Thursday, May 18, 2017

Blue Mountain Reserves sell as fast as U2 tickets

Photo: Winemaker Matt Mavety

Blue Mountain Vineyard & Cellars released three reserve wines from the superb 2014 vintage on April 24, 2017.

I learned recently that the wines sold out that afternoon.

When wine sells almost as quickly as tickets for a U2 concert, that speaks volumes for the loyalty of Blue Mountain customers and the quality of the wines.

Why am I still reviewing the wines? If you bought them, you might like to compare notes. And perhaps Blue Mountain allocated some of the wines for restaurants or select wine shops.

If you have these wines, or come across them in a wine shop, don’t rush to open them. While the three wines are drinking well now, a further year in your cellar will unlock even more complexity.

Blue Mountain is included in my new book, Icon: Flagship Wines from British Columbia’s Best Wineries. For most wineries in the book, I chose just one wine; I wanted to focus on wines that might be collected for vertical tastings. I made an exception with Blue Mountain because all of the reserves are collectible.

In fact, when I asked winemaker Matt Mavety which of his wines are collectible, he said: “All of them.” That included the “regular” releases as well as the reserves. It is hard to disagree with that.

Here is an excerpt from the Blue Mountain profile in the book.

The style and consistency of Blue Mountain’s estate-grown wine is such that everything in the portfolio has the cellar longevity that collectors look for. It begins in the 32-hectare vineyard that the Mavety family has farmed for 45 years. “The approach that we take is to treat all the vineyard blocks like a grand cru vineyard,” winemaker Matt Mavety says. “We spend all our time working hard in the vineyards, and we spend time in the cellar to look after all of the wines. Every grape that is brought into here gets handled such as it could be reserve wine.”

Ian and Jane Mavety, Matt’s parents, planted this picturesque Okanagan Falls vineyard in 1971, initially with the hybrid varieties then in demand for winemaking. They began replanting with vinifera in 1985, focusing on the varieties of Burgundy and Alsace, the French terroirs they believed to be most similar to their vineyard. The winery opened in 1992 with Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir from the 1991 vintage, followed shortly by the 1991 Blue Mountain Brut and a 1993 Chardonnay.

The winery soon began making its eminently collectible reserves, beginning with a 1992 Vintage Reserve sparkling wine (subsequently phased out). Striped labels were designed to differentiate the reserve wines from the regular wines, released with cream-coloured labels. The winery released its first reserve table wines in 1996—a 1994 Pinot Noir, and a Chardonnay and Pinot Gris from the 1995 vintage. Blue Mountain gained international recognition when it was the first Canadian winery invited to the prestigious International Pinot Noir Celebration in Oregon, to pour its 1994 Pinot Noir Reserve.

Since then, Blue Mountain has produced reserve table wines virtually every vintage. The typical volume is 600 to 800 cases of Pinot Noir and about 350 cases of Chardonnay. The reserve sparkling wine was replaced in the 2005 vintage with the R.D.—or “recently disgorged”—which is on the lees for six or seven years before being disgorged. Volumes range from 100 to 200 cases.

No Reserve Chardonnay was made in 2009 (for a 2010 release), a cool vintage, when isolating the reserve fraction would have caused an unacceptable drop in the quality of the cream label Chardonnay. “If it turns out that we cannot take away any of the components to make a reserve without compromising what’s left, we don’t make a reserve,” says Matt Mavety, who became involved in making the wine after completing winemaking studies at Lincoln University in New Zealand in 1997.

The grapes from each vineyard block at Blue Mountain are fermented and aged separately. About nine months after the harvest, the lots are assessed to determine which wines will be blended as reserves and which are destined for the cream label. “We are looking for a little bit more structure, a little bit more body,” Matt says about the reserve level wines. “At the time of blending, it may not necessarily be as powerful, but in time it’ll get there. It really is a fine-tuning exercise.”

Vintage variation aside, the wines are consistent in style and quality. This reflects that Blue Mountain only uses estate-grown grapes. From the very first vintage until 2013, when he died, Blue Mountain employed the same winemaking consultant from California, French-trained Raphael Brisbois. Matt has been the hands-on winemaker in the Blue Mountain cellar for nearly two decades.

The consistency extends to the winery’s choice of oak barrels, which have come almost exclusively from a family-owned cooperage in France, Tonnellerie de Mercurey. “In 1997, I had three or four different cooperages in here,” Matt recalls. “It was decision-making time; do we carry on with this approach? The reality is we were happy with the Mercurey barrels, so we continue to use them.”

Here are notes on the three reserve wines just released.

Blue Mountain Reserve Pinot Gris 2014 ($28). Sixty percent of this was fermented in stainless steel. The other 40% was fermented and aged eight months in French oak barrels (a mix of new to three-year-old barrels). The wine was bottled in July 2o15 and given extended bottle age to develop before release. It begins with aromas of pear, citrus and vanilla which are echoed on the palate. The finish has notes of pear and spice mingled with citrus. 92.

Blue Mountain Reserve Chardonnay 2014 ($30). Sixty percent of this wine was fermented and aged 11 months in French oak barrels (new to three years old). The remainder was fermented in stainless steel. The portions were blended and aged a few months on the lees before being bottled. The wine begins with aromas of citrus and vanilla. On the palate, there are flavours of apple, lemon, butter and vanilla mingled with a hint of lees. The wine has good weight on the palate with enough acidity to finish crisply. 93.

Blue Mountain Reserve Pinot Noir 2014 ($40). To develop the intense flavours and deep colour in this wine, the lightly crushed grapes were macerated 16 to 20 days. The wine was fermented entirely with wild yeast and was aged 16 months in French oak barrels. The barrels added toasted notes to the aroma and the flavour. There are spice and cherry notes on the nose and on the palate. The rich flavours have a lingering finish while the texture is elegant. The winery suggests this could age seven to eight years. 93.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Monte Creek Ranch is planting more vines

Photo: Monte Creek Ranch Estate Winery

One of four wineries near Kamloops, Monte Creek Ranch Estate Winery is now in its third year of sales.

The newsletter the accompanied the spring releases implies that the wines are being well received.

Monte Creek already has 65 acres of vines in two vineyards. Some 45 acres are planted at the ranch, south of the Thompson River and the TransCanada. The primary vines are winter hardy varieties: Maréchal Foch, Marquette and La Crescent.

The remainder of the producing vines are at a property called Lion’s Head, a southwest-facing slope on the north side of the Thompson. The vineyard is named for the bluff that looms over the vineyard. The varieties here primarily are Riesling and three hardy Minnesota hybrids, Frontenac Gris, Frontenac Blanc and Marquette. There is also a trial block of Chardonnay.

Evidently, the Chardonnay trials have been promising. This year, the winery will plant more Riesling along with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Those are all vinifera and not quite as hardy as the hybrids, although Riesling is one of hardier vinifera.

The Minnesota hybrids which Monte Creek planted were developed, as the name suggests, in Minnesota and Wisconsin. They are varieties capable of surviving the hard winters of the American Prairie as well as the frigid winters expected in Kamloops from time to time.

To the best of my knowledge, there are no other significant plantings of Minnesota hybrids elsewhere in British Columbia. They are planted widely in Quebec where the winters are cold enough to kill vinifera. In fact, the Quebec winters are so cold that many vineyards bury even the hybrid vines in the fall to keep the buds and vines alive over winter.

The Kamloops winters are not that brutal. Even so, Monte Creek Ranch will plant its vinifera vines on their own roots. Own-rooted vines can regenerate after a hard freeze. If the vines were grafted and suffered a killing freeze, the likelihood is that just the grafted rootstock would survive. Rootstock produces no fruit.

Monte Creek is taking an extra precaution. “For the first 2 years, the vines will be buried go protect them from winter’s harm,” the winery says. It is likely the vines will be able to better handle the cold when the trunks are more mature.

I hope that Monte Creek succeeds with these new plantings. Except for the danger of hard winters, the Lion’s Head vineyard has all the attributes to produce excellent wine.

And the Minnesota hybrids are producing interesting wines, as the spring releases show. Here are my notes.

Monte Creek Hands Up White 2016 ($15.49). This is a delicious fruit basket of a wine, made with 54% Frontenac Blanc, 27% Viognier, 16% La Crescent ands 3% Riesling. There are aromas of apple and nectarine leading to flavours of nectarine, peach and honeydew melon, with a citrus note on the crisp and refreshing finish. 90.

Monte Creek Riesling 2016 ($16.99). This is a ripe and tropical Riesling, with aromas and flavours of nectarine, peach and citrus. The wine has a moderate alcohol of 11%. The winemaker has retained enough residual sugar to lift the flavours while balancing the sweetness with enough acidity that the finish seems dry. 88-90.

Monte Creek Chardonnay Reserve 2015 ($24.99). This is a richly textured, fruit-forward wine with flavours of citrus, melon and guava. The soft acidity reflects the hot 2015 vintage. There is a slight bitterness on the finish. 87.

Monte Creek Rosé 2016 ($16.99). This wine is made with Marquette grapes, a Minnesota-developed variety. The wine presents with a vibrant hue and cherry aromas. On the palate, there are flavours of cherry, plum  and red currant. This is a robust and juicy rosé. 88.

Monte Creek Ranch Hand Red Reserve 2015 ($29.99). This is a blend of 47% Merlot, 35% Frontenac Noir and 18% Cabernet Sauvignon. Sixteen months in barrel have polished the texture of this wine, giving it a rounded softness making it drinkable at just two years of age. There are aromas of black cherry, leading to flavours of plum and cherry. 90.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Tasting the new releases at Kitsch Wines

Photo: Kitsch winemaker Grant Biggs

In 2016, one of the most interesting new wineries was Kitsch Wines in East Kelowna.

There is an exciting youthful vibe here, reflecting the youth of the owners, Ria and Trent Kitsch, and their winemaker, Grant Biggs.

There are also excellent wines. The winery's debut 2015 Riesling was judged best of  variety at the recent Okanagan Spring Wine Festival. The 2016 whites, just being released, are from one of the best vintages so far for Okanagan whites. The 2015 Pinot Noir is elegant even if Grant repeats the cliché that the variety is the heart break grape. This, after all, was his first Pinot Noir. And the barrel sample of a superb 2016 Pinot Noir that he showed me makes it clear he has his arms around the variety.

The owners are Kelowna natives. Trent was born in 1979; Ria was born three years later. Trent played minor league baseball before getting a business degree at the University of Western Ontario. Ria studied business at UBC Okanagan and in Austria, including wine appreciation in Krems, followed by backpacking in South America.

She met Trent when she returned to Kelowna, where she joined him in developing and marketing the SAXX brand of men’s underwear. When the brand had grown to the point where it was ready for international marketing, the couple sold the business.

 “We had an exit strategy,” Ria says. “For us it was essential that if it was going to be big, it get into the hands of people that could make it big, because that wasn’t us. We needed to prove the concept – that men would buy it and rebuy it at the price we valued it at. $25 a pair is expensive for underwear. So we sold [the company] and that allowed us to pursue our Okanagan dream of planting grape vines and starting the winery.”

Their 12.7-acre vineyard was planted in 2013 and 2014. The largest blocks are Riesling. They also grow Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir.

The winery and the tasting room were opened in a three-car garage attached to the large house built for Trent’s parents (who are in the housing development business). The garage doors open up to reveal the grand view over the vineyard.

However, the winery will relocate this fall because the Kitsch family would prefer more privacy. Trent and Ria are looking at options that include moving a few hundred yards west to their own home where there is another garage that could be turned into a winery. Another option might be a move into downtown Kelowna, becoming an urban winery. The winery will continue to get grapes from this vineyard as well as other vineyards in East Kelowna and Lake Country.

Winemaker Grant Biggs, who also manages the vineyard, was born in 1983 in Port Alberni and worked as a sommelier in Victoria restaurants.

“My grandfather, I think, is the reason by I pursued a career in wine,” Grant says, referring to Italian-born Elio Navé. “He used to order grapes from California – Zinfandel and Muscat – and we would make wine in the basement together when I was growing up. I associated the fondest memories with the foods that grandma was cooking and the wine that my grandpa was drinking.”  His grandmother is French.

Grand began his winemaking career as an assistant winemaker at Mt. Boucherie Vineyards, moving to Tantalus Vineyards for two years in 2013. He has also done a crush in a large New Zealand and enrolled in the distance learning program from the University of California at Davis.

By the time he was hired for the first vintage at Kitsch in 2015, he had honed detail-oriented cellar skills that have given him a sure hand at making wine.

“2015 was an expedited year,” Grant says. “I had ordered all of the equipment and wrote the business plan. It was a hot growing season. We got our license on September 2 and we were picking Chardonnay the following day. The 2016 vintage was a little calmer.”

The winery made  about 1,000 cases in 2015 and increased production to 2,300 cases in 2016.

 “I am looking forward to 2017,” Grant says. “Once we put wine in bottle, I am always looking forward to what is next.”

He anticipates it will be a more challenging vintage. Compared to the early start of vine growth in 2016, this year has started weeks later. However, he has a young German viticulturist helping him in the vineyard. The two of them are prepared to react to whatever the season brings.

“You put the work in and every year you try to get a little better,” Grant says. “This was only my second vintage here. I hope with every year to come, there is a bit more refinement, just finding my style. Or hopefully, never finding my style. Let the season determine what needs to be done with the grapes and don’t try to fight that too much.”

Here are notes on current releases.

Kitsch Dry Riesling 2016 ($24.90 for 650 cases). The wine has appealing aromas and flavours of lime and lemon around a mineral backbone and a tangy finish. The balance gives the wine an electrifying intensity: the wine has 11.3 grams of residual sugar and 9.3 grams of acid. That structure assures the wine will age for at least 10 years even if it is approachable now. 92.

 Kitsch Riesling 2016 ($22.90 for 450 cases.) The wine has similar acidity to the dry Riesling but twice as much residual sugar. The wine begins with aromas of citrus and white peach, going on to deliver flavours of sweet lime and grapefruit. The residual sugar lifts the aromas and flavours. The finish, however, is almost dry. This is the one to drink while the dry Riesling is aging. 91.

Kitsch Riesling 2015 ($23.90 for 393 cases). This wine begins with aromas of lemon and lime, echoed on the palate. The flavours are surprisingly concentrated for fruit from young vines, with a vibrant tension created by balancing nine grams of acidity with 15.4 grams of residual sugar. The wine has begun to show a note of the classic petrol that develops as Riesling ages. 92.

Kitsch Pinot Gris 2016 ($21.90 for 255 cases). The wine presents with a slight blush, the consequence of giving 72 hours of skin contact to three-quarters of the crushed fruit before fermentation. Richly textured but finishing dry, the wine has aromas and flavours of pears and apples. There is a hint of anise on the finish. 91.

Kitsch Pinot Noir Rosé 2016 ($21.90 for 163 cases). This is youthful Pinot Noir from vines planted in 2014 – a very sensible way to use second leaf fruit. A dry rosé, the wine’s strawberry hue may be suggestive: the aromas and flavours also suggest strawberry and raspberry. 90.

Kitsch Chardonnay 2015 ($23.90 for 202 cases).  I tasted this last year but was shown it again to see how well it has developed in bottle. This barrel-fermented wine begins with a lightly gold colour in the glass and with aromas of citrus and apple. On the palate, there is a medley of fruit ranging from melon to apple to pineapple and lemon. There is a very subtle note of oak on the finish. This is almost sold out but the barrel sample of 2016 Chardonnay is every bit as good. 92.

Kitsch Pinot Noir 2015 ($26.90 for 234 cases). This wine is made with clone 115 grapes from a Lake Country vineyard. The wine was aged eight months in oak barrels. It has aromas and flavours of black cherries and spice with the elusive note on the finish referred to as barnyard by connoisseurs. The texture is silky. 90

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Class of 2017: The Chase Wines

Photo: Winemaker Adrian Baker

The Chase Wines
2290 Goldie Road,
Winfield, BC

The Chase Wines, the newest producer in Lake Country in the North Okanagan, will open its tasting room later this month.

It is Act One of the O’Rourke Family Vineyards (OFV) drama. Act Two is the winery expected to open in two years at the top of a nearby Carr’s Landing vineyard. The architecture promises to be, well, dramatic: the winery is perched on a granite outcrop above 300 meters of man-made tunnels for aging wine (below).

For wine tourists, it promises to be one of the Okanagan most memorable wineries, with wines to match. The 4,000-square foot Chase Wines facility opening this month is just the teaser.

Who gets into Okanagan wine production by opening two wineries? Edmonton businessman Dennis O’Rourke. Sureway Construction Group Ltd., which he founded in 1973, is one of Alberta’s largest construction contractors. He had had a second home in Lake Country for almost 30 years before he decided to invest in wine production in the area.

And he decided to make an impact. He bought a 140-acre property that was part derelict orchard and part a stand of conifers, mostly killed by pine beetles. The property is a few kilometers south of 50th Parallel Estate Winery, another showcase Lake Country winery that opened in 2013, the year when O’Rourke began planting his vineyard.

Like 50th Parallel, the O’Rourke site has a long and relatively steep slope down toward Okanagan Lake. From the top of the south-facing O’Rourke Vineyard, visitors have a 35-km view (see right)  down the lake to the Bennett Bridge and beyond.
There is 16 acres of conifer forest at the back of the property. “Our main entrance will come in through that forest,” says Adrian Baker, the winemaker and general manager at OFV. “The driveway which comes through the forest has curves in it, so you can’t see the entrance and the exit at the same time. When you come through this way, you have the big reveal of the vineyards and the lake. The whole theatre of it is that the Okanagan is so bright, with the lake and the skies.”

The landscaping and architecture will be designed to impress. “The little things reflect the big things,” Adrian says. “You want people to come in through your gate and get to your tasting room, and already be convinced the wine is good before they even pick it up. If everything is straight and orderly and it looks like we are in control of it, and the driveway is nice and the grass is mowed, then it presents a picture that these guys know what they are doing.”

Visitors will spend the next two years anticipating this experience – but not the wines, where the big reveal happens in a few weeks in The Chase tasting room.

The Chase facility, 4,000 sq. ft. in size, was built over the past year so that Adrian could start making wines as the vineyard began producing grapes. The Chase is a functional but spacious building, directly across the road from Intrigue Wines, which opened in 2009.

“We can use this site quite strategically for what we sell here and how we sell it,” Adrian says, explaining why two wineries are being built. “What it really provides is a buffer for the main site. It is a buffer in terms of time. It gets us producing here and gives us more years to get producing up on the hill. This site will be very public, open and accessible. It gives the owner more flexibility with the main site on how accessible he makes that to the public.”

As it happens, Adrian is experienced in developing Lake Country vineyards and wineries, having been the launch winemaker at 50th Parallel before moving to the FPV project in 2013.

He was born in Wellington, New Zealand. “I trained in molecular biology and biochemistry in Wellington , then after a mid-20s crisis and a bit of travel, went back to school for winemaking at the University of Adelaide,” Adrian says.

He spent two years as assistant winemaker at Lawson’s Dry Hills Wines in Marlborough. In 2001, he joined Craggy Range Winery. That winery also has an Okanagan connection. Craggy Range founder Terry Peabody, while developing Craggy Range, was chief executive of Western Star, a Kelowna commercial truck maker that he purchased in 1990. After it was turned around, it was taken over by Freightliner in 2000 (and subsequently was closed).

By 2004, Adrian had become the Senior Winemaker Cool Climate at Craggy Range, making Pinot Noir, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc.

“I came to B.C. in July, 2010, on a reconnaissance mission, to see if it we could create an adventure for our young family,” says Adrian, the father of four home-schooled children. “I came back at harvest time to do some consulting for a prominent winery.” He liked what he saw in the Okanagan and in April, 2011, came here permanently, first to begin developing 50th Parallel and then, two years later to join the even grander O’Rourke project.

Perhaps Dennis O’Rourke reminded him a bit of Terry Peabody: both are self-made business successes. And Dennis certainly has the resources to drive Lake Country project.

“When we started laying out the vineyard posts, he rang his office and said he would like a surveyor.” Adrian recalls Dennis asking, “Who is our best surveyor?” That individual was working at Fort McMurray. The surveyor “was asked to get into a pickup truck, load up with survey equipment and get to Lake Country the following afternoon. So this guy comes down with a GPS total station and $70,000 worth of survey equipment. We had a guy working here who had done some surveying. He was trained in two days and we GPS-located all the poles.”

Such precision matters. “In a vineyard, if you get the micro-precision, the macro makes sense,” Adrian says. 

The vineyard, when fully planted, will have about 100 acres of vines, sufficient to sustain an average production of about 20,000 cases a year. Pinot Noir accounts for the largest blocks, followed by Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer.

And there is a two-acre block of Grüner Veltliner, with another 3 ½ acres to be planted this year. Adrian believes that this Austrian white variety is well suited to Lake Country.

To help with the viticulture, Adrian in 2014 recruited Peter Wilkins, a fellow New Zealander with extensive vineyard management experience. “Pete and I worked together at Craggy Range,” Adrian says.

Adrian began fermenting wine from the young vines in 2015.  “We took a little bit of each of the varieties that we planted. For me, it was just seeing that I had planted the correct varieties.” Very little of the production from that vintage will be sold. The wines are well-made but have been retained for the owner and his friends. The volume was small in any event.

And Adrian was refining the style and making sure the owner was onside. Briefly, it looked like Adrian’s decision to dedicate 12% of the vineyard to Riesling might be a problem.

“I had my little tank of Riesling fermenting in here in the middle of winter,” Adrian told me last year. “The owner comes in. He’s a big man. He said, towering over me, ‘You know Adrian, I have had four glasses of Riesling in my life and I have hated every one of them.’ So I took a glass and I went to the Riesling tank – a 600 litre tank; we bottled 53 cases of Riesling, bone dry – and I went up to him and said, ‘Try this’. He tasted it and quite liked it.” In fact, it was his favourite of the wines he sampled.

“He is now a converted preacher of Riesling,” Adrian chuckles.

“When I first met Dennis, I took him Chablis,” Adrian says, relating another episode in owner education. “We are not going to make great big sunshine-soaked Chardonnay up here in Lake Country.” Nor does he think he needs to. “Chablis is just about the most versatile white wine out there.”

That suggests his stylistic preference with white wines. “I don’t like sweet wines,” he says. “I know we are going to have to have something off-dry because people are going to want them. But I don’t think a Riesling like ours needs a lot of sweetness. With its phenolics, it stays refreshing.”

Here are notes on the wines to be offered at The Chase. Notes on the 2015 show the potential with bottle age.

The Chase Riesling 2016 ($19). This is a disciplined dry wine, with aromas and flavours of lemon and lime wrapped around a core of minerality. The bright acidity gives the wine a tangy finish. It also gives it longevity in the cellar. 90-92.

The Chase Gewürztraminer 2016 ($19). This wine begins with aromas of spice and rose petals, leading to flavours of lychee and spicy grapefruit. Balanced to dry, this is a superb food wine. 90.

The Chase Pinot Gris ($19). Twenty per cent of this was fermented in barrel, simply to add texture. The wine is crisp and refreshing with aromas and flavours of pears and apples. There is a hint of anise on the dry finish. 91.

The Chase Rosé 2016 ($19). Three and a half days of skin contact before fermentation assured good colour extraction from the Pinot Noir grapes. This is a dry wine with notes of strawberry and cranberry on the palate. 90.

The Chase Grüner Veltliner 2015 ($26 for 23 cases). This is a complex dry white wine, fermented and aged 15 months in barrel. The treatment added texture and weight but did not make the wine oaky. There are aromas and flavours of melons and grapefruit. 91.

The Chase Chardonnay 2015 ($26). A delicious core of fruit is surrounded by aromas of vanilla and citrus. The appealing finish is crisp and lingering. 91

The Chase Pinot Gris 2015. A quarter of this was barrel-fermented, giving the wine generous texture. On the palate, it is bursting flavours of melon and peach. The finish is dry. 92.

The Chase Gewürztraminer 2015. A year in bottle has allowed the wine to develop an Alsace-like richness, with spice and lychee on the palate. There is a savoury note on the exceptionally long finish. 92.

The Chase Riesling 2015. Made with fruit from three-year-old vines, this wine has lemon flavours wrapped around a spine of minerals. It has begun to develop a hint of petrol. 90.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Little Engine winery hosts first wine release dinner

Photo: Little Engine winemaker Scott Robinson

Little Engine Wines, which opened on Naramata Road last June, will host its first spring wine release dinner next Saturday, May 13.

There are, I understand, still a few tickets left. It would be worth giving the winery a call at 250.493.0033. It promises to be a spectacular evening. The legendary Joy Road Catering is handling the menu. And Little Engine winemaker Scott Robinson will be there to speak to wines from the winery’s silver, gold and platinum tiers.

The silver tier is supposedly the entry level tier. Some entry! This would be the reserve level at some other producers. Winery owners Steven and Nicole French want the Little Engine wines to lay down quality markers. Scott, who was previously the winemaker at La Frenz Winery, spares no effort to accomplish that goal.

“Scott is an absolute perfectionist,” Steven told me last year. “He is so meticulous. We loved the taste of his wines. That is why we followed Scott. We could go out and court any winemaker, but we knew what we wanted from a taste perspective.”

For Steven and Nicole, Little Engine was a career change from the energy business in Alberta. Both were born in 1969: Nicole in London, ON, and Steven in Winnipeg.

“We finished university [in London] and moved to Calgary and stayed there for over 20 years,” Steven says. “I had a great career. I was in oil and gas. I am a finance guy.” Latterly, he was an executive with Secure Energy Services Ltd.

They bought Okanagan property in 2011, initially so that their athletic sons could go to the hockey school in Penticton. The decision to launch a winery was triggered by a long-time interest in wines. “We enjoy good food and good wine,” Nicole says.

The winery is now producing about 2,800 cases a year and will expand as its vineyards come into production. It also buys grapes from select growers. “The growers we work with understand what our goal is,” Scott says.

Little Engine aspires to make just quality wines. As a result, some consumers will find the prices beyond the budget. However, Little Engine is not gouging, in my view. Wines like this just are expensive to make. “We call ourselves producers of wine for enthusiasts and collectors,” Steven says.

Here are notes of wines included in the spring release.

Little Engine Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($30 for 300 cases). Aromas of lime and tropical fruit explode from the glass. On the palate, there are flavours of lime, guava and gooseberry. Bright acidity gives the wine a zesty and refreshing finish. 91.

Little Engine Silver Chardonnay 2015 ($30). This is an elegant Chardonnay with aromas of citrus, butter and vanilla and with flavours that dance on the palate, with notes of citrus, peach, vanilla and cloves. The production of this wine was extremely complex, involving multiple pickings to express a medley of flavours. A portion was aged in oak and a portion in barrel, with the oak notes framing vibrant fruit flavours. 90.

Little Engine Gold Chardonnay 2014 ($55). This complex and ageworthy wine spent 16 months in French oak. Regular lees stirring added bready notes to the citrus aroma, as well as a rich texture. On the palate, the marmalade and guava flavours are framed with oak. The vibrant acidity allows the wine to show a freshness and a fruitiness that rides on top of the oak. 93.

Little Engine Platinum Chardonnay 2015 ($75). Just when one thinks it cannot get better, it does. This is a rich, even unctuous, Chardonnay. The layers of flavour, a trademark of the winemaker’s style, unpeel one after the other. There are aromas and flavours of orange and other citrus fruits; notes of malolactic fermentation turn this into a vinous marmalade. There are notes of vanilla and cloves on the lingering finish. 95.

Little Engine French Family Release Pinot Noir 2014 ($45). This is a Pinot Noir that delivers a sensual experience. It begins with aromas of forest floor, along with cherry and strawberry, leading to flavours of cherry and pomegranate, with spice and vanilla on the finish. The texture is like rich velvet. The spice reflects the 20 months this wine aged in French oak (25% new). 92.

Little Engine Silver Pinot Noir 2015 ($35). This is a medium-bodied Pinot Noir with bright berry aromas and flavours, including cherry and strawberry. There is a hint of spice and strawberry on the finish. The texture still is firm but has begun to evolve toward the silkiness of the variety. 91.

Little Engine Gold Pinot Noir 2015 ($55). The grapes are from the same vineyard that grew the 2015 Silver. This wine, however, saw more new French oak (42%). It is fuller in body, with layers of berry flavours – cherry, strawberry, blackberry compote - and with a finish where spice and herbs dance with each other. The texture is richly concentrated. 94.

Little Engine Silver Merlot 2014 ($35). Steven French argues that “Merlot hasn’t been given its fair shake” the Okanagan. Little Engine seems to be on a mission to show how delicious that Merlot wine can be. This “entry level” Merlot is easily a match for some of the Merlot Reserves in the valley. It begins with aromas of cassis and blueberry leading to spicy flavours of dark fruit. There is a hint of black coffee mingling with the spice on the finish. The texture is bold. 90.

Little Engine Gold Merlot 2015 ($55 for 140 cases). This is a step up in bold aromas, flavours and concentration. There is vanilla and cassis on the nose, leading to flavours of blueberry, black currant and vanilla. This is a wine for cellaring. 94.

Little Engine Platinum Merlot 2015 ($75 for 100 cases). This is an even bigger expression of Merlot, made from fruit so ripe and concentrated that the alcohol is 15.1%. The wine carries it. It begins with aromas of plum, figs and cassis. There are bold, ripe figgy flavours with notes of chocolate and dark coffee. Did I say the texture is big? You could almost cut this with a knife. The wine is not released yet.96.

Little Engine Platinum Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($75 for 60 cases). This wine, not yet released, is made with grapes from the Osoyoos East Bench. At this youthful stage, the wine has bright fruit aromas, with floral and herbal notes. On the palate, there are flavours of red and black currants and cherries. This is clearly a wine to lay away for a decade. 93.

Little Engine Platinum Cabernet Franc 2015 ($75). This wine is also made with Osoyoos East Bench fruit and also is not yet released. It begins with dramatic brambly aromas, leading to intense and vibrant flavours of blackberry and raspberry. This wine also demands being laid down into the next decade. 95.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Fitzpatrick Family Vineyards opens

Photo: Gordon Fitzpatrick with a glass of Fitz Brut

Gordon Fitzpatrick has such confidence in the sparkling wines at Fitzpatrick Family Vineyards that visitors to the newly-opened winery’s sparkling wine bar will be offered Champagne to compare with Fitz Brut.

After tasting two vintages of Fitz Brut, I agree that the Fitzpatrick wines measure up favourably to French Champagne. In fact, a lot of British Columbia sparkling wines are quite competitive with international bubble. I applaud Gordon for making that point.

Fitzpatrick Family Vineyards (FFV) has just opened for its first full season at the lakeside vineyard beside the highway midway between Peachland and Summerland. Formerly, this was the Greata Ranch Vineyards Winery which the Fitzpatricks closed in 2014 after operating it for 10 years. Since then, they have redeveloped the property as an 8,000-case winery with underground cellars for 118,000 bottles of bubbly. And the winery has been totally rebranded.

That decision was made after the Fitzpatricks sold CedarCreek Estate Winery to Anthony von Mandl, the proprietor of Mission Hill Family winery. The Fitzpatricks shelved a plan to spend $2 million on CedarCreek, focussing their resources instead on Greata Ranch.

“We have always bemoaned the fact that Greata did not get the attention we thought it deserved,” says Gordon, who had also been CedarCreek’s president. “My main focus was the brand at CedarCreek and most of the [Greata Ranch] grapes went into CedarCreek wines. We had a wine shop and a second label, Greata Ranch, but it never got the attention it deserved. I wanted to see what we could do by giving Greata its own personality.”

That personality includes a focus on sparkling wines, about half of the production at FFV. That evolved from a recognition that the 40-acre Greata Ranch Vineyard produces excellent fruit for sparkling wines. “With our winemakers, we discussed what they thought Greata’s best suit was,” Gordon says. “They came back with no reservations to say sparkling. We have all of this Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Given the site and the acidity, that would be a natural.”

Greata Ranch once was a famed orchard but had become a derelict property by the time Senator Ross Fitzpatrick (Gordon’s father) bought it in 1994. Senator Fitzpatrick planted the vineyard in 1995.

The transition to sparkling started with the 2012 vintage. Darryl Brooker, then the winemaker at CedarCreek and now the general manager at Mission Hill, made sparkling cuvées in 2012 and 2013. Taylor Whelan, his successor at Mission Hill, was responsible for the next two cuvées, which are still resting in the FFV cellar.

The 2016 cuvées have been made by a New Zealand winemaker, Sarah Bain, who was recruited last fall.

A brief biography is on the winery’s website: “Sarah began her path in the wine industry working in the vineyards of Central Otago, New Zealand in 2004. It was just a summer job to start, but it only took one vintage to convince her that growing and making wine was her future. Since then, her career has been based mainly in Central Otago at two leading organic & biodynamic producers. She worked first at Burn Cottage making premium quality Pinot Noir and then at Quartz Reef, one of New Zealand’s leading producers of Traditional Method sparkling. Sarah has also worked vintages in California, Germany and Canada.”

She did a crush in 2013 at Okanagan Crush Pad winery which whetted her appetite for the Okanagan.

The FFV winery is significantly expanded from the footprint of the Greata Ranch winery. The former tasting room has been extended to become what Gordon calls “the great hall. (right)” The tasting bar will serve the FFV table wines, which are primarily aromatic whites and rosé. Red wine (Pinot Noir and Meritage) accounts for just 12% of the production; at full production, there will only be 76 barrels in the cellar.

Sparkling wines are available in a separate tasting room. These wines are featured as part of an hour-plus hospitality tours of the cellars and the vineyard. Many of these tours will be led personally by Gordon or the winemaker. There also are shorter tours for those who don’t want to drill down so deeply into the vineyard and the cellars.

The FFV facility also includes a bistro, with 22 seats inside and 44 seats outside. A seasonal restaurant, it is managed by Chef Tony de Luca of the Niagara Culinary College and a team of his best students. There is also a lounge where visitors can relax with a glass of wine and take in the view over Okanagan Lake. And there are facilities for weddings.

Here are notes on the sparkling wines currently available.

Fitz Brut 2012 ($32.50).  This is 69% Pinot Noir and 31% Chardonnay, barrel-fermented in neutral oak and aged about 36 months on the lees. This is a bright, crisp wine with hints of apples mingled with toasty lees notes on the palate. 92.

Fitz Brut 2013 ($32.99). This is 53% Pinot Noir and 47% Chardonnay. The wines were barrel fermented in neutral oak and aged about 27 months on the lees. With grapes from a slightly warmer vintage, this wine has a rich texture and softer acidity, with flavours of citrus and ripe apple. 91.


Monday, May 1, 2017

Arrowleaf will plant the Arvine grape

Photo: Winemaker Manuel Zuppiger  

Petite Arvine, a grape variety new to the Okanagan, will be planted next year by Arrowleaf Cellars.

It is not a coincidence that the vine is an indigenous Swiss variety. The family which owns Arrowleaf has Swiss roots.

“I have always wanted it,” says Manuel Zuppiger, the Arrowleaf winemaker. “We found a nursery in Ontario, selling it commercially. We said, let’s try it. I don’t know how many years they will be selling it.”

Arrowleaf is not going out on a limb. Less than an acre of this white variety will be planted. Three or four years from now, Arrowleaf should be adding the wine to its well-made portfolio. The small volume likely will be sold just in the winery’s elegant wine shop.

Jancis Robinson and colleagues call the variety Arvine in Wine Grapes, the massive book on 1,368 varietals published in 2012. Petite was added to the name to distinguish it from Gros Arvine, which may be a related grape.

“Arvine is indigenous to the Valais in Switzerland,” the book says. “Like many other varieties from the Valais, Arvine is often said to have been introduced by the Romans. … Arvine the finest of the Valais varieties and produces wines that are nervy but also have substance, typically with flavours of grapefruit and a mineral saltiness.”

It says something about the wines that the legendary Angelo Gaja once had an experimental planting in Langhe, in Northwest Italy. He gave up on the variety because he had “severe problems with coulure and broken shoots.” That does not mean the variety is unsuitable for the North Okanagan, where disease pressure is low. Time will tell.

Arrowleaf has been highly successful since opening in 2003. Production reached 16,000 cases in 2016. The winery relies on estate-grown grapes but also buys from several other vineyards (some of which it manages). Most of its fruit sources are from the North Okanagan.

Named for the Okanagan’s familiar springtime flower, Arrowleaf Cellars came about because owner Joe Zuppiger’s five children did not care for milking cows. Dairy farmers near Zurich in Switzerland, the Zuppigers moved to an Alberta dairy farm in 1986. When it became clear that his children wanted to do something else, Joe bought this 6.5-hectare (16-acre) north Okanagan vineyard in 1997. A born farmer, Joe had already grown fruit in Switzerland

After the Zuppigers sold grapes for several years, Manuel, born in 1976, enrolled in Switzerland’s top wine school. He graduated in 2001 and showed such promise that he landed a practicum with Grant Burge, a leading Australian winemaker, before returning to Arrowleaf.

Over half of Arrowleaf’s production is white wine. Most are aromatic, generally made in a juicy, refreshing style. The Arrowleaf vineyard was first planted in 1986 exclusively with white varietals, including the prized Alsace clone of Gewürztraminer, along with Bacchus, Pinot Gris and Vidal. After taking over the property, Joe added Merlot and Zweigelt and arranged long-term contracts for Pinot Noir and Riesling.

Here are notes on current releases:

Arrowleaf Bacchus 2016 ($15.49 for 2,745 cases). The Bacchus vines were already 11 years old when the Zuppiger family bought this Lake Country vineyard. That was good fortune, for this is one of best-selling wines here. Light and refreshing, with just 11% alcohol, the wine has aromas and flavours of lime and grapefruit. A touch of residual sugar lifts the spicy, fruity flavours. 90.

Arrowleaf Pinot Gris 2016 ($16.49 for 2,465 cases). This wine has aromas of apples and pears, leading to flavours of apple, pear and peach. The wine is juicy, with a weight that fills the mouth with fruit flavours. 91.

Arrowleaf Snow Tropics 2016 ($15.90 for 1,252 cases). This is a blend of 65%  Riesling and 35% Gewürztraminer. Previous vintages used Vidal in the blend. This vintage retains the residual sweetness of the style while benefitting from the lively acidity of Riesling. The wine has appealing floral and tropical fruit aromas. On the palate, it is a fruit bowl with flavours of peaches and grapefruit. 90.          

Arrowleaf Riesling 2016 ($17.99 for 900 cases). The wine has aromas and flavours of lemon, lime and pineapple. It is balanced to a lingering, dry finish. The wine has the youthful fruitiness of a young Riesling and is drinking well now. A year or two of additional bottle age will bring out much more intensity and complexity. 90.

Arrowleaf Gewürztraminer 2015 ($15.50 for 779 cases). This wine has consistently been one of the Okanagan’s best Gewürztraminers, with an intensity of spice and lychee recalling similar wines from Alsace. Full-bodied, the wine has just a note of residual sweetness. 92.

Arrowleaf Rosé 2016 ($16.49 for 1,020 cases). This is a blend of 71% Pinot Noir and 29% Zweigelt. The wine, delicate salmon pink in hue, jumps from the glass with aromas of strawberry and cranberry and fills the mouth with red berry flavours. A hint of sweetness lifts both the aromas and flavours. One glass immediately leads to a second of this refreshing wine. 91.

Arrowleaf Pinot Noir 2015 ($19 for 2,004 cases). This is a fruit-forward Pinot Noir, aged nine months in French oak puncheons. It has aromas and flavours of cherry and raspberry with a touch of vanilla and leather. The texture is silky. 90.

Arrowleaf Solstice Pinot Noir 2014 ($26.49 for 375 cases). Solstice is the Arrowleaf term for reserve wines. This Pinot Noir was made with five clones and was aged 12 months in French oak puncheons. The wine is a step up in complexity and intensity, as one would expect. It begins with aromas of black cherry and spice which are echoed on the palate. The flavours are framed subtly with oak. The texture is silky and elegant. 91.

Arrowleaf Zweigelt 2014 ($19.49 for 590 cases). This Austrian variety seems well-suited to making bold and ripe reds in the North Okanagan. This dark wine begins with aromas of white pepper, cloves, cherry and plum. The flavours are rich and punchy, with notes of black cherry, plum, leather, spice and red licorice. There is a hint of smokiness on the finish. 90.

Arrowleaf Merlot 2014 ($19 for 482 cases). Arrowleaf believes it is the northern-most grower of Merlot in the Okanagan. The grapes, planted in 1998, are farmed accordingly to achieve full ripeness. The long and even 2014 vintage enabled the winery to delivery a bold and ripe red, with aromas and flavours of blackberry and black currant. The wine was aged 15 months in American oak (20% new) and shows a touch of vanilla on the finish. 90.

Arrowleaf Solstice Reserve 2014 ($25.24 for 582 cases). The winery’s flagship red, this is 71% Merlot and 29% Zweigelt. The wine was aged 15 months in French and American oak barrels. The best barrels were chosen for this reserve. The wine is structured to age with firm ripe tannins. It begins with aromas black cherry and plum, which are echoed on the palate, along with dark chocolate and vanilla. 92.

Arrowleaf Vidal Icewine 2015 ($43 for 150 cases). This is the first Icewine ever made by Arrowleaf; previously, the winery made just late harvest Vidal. This wine begins with aromas of ripe pineapple. On the palate, there are flavours of honey, quince and ripe pineapple, with a long, luscious sweet finish. 92.