings include  Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Undoubtedly, the Sperling family has been thinking about a winery of its own ever since Bert’s daughter, Ann, who was born in 1962, began her winemaking career in 1984, first with André’s Wines and then with CedarCreek Estate Winery. She moved to Ontario in 1995 where she helped launch such several stellar wineries. She and Peter Gamble, her husband, consult internationally and own a premium boutique vineyard in Argentina.

As busy as her career has been, one thing had been missing in Ann’s life. “I have always wanted to make wine with my parents’ vineyard,” she says. “I got to make wine with some of the grapes when I was at CedarCreek, but not anything extensive.” The Casorso story came full circle with this premium winery in 2013 when a production facility with a 10,000-case capacity was completed in the middle of the vineyard. The new winery is licensed as Magpie Cellars, named for a flock (or murder) of magpies that have lived here a long time. “They have watched over us and criticized our work for generations,” Ann says.  “It seemed fitting to acknowledge their role.”

The Sperling wines, initially made at nearby wineries, came to market in 2009. Significant changes and portfolio additions have been made since then in a constant quest for more and more interesting wines.

In September, 2017, Sperling Vineyards achieved organic certification. The winery, which also uses biodynamic practices in its vineyard, will be releasing organic wines next spring from the 2017 vintage.

As well, Ann has begun making so-called natural wines, starting with the 2014 vintage. “We wanted to challenge ourselves while enhancing our food friendly line-up of estate wines,” she wrote in a note that accompanies the current releases.

“We have always had a holistic approach to our winemaking, using native and organic yeasts,” she continued. “But this time, we dug deeper into a grape that everyone making wine or drinking it in the Okanagan thinks they know.”

The reference is to Pinot Gris. The current releases include a Pinot Gris that was made by fermenting whole clusters and stems with wild yeast. The wine was fermented to complete dryness and was finished by settling, not by filtering. No sulphur was added.

“The result,” Ann writes, “is a whole expression of Pinot Gris vines that have adapted themselves over 20 years to our site.”

Here are notes on the wines.  

Sperling Market White 2016 ($19 for 450 cases).  This is an aromatic blend of 33%Perle, 26% Vidal, 23% Pinot Blanc and 18% Bacchus. A touch of residual sugar lifts the fruity aromas and flavours and gives the wine more weight than one would expect from the modest 10.6% alcohol. The finish lingers and lingers. 89.

Sperling Pinot Gris 2016 ($20 for 460 cases). The wine begins with aromas of melon mingled lightly with toast, suggesting that the wine may have been fermented, at least partially, in oak. It is rich on the palate with flavours of orange and melon, with a note of honey and oak on the dry finish. 90.

Sperling Amber Pinot Gris 2016 ($30 for 150 cases). This is a “natural” wine, meaning that whole clusters of Pinot Gris were fermented with wild yeast, to total dryness. The orange-tinted wine is not filtered. It is cloudy in the bottle and will deposit a light sediment. The aroma includes notes of tobacco and marmalade. It has savoury as well as vegetative flavours. It is worth noting that this wine is not sulphured. A cautionary note: natural wines are an acquired taste. 90.

Sperling Pinot Noir Rosé 2016 ($20 for 215 cases). This dry rosé presents in the glass with a lovely strawberry hue. The flavours are intense, with notes of raspberry and strawberry. 90.

Sperling Market Red 2016 ($20 for 500 cases). A new wine for Sperling, it is an unorthodox blend of Pinot Noir and Maréchal Foch. The wine is aged partially in stainless steel and partially in neutral barrels. That preserves the herbal aromas and flavours of cherry and pomegranate. With just 12.1% alcohol, the wine is fresh and uncomplicated. 87.

Sperling Late Harvest Riesling 2015 ($27.89 for 368 cases of 375 ml bottles). This wine has 134.8 grams of residual sugar balanced with 14.7 grams of acidity. Lightly golden in colour, the aromas present honey, lemon and ripe quince. The flavours are luscious, with notes of honey and fruit compote. A tangy acidity helps balance the sweetness. 91.

Sperling Vidal Icewine 2015 ($55 for 190 cases of 375 ml bottles). This wine has 189.4 grams of residual sugar and 12.3 grams of natural acidity. This golden-hued wine begins with the classically intense aromas of ripe pineapple and orange marmalade, which are echoed in the rich and intense flavours. The sweet finish is persistent, staying many minutes in the mouth. 92.

Sperling Brut Reserve 2011 ($55 for 200 six-pack cases). This elegantly packaged traditional method sparkling wine is 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay. Five years on the lees before disgorging has produced fine bubbles and yeasty/brioche aromas. On the palate, there are flavours of pear and brioche. While the mousse gives the wine a creamy texture on the palate, the finish crisp and totally dry. 93.