Thursday, January 28, 2010

Cabernet Franc finally pays off for Tinhorn Creek

Photo: Bob Shaunessy (l), Sandra Oldfield, Kenn Oldfield (r)

The top-selling wine in the current Tinhorn Creek Vineyards portfolio is Cabernet Franc – but it took something like 12 or 15 years for the Okanagan’s largest Cabernet Franc producer to score its “overnight” success.

It is quite story. It was related this week by winemaker Sandra Oldfield, one of Tinhorn’s owners, during a 12-vintage vertical tasting of Cabernet Franc. Every vintage that has been released from the first one in 1996. The tasting was presented for the British Columbia Wine Appreciation Society in Vancouver.

Tinhorn Creek began planting its Diamondback Vineyard on Black Sage Road in 1994. If Alberta oilman Bob Shaunessy, the founding partner, had had his way, Cabernet Sauvignon would have been planted. However, Kenn Oldfield, Sandra’s husband and also a partner in the winery, was just completing a viticulture degree at the University of California in Davis. He carried the day for Cabernet Franc. It was another 11 years before Tinhorn Creek planted any Cabernet Sauvignon.

Shaunessy had marketing logic on his side. Cabernet Sauvignon is a far more popular variety world wide than Cabernet Franc. But Kenn Oldfield had vineyard logic on his side. Cabernet Franc ripens earlier that Cabernet Sauvignon and thus is better suited for most south Okanagan sites where the risk of early frost at harvest time is real.

So Tinhorn Creek settled on three red varieties for its portfolio: Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Pinot Noir, all relatively early ripening varieties. The winery made its reputation early with Merlot. In many vintages, Sandra preferred her Cabernet Franc but it was a tough sell.

The huge vintage variations at the end of the last decade did not make it any easier. In 1998, the hottest year in the Okanagan in a century, Sandra was able to make a big, plump red. It was a very good drink at he time but is past its prime now.

Then came 1999, the coldest year in the Okanagan in a century. Sandra, who is as candidly honest as any Okanagan winemaker, describes that year’s Cabernet Franc her “Jesus wine.” It was a mistake even to release it, she thinks now. For the record, the wine is light, with a delicate floral aroma, and it still has a certain appeal, according to my tasting notes.

Not only was 1999 a cold year but Tinhorn Creek screwed up its vineyard management by seriously overcropping the Cabernet Franc. The yield, even after crop thinning, was 5.73 tons an acres. In most years, yields run between three and four tons.

On September 27, 1999, there was a sharp frost in the south Okanagan. “I remember driving out to Black Sage Road,” Sandra recounted. “There were no leaves left. We had sticks out there with massive amounts of grapes hanging.” And the grapes were not ripe enough for wine and, with no leaves on the vines, they were not going to get riper.

“We would have been best to leave it and move on,” she said. “That’s what we would do now.”

Instead, they chose to let the grapes hang for another seven weeks. The natural desiccation improved the sugar levels somewhat and got rid of the unripe flavours and aromas. Sandra still had to add sugar and reduce the acidity in order to make a drinkable wine. And she made 7,000 cases, almost 3,000 cases than in the year before.

“It took us two years to sell 7,000 cases of wine,” she admitted. “It sold pretty well in Ontario.”

That considerable bubble of Cabernet Franc delayed the release dates of all subsequent vintages until about 2006. The winery also started releasing a Cabernet/Merlot blend for several vintages as a way of moving Cabernet Franc. That blend has now been dropped. “I am trying to sell Cabernet Franc as an exciting varietal for B.C.,” Sandra said. “If you want to get people excited about it, put it out naked.”

From 1999 to 2005, “we had monthly meetings about pulling out half of our Cabernet Franc,” Sandra said. However, Tinhorn Creek hung in there, pulling out just a modest block from its 21 acres of Cabernet Franc make room for Cabernet Sauvignon when the winery decided to make a premium Meritage (out this fall).

With its own sales of Cabernet Franc stacking up, the winery made a three-year deal in 2004 to sell about a third its Cabernet Franc grapes to Vincor. Tinhorn Creek came to regret that because, by 2006, consumers had finally begun buying the variety with some enthusiasm.

In 2007, after that contract ended, Tinhorn Creek made almost 6,000 cases of Cabernet Franc and the wine, released last fall, is flying out the door so fast that it could be sold out before the 2008 vintage is ready.

The sold-out 2006 Cabernet Franc proved to be one of the best wines in this vertical. However, the 2002, at its peak now, is delicious; the 2003, another wine from a hot year, is big and satisfying; the 2004 is still dark and brooding; and the 2005 shows lovely spicy fruit. And the 2007, while still developing in bottle, shows attractive flavours of spice and cherries and is so drinkable that some restaurants are using in in their wine-by-the-glass program.

A remarkable fact about Tinhorn Creek’s wines is their affordability. The first Cabernet Franc in 1996 came on the market at $16.95 a bottle. The 2007 sells for only $1 more.

“I am proud of that,” Sandra said. “B.C.’s wine prices have gone bonkers in the last few years.”

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Blasted Church meets the Avatars

Whoa, Nelly! Wait until you see the edgy, eye-catching and probably controversial new labels from Blasted Church Vineyards.

Above are three of the new labels. The first wine released is Hatfield's Fuse (second label from bottom). For comparison, the bottom label was the previous Hatfield's Fuse, one of the winery's bestsellers.

The label change is as daring as I have ever seen from an Okanagan winery. The caricatures of the original Blasted Church labels have been replaced by art with figures that are more stylized. They made me think of the Avatars who live on Pandora in James Cameron’s blockbuster movie.

Bernie Hadley-Beauregard’s Brandever Group, the winery’s marketing guru, is certainly opening a Pandora’s Box with this dramatic label overhaul. While it is likely some consumers will not like the change, the end result will surely be a blockbuster win for the winery.

He put together the initial label strategy after Evelyn and Chris Campbell bought this winery in 2002. It had been opened in 2000 by Dan Prpich, who called it Prpich Hills. The winery was relaunched as Blasted Church. The name was inspired by the history of a small church in nearby Okanagan Falls that had been moved there in 1929 from Fairview, a now vanished mining town near Oliver. To loosen the nails in the church’s massive beams, the movers set up a small dynamite charge. Other than causing the steeple to tumble, it did the job.

Bernie commissioned original art for the labels by Monika Melnychuk. Refreshingly different, each label mined the rich lore of stories surrounding the church and the crew that moved it. As a result, the wines had instant and lasting appeal.

At the outset, Bernie advised the winery that the cartoon labels would need to be refreshed after four years as their impact wore off. As it happened, the labels still remain effective eight years later. In some quarters, however, there was a thought that Blasted Church wines have improved significantly in recent years and thus needed new labels.

The new labels feature what Bernie calls (in a news release) “the wildly quirky artwork of Chris Sickels” of Indianapolis-based Red Nose Studio. “Once again, the series tells the story of how a church was moved ….”

Quirky is the word. You can find influences in the art ranging from Norman Rockwell to the animation behind Avatar (although none of the characters on the new label have turquoise bodies, thank goodness). There will be a lot of conversation around these labels. If I owned the winery, I would also considering selling numbered prints. The art is that good.

The winery’s willingness to be edgy goes beyond the labels. Some of the wines in its Revered Series (its reserve tier) are being released with such names as Nothing Sacred, Bible Thumper and OMG, for a new sparkling wine. One of the new names is also a corny groaner: Praise Cheeses.

It seems there is never going to a dull moment at Blasted Church.

You should also note that the new wines are coming in new bottles. Blasted Church has become the first winery in Canada to start using the so-called Eco-bottles made by St Gobain Glass. These bottles are a third lighter than the bottles Blasted Church (and other wineries) has been using. That adds up to a substantial saving in transportation costs, among other efficiencies, making for a reduced carbon footprint.

That’s something we can all drink to.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Jesus helps with the Seven Stones Meritage

Photo: George Hanson in his barrel room

Last Friday, George and Vivianne Hanson, the owners of Seven Stones Winery, invited four other couples to sit around their dining room table and participate in blending the winery’s 2008 Standing Rock Meritage.

How much help the panellists were (my wife, Marlene, and I were among them) might be open to question. However, we all came away with a heightened respect for the art of blending – an art so difficult that one of our number exclaimed “Jesus!” several times during the challenge of deciding whether this blend or that was the better one.

George, who would know his barrel samples better than any of us, had an idea of where he wanted to go with the blend. By the end of this three-hour session, the panel confirmed the direction he had in mind.

The Standing Rock Meritage has established itself as one of the leading wines from Seven Stones. The 2006 vintage was won three gold medals and two silvers in competition. It was one of nine finalists for red wine of the year in last fall’s Canadian Wine Awards (the winner was Sandhill’s 2007 Phantom Creek Small Lots Syrah).

The 2007 Standing Rock Meritage, recently released by Seven Stones at $32, has already won two silvers. A blend of 60% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Cabernet Franc, the wine will certainly pick up more medals.

The 2008 vintage promises to raise the bar because, for the first time, George has some Petit Verdot to add to the blend. In subsequent years, he will also have Malbec. Neither of those varieties was planted initially when his vineyard was being developed in 2000 and 2001.

George is an Alberta native who spent 25 years working with the telephone company in the Yukon, during which time he became – he believes – the best home winemaker in the territory. He had become interested in making wine after being exposed to it by his brother’s Italian father-in-law.

Like most home winemakers, George started with wine kits before switching to juice and then fresh grapes, even though it was prohibitively expensive to have California grapes shipped to him in the Yukon.

Born in 1957, he thought he might get himself a vineyard when he retired. Then he got lucky. In the late 1990s the telephone company offered financial incentives to employees who want to leave early. George took his package, began shopping for vineyard land and in 1999 bought a 20-acre parcel of basically raw land in the Similkameen Valley, strategically located beside the highway. He wanted to make big reds and that’s what the Similkameen excels in producing.

When his vines began producing some fruit in 2003, he let winemaker Lawrence Herder coach him through a first vintage. But he has been flying solo since he began making wine in earnest in 2005 (having taken a year off and selling grapes while building a house). Seven Stones opened in 2007.

George may be largely self-taught as a winemaker but he clearly is a natural talent, both as a grape grower and as a winemaker. This 2,500 case winery is one of the jewels of the Similkameen.

George compares his Meritage to a person. The blending trials began by identifying the varietals that will be the body. We started with two samples of Merlot and one of Cabernet Sauvignon. The two Merlots were quite different because one came from a block of grapes that was picked almost two weeks later than the other. The extra hand time yielded a notably fleshier wine. It was fairly obvious which Merlot would emerge as the foundation for the Meritage.

George confirmed that conclusion in the second round, contrasting one blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and the fuller Merlot and another of Cabernet and the lighter Merlot. In a third round, we dug deeper into variations of the Merlot-Cabernet blend.

The fourth round introduced us to Cabernet Franc. “This is adding the personality to the person, putting a little feistiness into the wine,” George said. We did into variations on that theme for a couple of rounds, accompanied by the sotto voce “Jesus!” as the choices get harder.

Then he introduced Petit Verdot to the blends. “The Petit Verdot will be the adornment, the clothing, the style,” he said. “The soul would be the Malbec but there is no soul yet” – a reference to the fact that his young Malbec wines were not producing yet in 2008.

The surprise is that it takes a very small amount of Petit Verdot to make a big difference: the sample with one per cent Petit Verdot is remarkably distinct from that with two per cent. Which is the best blend? “Jesus!”

The blend that emerges in the final round is, like the previous vintages, built around Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon and spiced up with small percentages of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. The quantity of the latter two varietals not needed for the Meritage are more than adequate for release as single varietals.

Did we come up with a better Standing Rock Meritage than even the 2006 and 2007 vintages? He may have been flattering his earnest panellists but George Hanson thinks so.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Vancouver's wine tasting year gets off to a fast start

Photo: Tinhorn Creek's Sandra Oldfield hosts Vancouver tasting

For Vancouver’s wine lovers, the year does not begin on January 1 but with Taste BC 2010 on January 19. Formerly known as the BC wine and Oyster Festival, this event is organized by Liberty Wine Merchants.

The $50 a ticket event is a fund-raiser for Children’s Hospital-Oak Tree Clinic which provides care and services to those with HIV/AIDS. Over the years, it has generated closed to $170,000 for this good cause.

As it happens, this is but one of several terrific tastings during the last two weeks of January, as various wineries, wine clubs and other sponsors get events out of the way before the 2010 Olympics take over the city and most tasting venues.

Taste BC 2010 is in the Hyatt Regency, beginning at 4.30 p.m., in the familiar format that has now launched Vancouver’s tasting season for perhaps a decade. A large number of British Columbia wineries, represented either by principals or agents, set up their tables throughout the ballroom. There is also plenty of food available, prepared by leading restaurants.

If the past is a guide, this tasting is used by producers to show not only the wines they poured all last year but some of their latest releases. There should be plenty of 2008 white wines – and that was arguably the best vintage of whites so far from the Okanagan. Most of the reds will be 2006 and 2007, both excellent vintages.

Tickets are available at all Liberty wine stores. The event usually sells out.

Here are some of the other stellar tastings in the next few weeks:

* Sandhill Wines celebrates its garnering of the Canadian Winery of the Year Award with a January 18 tasting at 6.30 p.m. in the Vancouver Aquarium. (Now you know what wine to have with fish!)

This tasting is by invitation only. It is noted here because it kicks off the tasting year and because winemaker Howard Soon will be in Vancouver for it.

* Blue Mountain Vineyard & Cellars is back again with its elegant Blue Mountain and Friends evening at 6.30 p.m. January 26 at the Four Seasons. This $90 a ticket event is a fundraiser for the B.C. Children’s Hospital as well.

Blue Mountain took two years off from bringing this evening to Vancouver. It is one of Vancouver’s most fashionable tastings. The owners of Blue Mountain and their associates are on hand to pour each of the winery’s 10 wines. Next to each tasting table, 10 leading Vancouver chefs prepare foods to pair with the wines.

The tickets are sold through the winery. Check the website, for the event is close to sold out.

* There is a significant other invitation-only tasting on the afternoon of January 27 at the Terminal City Club. It is the first-ever Vancouver tasting of the wines of Ontario’s Le Clos Jordanne, with winemaker Thomas Bachelder.

This winery is an outstanding producer of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines. Until now, none has been available in the British Columbia market. After this tasting, Vincor Canada is releasing eight wines to selected private wine stores.

Some of the wines that are coming were reviewed (enthusiastically) in the blog I posted last March 6, after a private tasting with the winemaker in Ontario.

* The British Columbia Wine Appreciation Society is hosting Tinhorn Creek winemaker Sandra Oldfield on January 27, who will present a vertical tasting of 12 years of Cabernet Franc.

This is almost certain that she has never before offered a tasting quite like this in Vancouver. She is pouring vintages from 1996 through 2007. She will comment, of course, of the conditions of each vintage. This is a rare chance to look at mature examples of a varietal that does very well in the Okanagan but lives mostly under the shadow of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

This tasting is 7.30 p.m. at the Listel Hotel on Robson. BCWAS members pay $30, non-members pay $45. Tickets, which are in short supply, are available through the BCWAS website.

* Bistro Bistro Restaurant at 1961 West 4th in Vancouver has a wine event featuring Stoneboat Vineyards on January 28. Tickets are $70 each and only 50 tickets are being sold.

What a great start to the year!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Pacific Breeze reds really do deliver the WOW factor

Many of us have become jaded with advertising slogans for products that don’t deliver on what the slogan promises. It happens way too often.

However, New Westminster’s Pacific Breeze Winery actually delivers on its slogan, a quote attributed to Maurice Hamilton, one of the winery’s co-founders: “We want to make wines that make people go WOW.”

Recently, I was assessing the winery’s 2006 Killer Cab during a family dinner. One of my guests was so impressed with the flavour that he spontaneously exclaimed “WOW” when he tasted the wine.

During the past month, I have gradually tasted my way through all of the red wines currently available from Pacific Breeze. They all deliver bold flavours. From the modest quantity of each wine, I suspect some are close to sold out, to be replaced by the next vintage. Judging from these and other Pacific Breeze wines, you can buy the wines confidently without tasting them in advance.

The business model at Pacific Breeze is different from all other British Columbia wineries. Licensed as a commercial winery, it makes all of its wines with grapes imported, for the most part, from select vineyards in California.

That sets it apart from all the other commercial wineries which import bulk wine to produce their various cellared-in-Canada wines.

All of B.C.’s commercial wineries once imported truckloads of fresh grapes from California and Washington, either because they were unable to get enough grapes from the Okanagan or because high-quality European varietals were not available here. In the 1980s, Mission Hill, as an example, had quite excellent Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir with imported grapes. In that era, Mission Hill owned no vineyards.

With improved shipping methods of the 1990s, the wineries that incorporate imported wine in their portfolios now bring in finished wine in bulk. It is much more economical and convenient than hauling truckloads of fresh grapes up the I-5. As well, all of the commercially wineries generally have their own vineyards in British Columbia (Mission Hill alone owns about 800 acres).

Pacific Breeze, which does not have vineyards of its own, is modelled on the garagiste wineries of Washington State. There is, for example, a big cluster in Woodinville, north of Seattle, that buy grapes from the vineyards in the Washington Interior. Most of these wineries are making wines of astounding quality because they have contracted top quality grapes.

When Maurice Hamilton and Frank Gregus were creating Pacific Breeze in 2005, all of the top quality Okanagan and Similkameen vineyards were tied up by other wineries. So they had to find grapes south of the border.

“We’re not going to give up on B.C.,” Frank told me in an interview in 2008. “Ultimately, as we become more successful, we would like to be able to have some vineyards in B.C. as well.”

Pacific Breeze has its wines on restaurant wine lists and in some private wine stores. So far, the winery has not cracked the Liquor Distribution Branch, perhaps because the LDB does not quite know whether to put the wines in the California section or in the B.C. section of the stores.

The best place to find the wines is at the winery, a funky little place in an industrial mall under the Skytrain line in New Westminster. Pacific Breeze is often open for weekend tastings, some of which are mini-wine festivals with food and music. The quality of the wines makes it worth the trip.

Here are my notes on the current red wines from Pacific Breeze.

2006 Vin de Garagiste P2 ($19.99). Made from grapes from Lake County, California, this is a blend of 82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Cabernet Franc, 4% Petit Verdot and 2% Petite Syrah. This is a big, luscious wine, tasting of blackberries, plums, black cherries, chocolate and cedar. I put the wine to the test of going back to it every day for four days. It became richer and the fruit became sweeter. 88-90.

2006 “Killer Cab” ($22.99). This is also Lake County fruit: 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Cabernet Franc, 4% Petit Verdot, 8% Syrah. This is another big wine with character, beginning with an alluring aroma of red currants and iodine. On the palate, it shows spicy dark fruit with the Syrah contributing a rustic, gamy note. 88.

2006 Syrah ($29.99). The grapes also come from Lake County. Big and bold, this wine recalls a spicy, dark fruitcake, with flavours of fig, black cherry and blueberry. 90.

2005 Hawk & Horse Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon ($29.99). These vineyards are in the Red Hills appellation of Lake County. The wine is 82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Merlot. In a word, delicious – full on the palate, with vibrant red fruit flavours (currants, cherries), with a touch of mint on the nose. It is a concentrated wine that it benefits from decanting. 89

2005 aCure eState Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon ($29.99). This wine, made from grapes grown in Sonoma’s Alexander Valley, delivers both power and elegance. It begins with a voluptuous aroma of blackberries. On the palate, there are layers of sweet fruit flavours, with a lingering finish. The blend is 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17.5% Merlot, ½% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot. Footnote: the vineyard’s name comes from the fact it is owned by a doctor. 88-90.

2005 “Signature Series” Cabernet Sauvignon ($49.99). Another Red Hills appellation wine, this is 91% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Syrah, with half a percent each of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. Dark in colour, the wine begins with a lovely aroma of wild blackberries. On the palate, this full-bodied wine has spicy flavours of currants and plums, with a hint of chocolate and tobacco on the finish. It is drinking well now but will also cellar very well.89-92

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Le Vieux Pin and LaStella achieve their focus

Photos: Daniel Bontorin (top);LaStella Winery; James Cambridge (bottom)

Since opening in 2006 near Oliver, Le Vieux Pin winery has released collectible wines even while exasperating collectors with a portfolio in flux.

The good news for those collectors is that LVP and sister winery, LaStella (which opened in 2008 near Osoyoos), are settling down to a focus.

Both wineries are owned by a Vancouver company, Enotecca Winery and Resorts, which is controlled by three entrepreneurs: Saeedeh and Sean Salem, an Iran-born husband and wife team, and former broker Greg Thomas.

They set out with a specific objective for each winery. As LVP was built, Rhone varieties (Syrah, Viognier) were planted in the nearby vineyard. Since it takes three years for a vineyard to start producing, LVP launched with wines made from purchased fruit, notably Pinot Noir and Merlot.

That’s a bit of a stretch for a Rhone house. As it happens LVP has released several excellent Pinot Noirs and Merlots (among other good non-Rhone wines). Recently, I was able to taste a pair of Pinot Noirs from the 2007 vintage that will not be released until at least mid-year. I also learned that the winemaker James Cambridge has some 2008 Pinot Noirs in barrel at LVP.

But that will be the last Pinot Noir from LVP. Enotecca no longer grows Pinot Noir in any of its south Okanagan vineyards, having concluded that the south Okanagan terroir is better suited for other varieties. In 2o09 LVP switched a major portion of its production to Syrah.

LaStella’s role is to be Enotecca’s Tuscan winery. The winery, at the north end of Osoyoos Lake, is attractively built in a Tuscan style. Plantings in the nearby vineyards include Sangiovese. Winemaker Daniel Bontorin is a dual citizen (Italian and Canadian) and has worked in Italy.

The winery will soon release 245 cases of its initial “Super Tuscan inspired” blend, a wine called Fortissimo. Perhaps ironically, the 2007 Fortissimo is a blend of three Bordeaux varieties because the Sangiovese vines were not yet producing in that vintage. Future vintages will include Italian varietals and Fortissimo will become a 2,000-case brand.

The followers of these wineries may also have been exasperated with changes in the names on the labels. They will need to remember that LVP’s Merlot Reserve 2007 was, in previous vintages, called Apogée. LVP has discarded many of the pseudo-sophisticated label names for simple varietal names.

Throughout this journey of self-discovery, the Enotecca wines have released wines memorable for the concentration of their flavours and aromas. “Yields can make a difference,” general manager Rasoul Salehi says. The wineries crop their own vineyards to lower yields than most Okanagan wineries. The LaStella Maestoso Merlot 2007, a tour de force if ever there is one, is made from vines where the yield was less than a ton an acre. That is easily a quarter of the average yield for Okanagan Merlot.

Recently, Rasoul led me through a tasting of several wines that these two wineries will be releasing later this year. These are my notes.

Le Vieux Pin 2007 Pinot Noir ($35 approx. in a late spring release of 253 cases). An elegant wine, it presents with a fine deep colour and good weight on the palate, with flavours of raspberry and strawberry. The aromas are still a little reserved but the further time in bottle will bring the wine around. 88-90.

Le Vieux Pin 2007 Pinot Noir Reserve ($45 approx. for a fall release of 270 cases and 30 cases of half bottles). From vines cropped at less than 1.5 tons an acre, this is dark, concentrated wine with good aging potential. It begins with complex aromas of berries and black tea and is almost as rich on the palate as a dark fruitcake. 92.

Le Vieux Pin Merlot Reserve 2007 ($65 approx. for a 552-case release in the fall). From vines cropped at 2.3 tons an acre, this is a bold and concentrated wine with flavours of plum and, yes, earth and chocolate and liquorice. The ripe tannins are still a touch dry on the finish but time in the bottle will resolve that nicely. 90-92.

LaStella Fortissimo 2007 ($28-$32 for a 221 case release). This is a blend of 52% Merlot, 43% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Cabernet Franc, all from vines with an average yield of three tons an acre. I agree with the winemaker’s vivid description of the aroma: “mocha, black forest cake, scorched earth and grilled herbs.” On the palate, there are flavours of black currants, cedar and tobacco. The ripe tannins give this a firm, powerful structure and presence. 90.

LaStella Maestoso Merlot 2007 ($75 if ordered before spring release, $85 after). The release of this wine is 213 cases, plus 15 cases of half bottles and 20 magnums. Almost black in colour, this wine begins with an effusive aroma of black currant jam that tries to take over the room. The wine is rich on the palate, with layers of sweet fruit flavours – plums, black berries, black currants. Frankly, this wine will blow you away. 95

Monday, January 4, 2010

New from Stag's Hollow: a fine Tempranillo blend

Photo: Dwight Sick, winemaker

Stag’s Hollow Winery will only be bottling its 2008 Tempranillo blend in May for a September release. Winery owner Larry Gerelus let me taste a barrel sample in December, part of a larger tasting of Stag’s Hollow wines. I can report that it is an exciting wine and that, since there will only be 125 cases, you should get on the list for a few bottles.

Located near Okanagan Falls, Stag’s Hollow was opened in 1996 by Larry and his wife, Linda Pruegger. In a lifestyle change, they left behind good office jobs in Calgary to take over a small vineyard and build the Okanagan’s first winery with geothermal heating and cooling.

When the volume outgrew that facility, they built a 7,000-case capacity winery in 2007, again with geothermal heating and cooling. Since 1996, several other wineries have joined them in making this commendable commitment to a lower carbon footprint (Burrowing Owl, CedarCreek, Hester Creek and perhaps a few others).

The capital outlay for the new Stag’s Hollow winery was just a little daunting, leading Larry and Linda to put their winery on the market. However, a purchase agreement fell through when the proposed buyer’s American bank stopped lending money during the 2008 financial crisis.

With a renewed determination, Larry and Linda found ways to increase the winery’s cash flow. Because the estate vineyard produces only enough grapes for half the winery’s capacity, they have contracted additional grapes. Already good at marketing, they have turned up the volume there as well. Stag’s Hollow wines are now in more restaurants and in such outlets as the VQA stores.

One of their most important decisions in 2008 was to hire Dwight Sick as their winemaker. From the beginning, Stag’s Hollow has had a succession of good winemakers through its cellar (Jeff Martin, Michael Bartier, Brad Cooper among others). Often, they consulted to Larry as well as elsewhere, since Stag’s Hollow was not quite big enough for a full-time winemaker of its own.

The new winery and the higher production (Stag’s Hollow made 6,000 cases in 2009) justify a full-time winemaker. That, in turn, has freed the owners up to do more marketing and more viticulture.

Dwight had done several vintages at Pentâge Winery before he decided to move on in 2008. Larry heard he was available and set up an interview. “It just clicked,” he remembers.

Stag’s Hollow already has a good reputation for Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and a cult following for its Vidal. Some years, the winery grafted Chardonnay onto most of the Vidal that was already there when Larry and Linda bought the vineyard in 1992. The winery made good Chardonnay but that varietal is seriously out of fashion while customers can’t get enough of the Vidal. So the Chardonnay grafters are being removed, returning the vines to producing Vidal grapes again.

What Dwight has added is his intense passion for Rhone varietals. By coincidence, he was hired just as the winery had signed a long-term contract with a vineyard growing Syrah. He also has brought significant skills as a blender.

Those came together last year when the winery released a minuscule production of a new red wine called 2008 Quattro IV, a blend of four Rhone varieties.

In a recent tasting with Larry, I was shown the barrel sample of the 2009 Quattro IV. It is a delicious blend of 50% Syrah, 46% Grenache, 3% Viognier and 1% Marsanne. A big, juicy wine with flavours of plum, wild blackberry and pomegranate, it is already so tasty that I scored it 90-93, very good for a wine not yet finished. The winery plans to release only 80 cases at about $40 a bottle, selling most of it on futures and in six-bottle lots.

The winery plans to release 125 cases of the yet-to-be named Tempranillo blend, a blend of 40% Tempranillo, 35% Merlot, 20% Syrah and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. “When making and blending this wine,” Dwight says, “I was looking to build a wine that was masculine and showed the diversity and depth of what we can grow here in the Okanagan.”

My notes also include the descriptor, masculine. The wine tastes of black cherries, plums and black currants with an attractive note of spice on the finish. It has firm, ripe tannins and should develop lovely complexity with a few more years in bottle. My score: 90-92.

My tasting with Larry included three wines currently available:

2008 Viognier ($24.99). An excellent example of Okanagan Viognier, this wine has stone fruit aromas and flavours of apricots, peaches, pineapples. It has good weight on the palate because Viognier, typical of the variety, has a lightly defining spine of tannin. This is a red wine drinker’s white. 90.

2008 Sauvignon Blanc-Sémillon ($22). This gold medal-winning wine is barrel-fermented and aged six months in new French oak. However, the oak is very subtle, showing only as a touch of hazelnut integrated with herbal aromas and flavours of grapefruit. 88-90.

2007 Cabernet Sauvignon ($22.99). The winery released 308 cases last month. It was one of the first of Stag’s Hollow wines to show up in the VQA store system. At this price and quality, it won’t last long. The wine begins with a great aroma of spice and berries. On the palate, there is plum and black currant. The ripe tannins give the wine that elusive “smooth” finish that many red wine drinkers find appealing. 88-90.