Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Miguel Torres at the Playhouse Wine Festival

Photo: Cabernet Sauvignon

There is a saying in the Spanish wine industry (and elsewhere in business, for that matter) that the first generation establishes the enterprise, the second builds and the third generation destroys it.

The odd thing is that I heard this at the Miguel Torres winery near Vilafranca in Spain. The saying certainly does not apply here. This is one of the most important and successful wineries in Spain, with the fifth generation now active in running it.

The head of the fourth generation, Miguel A. Torres (who will soon be 70, the company’s retirement age), is scheduled to preside at two events during the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival on March 30 and 31. These are hot tickets. The dinner with him is sold out and the seminar the following evening soon will be sold out.

It is possible, but not guaranteed, that he will spend a bit of time at the Torres table in the festival’s tasting room, where Spain is the theme region. Even if he is not there, there will be excellent Torres wines available (see below).

Torres ancestors have been growing grapes in the Penedès region, not far from Barcelona, since the 17th Century. The winery was started in 1870 by Jaime Torres, an entrepreneur who made his initial fortune as an oil distributor in Cuba.

The winery flourished under the second generation, Don Miguel Torres (as he is always referred to), a hard-driving taskmaster who died in 1991. The winery had become such a major producer that, in the 1920s, it built a 600,000 litre wooden vat so immense that receptions could be held in it.

In 1939, near the end of the Spanish Civil War, the Torres winery, then in the city of Vilafranca, was severely damaged by bombs and the vat was destroyed. Don Miguel rebuilt the business a few kilometres south of the city. (The Torres distillery remains at the site in Vilafranca, near the train station). In the 1950s, the winery developed a thriving export following for good wines at reasonable prices.

Photo: Torres wine museum

Miguel A. Torres, having earned a degree in enology from Dijon in France, began working in the Torres cellars in 1969. He introduced many modern winemaking practices (stainless steel tanks, controlled temperature fermentation, to name two). He also influenced Torres to expand its plantings of such varieties as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc.

The world took notice of Torres wines in 1979 when the winery’s 1970 Gran Coronas Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon won the gold medal at the Gault Millau Wine Olympics competition. The Spanish wine beat wines from three of the best Bordeaux producers, Latour, Pichon-Lalande and Haut-Brion. That triumph is as big a legend in Spanish wine as the 1976 victory of California wines in another famous Paris taste-off.

That wine is now called Mas La Plana, named for the Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard surrounding Miguel Torres’s home near the winery. The wine is listed in British Columba for $46.99.

Photo: Torres Mas La Plana vineyard

The Torres family has a distinguished history of innovation in wine, investing in Chile in 1979, for example. The Chilean wine industry then was small and still operating with 19th century methods. Torres is believed to have been the first winery in Chile to begin fermenting and storing some wine in stainless steel, blazing a trail others soon followed.

Currently, the Torres wineries in Spain (there are several) have thrown themselves into sustainable winemaking. Torres has invested in solar panels and a wind farm to get some of its electricity. It has reduced energy consumption by building underground cellars and insulating tanks. It has converted its vehicle fleet either to hybrid vehicles or to electric. It has invested in research to reduce and capture the carbon dioxide it releases into the atmosphere. It recycles about 40% of its water.

Photo: New barrel cellars at Torres

Some of this is on display at the Torres visitor centre, a large and modern building that was opened just prior to the Barcelona Summer Olympics in 1992. The winery now draws about 100,000 visitors a year for tours, tastings and for the elegant wine museum.

It is a short taxi ride from Vilafranca which, in turn, is about an hour’s train ride from Barcelona. One could stay in Vilafranca; I did but I would admit that Vilafranca is rather tame in the evening compared with the energy of Barcelona.

Here are notes on some of the wines I tasted, with British Columbia liquor store pricing where available.

Torres Gran Viña Sol 2008: ($17.99 at Everything Wine). This is 85% Chardonnay, 15% Parellada; a wine with a fine aroma, flavours of citrus and a hint of oak, with a crisp, refreshing finish. 88.

Torres Viña Esmeralda 2009 ($14.49). This is 85% Muscat, 15% Gewürztraminer. It is an exotic white with rose petal and spice aromas and with fresh, juicy fruit flavours with a twist of tangerine and spice on the finish. 90. This will be at the wine festival.

Torres Nerola Xarel.lo 2008: This white wine is the first organic wine from Torres (the winemaker is one of Miguel’s daughters). The blend is 80% Xarel.lo and 20% white Grenache. The varietal character seems quite unique, with aromas of citrus and baked apples, flavours of baked apples, yet a lively, fresh finish. 88.

Torres Mas Borràs 2007: This is a Pinot Noir. The wine is full and fleshy, with toasty aromas and cherry flavours. It is appealing bold for the variety. 89-91.

Torres Gran Coronas 2006 Reserva ($19.49): This is 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Tempranillo. The wine has aromas of eucalyptus and red berries, with flavours of currants and with firm, ripe tannins. 88. This will be poured at the festival.

Torres Celeste 2007 ($24.99): This is a Temprenillo from the winery’s vineyards in Ribera Del Duero. It is a bold, dark-hued wine with juicy flavours of black currants and figs frame with toasty oak. 89-91. This will be poured at the festival.

Torres Salmos 2007 ($44.99 at Everything Wine): This is a marvelous red from the Priorat appellation (notable for its big reds). This is a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mazuelo (another name for Carignan). It begins with aromas of black cherries, plums and currants. It shows flavours of figs, prunes and chocolate. It has a big-boned structure and 15% alcohol. This is a wine for cellaring if you can find it. It is not among the 10 Torres wines currently in the British Columbia liquor stores. 91-93. This will be poured for the trade at the wine festival and some will be available in the on-site liquor store.

Torres Moscatel Oro NV ($22.99 for 500 ml in Everything Wine): This is a fortified dessert wine with delicious butterscotch and brandy flavours; it is not at all overly sweet and also would be a fine apéritif. 88.

Photo: Old vineyard plough at Torres

Monday, January 24, 2011

Herder - big wines in big bottles

Since opening in 2004, Herder Winery & Vineyards has acquired a loyal following for its wines, perhaps even a cult following.

The appeal is that the wines, especially the reds, are big and full of flavour. That is why California-trained Lawrence Herder (who once had a winery in Paso Robles) set up in the sun-bathed Similkameen Valley. He can grow big wines there. When he needs to supplement his own vineyards, he purchases grapes from the south Okanagan, another source of ripe, flavour-packed grapes.

The latest three wines released by Herder reflect this style. So do the weighty bottles. The Syrah in particular is in a heavy bowling-pin shaped bottle with such a deep punt that it reminded me of the Bowser & Blue’s Ballad of the Colorectal Surgeon, one of the funniest songs I have heard. Check it out on You Tube.

These are serious wines, to be sure, but one does not need to be entirely earnest about them!

Herder Chardonnay 2009 ($19). Half of this wine was aged in stainless steel, half in French oak. The barrels had added a smoky note to the finish. It has aromas of citrus and pineapples, with flavours of tangerine, nectarine and guava. The texture is full. Even with all the fruit and texture, the wine’s 13.4% alcohol is a little warming on the finish. 3,600 bottles produced. 87.

Herder Merlot 2008 ($35). Dark in colour, this bold red starts with aromas of vanilla, red berries and spice. It has flavours of black currants and blackberries, with a rich, concentrated texture and firm ripe tannins. The finish is long and satisfying. 1,248 bottles produced. 91.

Herder Syrah 2008 ($35). This is as much a blood transfusion as a wine. It is a big juicy red with aromas of vanilla and red berries. On the palate, there are gamey flavours, ranging all the way from black cherry to rare steak with a touch of white pepper on the finish. The texture is rich and concentrated. 1,620 bottles produced. 90.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Clos du Soleil's new releases from the hand of Ann Sperling

Photo: Spencer Massie (l), Ann Sperling, Les Le Quelenc (r)

When a Clos du Soleil red won the icon wine tasting at the SIP VQA store in Richmond last fall, many of the tasters had never even heard of this small Similkameen winery.

That’s not surprising. The winery began selling its first vintage, 2007, in 2008 and the production volume was modest. Collectors, a handful of restaurants and friends of the owners quickly snapped up what wine was available.

However, production is growing gradually. The winery’s Similkameen vineyard now is close to full production. The winery also has plans to open its first tasting room ever at its property on Upper Bench Road, just outside Keremeos.

Clos du Soleil is also venturing into doing winemaker dinners, starting with one at the Salt Restaurant in Gastown on February 22.

So who is Clos du Soleil? It is a winery owned by four couples. Spencer Massie, a retired Canadian naval officer, and his wife, Bonnie (a physician), are the most visible of the four.

The other partners are Ottawa-based Gus Kramer, a former naval colleague of Spencer, and Lisa Underhill; Peter and Andria Lee, a Vancouver business couple; and Calgarian oil executives Leslie Le Quelenec and his partner, Sue Lee.

Spencer went to high school in Kelowna with Ann Sperling, now Clos du Soleil’s winemaker. However, he acquired his passion for wine during his 21 years in the navy (he retired in 2000). His shipmates relied on him to order wines for the mess and to host Port tastings.

After he and Bonnie moved to Vancouver in 2005, he began looking for vineyard property for the Clos du Soleil project. Two years later he found a 10-acre orchard. He hired Lawrence Herder, one of the owners of Herder Vineyards, to plant Bordeaux varieties and to make the first Clos wines.

When Lawrence scaled back his consulting to focus on the new Herder winery he was building next door, Spencer engaged his former classmate to make the wine.

Ann Sperling grew up on her family’s Kelowna vineyard and, after university, began her illustrious winemaking career at André's Wines and then CedarCreek before moving to Ontario. There, she has been involved with several leading producers and currently is the winemaker for Southbrook.

A few years ago, she also resumed her Okanagan career, launching Sperling Vineyards with her family and taking on consulting winemaking contracts with Camelot Vineyards and Clos du Soleil, beginning with the 2008 vintage.

Each winery has its own style, reflecting both vineyard terroir and the focus of the owners. At Clos du Soleil, the owners have cultivated palates for Bordeaux wines and that is mirrored in the style of the wines.

The winery’s inaugural releases were simply named White and Red. The second generation has gained sophistication on the labels. Capella replaces White: the name is taken from a star that can be seen from the vineyard during the Similkameen’s clear nights.

Clos du Soleil Capella 2008 ($26.90). This is a blend of 95% Sauvignon Blanc with five per cent Sémillon. The style reminds one of Graves, in keeping with the French palates of the owners. The wine begins with honeyed aromas of tropical fruits. On the palate, there are flavours of green apples and melons. 90.

Clos du Soleil Signature 2008 ($38.90). This disciplined red, reminiscent of a Bordeaux red, is built for cellaring. It is a blend of 52% Merlot, 26% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Cabernet Franc and 9% Malbec. It was aged 18 months in oak (80% French, 20% American, and only 11 barrels – about 275 cases – was made. The wine has aromas of red and black currants with a Bordelaise hint of cigar box. In the glass it opens to show a lovely core of sweet berry flavours. It has a backbone of firm, ripe tannins. 90

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Black Widow and other stars of Taste BC

Photo: Black Widow's Shona and Dick Lancaster

For habitués of major wine tastings in British Columbia, the drought lasts from Cornucopia in Whistler early in November until Liberty Wine Merchants sponsors Taste B.C. in Vancouver in mid-January.

Those who attend both events have the chance to taste wines from 60 or 70 British Columbia wineries and, in the case of Cornucopia, from a good contingent of international producers.

The massive tasting at Cornucopia takes place over two evenings. Taste B.C., which formerly was known as the B.C. Wine and Oyster Festival, runs just one evening.

With either format, there is never enough time to taste all the wines. A wine taster’s life is hard, indeed.

It is made harder, in fact, when the supplied tasting glasses are hotel banquet glasses, which is the best that the Hyatt Regency Hotel can do for Taste B.C. Those are wine-destroying glasses. That would have been evident to anyone who borrowed stemware from Riedel table on the tasting room floor or from those clever enough to bring their own stemware.

The Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival replaced banquet glasses four or five years ago. The convention centre at Whistler has adequate tasting glasses. It is about time that the Hyatt raised its standards.

Even with a clunky glass in hand, it was possible to indentify stars among the wines I had time to taste at Taste B.C. Here are my notes.

Black Widow Hourglass 2008: ($35.90). Black Widow is a small Naramata Road winery opened several years ago by Dick and Shona Lancaster. He is a former long-time home winemaker with the touch of a professional. This wine, 92% Merlot, eight per cent Cabernet Sauvignon, is a deep, rich red with flavours of blackberry, black currants and figs; and the structure to age well and develop further complexity. 90.

Fairview Cellars Cabernet Franc 2009 ($N.A.). Bill Eggert, the owner and winemaker at Fairview Cellars, makes some of the Okanagan’s best Cabernet Franc. This has not yet been released. It shows the classic lively, brambly flavours and vivacious personality of the variety. 90.

Fairview Cellars Two Hoots 2008 ($N.A.). The iconoclastic name of this red blend is the creation of a winemaker so confident in what he does that he does not give two hoots what anyone else thinks. As if! Well, this is a delicious wine with flavours of plum, black currants and boysenberries. 90.

Kettle Valley Barber Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 ($35). Firm and concentrated, this dark wine has a hint of mint and lots of red fruit on the nose. On the palate, there are flavours of blackberries, currants and figs. The finish is long. 91.

Lake Breeze Vineyards Seven Poplars Sauvignon Blanc 2009 ($22). All 400 cases of this splendid wine are sold out but you might find some in restaurants. This is an intense wine, with aromas and flavours of lime and grapefruit and a finish that won’t quit. 91.

Mt. Boucherie Gamay Noir 2009 ($14.99). This is a delicious wine and good value, soft in texture with flavours of blackberry, plum and black currant and with a long, fruity finish. 89.

Pentâge 2006 ($28). This is the flagship red blend from Penticton’s Pentâge Winery. It is a blend of 46% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc, 2.5% Syrah and 1.5% Gamay. Approachable now, this red is also built for cellaring, with a backbone of firm, ripe tannins. It has aromas of black currants and flavours of blackberry and cherry supported by oak and by earthy undertones. 90.

Road 13 Stemwinder 2009 ($21.99). This is a complex white blend with herbal and fruity aromas and with a core of tropical fruit flavours. The finish lingers and lingers. 91.

Road 13 Rockpile 2008 ($24.99). A blended red, this wine is full and rich, with flavours of plum, olive, tobacco and chocolate and, again, a long finish. 91.

Seven Stones Pinot Noir 2008 ($27.99). This is a lovely wine, with aromas and flavours of strawberry and with a silky texture. It suffered from being in the banquet glass which does such a poor job at delivering the aroma. 90.

The View Red Shoe Red 2009 ($14.50). Here is a great value, easy-drinking red from The View Winery in Kelowna. It is a blend based on Pinotage. The wine is generous in texture, with spicy plum and blueberry flavours. 89.

Young & Wyse 2009 Black Label 33-30-24-13 ($26.90). Don’t be deterred by a label which reminds one of motor oil. That’s the blend: 33% Merlot, 30% Syrah, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon and 13% Cabernet Franc. It is a delicious blend, beginning with aromas of mint, pepper and red berries and delivering a rich palate of fruit flavours with a long finish. 92.

There were many other interesting wines in the testing that I have reviewed in my blog over the past year.

One advantage of Cornucopia over Taste BC (aside from the stemware) is the presence of wineries from other countries, allowing consumers to compare B.C. wines with international wines.

I recall tasting a very good 2009 Pinot Gris from Duck Pond, a winery in Oregon. Then I went around the room to taste British Columbia Pinot Gris to recommend to the owner of Duck Pond. I recommended that he should try those from See Ya Later Ranch and Ex Nihilo, for starters.

There is no doubt that British Columbia wines stack up very well, and often better, than the competition.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Stag's Hollow releases icon wines for 15th anniversary

Photo: Larry Gerelus (left) and winemaker Dwight Sick

Stag’s Hollow Winery at Okanagan Falls is marking its 15th anniversary by releasing two icon wines, an elegant pair of red blends from winemaker Dwight Sick.

The wines also show the significant impact that Dwight has been making on Stag’s Hollow since joining the winery in 2008.

The winery was opened in 1996 by Larry Gerelus and Linda Pruegger on a vineyard they purchased in 1992. They were undertaking a major career switch from the corporate fast lane in Calgary. Trained as an actuary, Larry was an independent financial consultant while Linda worked in the marketing department of an oil company.

“We started with a lot of passion, naïve passion,” Larry said this week at the launch of Cachet Limited Edition No. 01 and Cachet Limited Edition No. 02, as the wines are called.

The estate vineyard, now eight acres, was then planted entirely to Chasselas and Vidal and was under contract to Mission Hill until 1994. Larry redeveloped the vineyard, grafting Chasselas and most of the Vidal to Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir and, inadvertently, a little Cabernet Sauvignon. He got Merlot cuttings from the Summerland research station, which mislabelled some Cabernet Sauvignon as Merlot.

When the winery’s Vidal table wine acquired a strong following, some of the grafts were reversed so that more Vidal could be made.

By grafting rather than replanting, Larry had the vineyard back into full production in a couple of years.

Larry recalls getting “bored” with his portfolio. He wanted to add another white but not Pinot Gris, which virtually everyone else in the Okanagan was doing. In 2002, he had the good luck to find a grower with Sauvignon Blanc, now one of the flagship white wines at Stag’s Hollow.

In 2005, when a new winery was built, an unused gulley in the vineyard was re-contoured for vines. Larry decided to plant Tempranillo because it was something different (there was only one other planting in the Okanagan at the time) and because it ripens early. Without intending it, he had planted a building block for one of the Cachet wines.

Over the years, a number of consulting winemakers have worked in the Stag’s Hollow cellar, including Bruce Ewart (now with his own winery in Nova Scotia), Jeff Martin (owner of La Frenz Winery), Michael Bartier (now starting his own winery), Brad Cooper (now at Township 7), Dave Frederick (recently at Mt. Boucherie and now in Ontario) and, since June, 2008, Dwight Sick.

Dwight arrived just after Larry and Linda had tried to sell the winery, a deal that died after the buyer’s financing fell apart. They regrouped, swept up, perhaps, by Dwight’s enthusiasm for Rhone grape varieties. Additional vineyards have been placed under contract so that volume could be increased to about 6,000 cases a year. And Dwight has been given the freedom to craft artisanal wines.

Winemaking is also a second career for Dwight. Now 45, Dwight was born in Alberta. After high school he became a flight attendant with Wardair, one of the carriers ultimately swallowed up by Air Canada. In 2005, after 19 years in aviation, he was among those offered a package to retire.

He decided to become a winemaker, having developed an interest in wine and wineries during his flying career. He started as a cellar hand with Michael Bartier, then at Township 7, and soon became assistant winemaker at Pentâge Winery where he worked until moving to Stag’s Hollow.

A natural talent, his professional skills are an eclectic mix of university science courses, University of California winemaking courses and training at Okanagan College. “I have only had time to take courses that I have felt were useful to my role as a winemaker but I would love to continue to take more in the future,” he says.

The Cachet program began in Dwight’s inaugural 2008 vintage at Stag’s Hollow, when the winery got its first harvest of Tempranillo. He put together a blend of 40% Tempranillo, 35% Merlot, 20% Syrah and five per cent Cabernet Sauvignon. The winery ordered American oak barrels from a Spanish cooper because in Spain, Tempranillo wines generally are aged in American oak.

Only 1,500 bottles of 2008 Cachet No. 01 have been released (each bottle individually number). It is a big, full-bodied red with flavours of pomegranate, red and black currants and spice. The ripe tannins give the wine an age-worthy structure. 92.

Dwight, who considers Grenache “one of the most underrated grapes in the world,” persuaded the winery in 2009 to buy the Grenache grown at the Kiln House Vineyard at Penticton. That may be one of the most northerly Grenache plantings in the world of this late-ripening Rhone variety.

Dwight co-fermented this Grenache (there is only a small planting) with Syrah, Viognier and Marsanne to produce 450 bottles of 2009 Cachet No. 02. The blend is half Grenache, 46% Syrah, plus tiny portions of the two whites. This bold, juicy wine has flavours of plum, fig and liquorice, with a hint of spice and pepper and with a long, satisfying finish. 93.

Future releases under the Cachet Limited Edition program, all of which will bear consecutive numbering, will be, as Larry says, “dictated by what nature gives us.”

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Current releases from St. Hubertus Estate Winery

The recent report on the British Columbia wine industry by Simon Fraser University professor Andy Hira commented on the vulnerability of some wineries due to astronomical prices for vineyard land.

While that is so for newer wineries, it does not apply to the long-established producers such St. Hubertus & Oak Bay Estate Winery of Kelowna. Leo and Andy Gebert opened this winery in 1991, based on vineyard they had acquired in the mid-1980s. The wine industry at the time was anything but overheated. By today's standards, land was cheap.

Very few producers have a real estate cost base as favourable as St. Hubertus. It shows in the prices of their wines, very few of which sell for more than $20 a bottle. And it is obvious that the two Swiss-born brothers and their families are making a living. They are even able to afford some vineyard toys: Andy uses a remote-controlled helicopter with a camera for quick surveys of the vineyard.

There is a lot of history attached to the St. Hubertus property, including some that is tragic. The vineyard dates from about 1928, as one of five planted by J.W. Hughes, a pioneering grape grower. It was taken over by Frank Schmidt, one of his foremen, who grew grapes for Beau Sejour (one of the many names under which Victoria-based Growers Wines operated.

At one point in the 1960s, Growers had him plant a table grape called Himrod. It made such good wine compared with the labrusca varieties then in use that Schmidt was forbidden to give plants to anyone else. The company promised the wine would make him famous. Perhaps infamous would have been more like it. They released the wine as Canadian Liebfraumilch. When the German wine industry threatened to litigate (rightly so), the name was changed to Rhine Castle. And Schmidt was allowed to sell plants (six for $5) all across western Canada to home gardeners.

In subsequent years, even better grape varieties replaced the Himrod. By 2003, there was just one Himrod vine on the property, a massive vine behind Leo's house. It was trained to stretch for many yards and was heavy with tasty clusters of grapes every summer. Winery visitors even were allowed to pick a few bunches.

In early September of 2003 the Okanagan Park wildfire swept through the vineyard, following a dry creek. It destroyed Leo's house, along with the Himrod vine. It also burned down the winery.

Fortunately, the brothers are very organized. Except for a few barrels, all the wines from the previous vintage had been bottled before the fire and moved to a nearby warehouse, which did not burn. A new tasting room opened in the warehouse within 10 days. Good insurance coverage enabled the brothers to build a new winery and a new home for Leo and his family.

Their peers in the wine industry helped the brothers get grapes to make their 2003 wines. The grapes on their own vines were totally unusable due to smoke taint on the skins. In fact, the grapes were so unappealing, Andy said later, that even the birds refused to eat them.

After that season, St. Hubertus tweaked the varieties in its vineyard. Other than that, the business has moved ahead with few hitches other than winemaker turnover. Even that seems not to have upset the consistency of the winery's style.

Here are notes of some of the current wines available online and in private wine stores.

St. Hubertus Chasselas 2009 ($15.99). Since this grape is the primary white grown in Swiss vineyards, it seems at home here as well. The St. Hubertus style is soft and quaffable, beginning floral and herbal aromas and delivering flavours of honeydew and peach. Because the acidity is soft, the finish seems off-dry. The only other winery with this variety is Quails' Gate; that winery blends Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris with the Chasselas as a way of achieving a more complex white with a crisper finish. But let's not quibble: St. Hubertus has made a crowd pleaser. 86.

St. Hubertus Pinot Blanc 2009 ($13.99). This is a textbook example of unoaked Pinot Blanc - a refreshing and crisp white with flavours of pears and apples. What you would have tasted on the vine has been delivered in the bottle. 88.

St. Hubertus Dry Riesling 2009 ($14.99). The vineyard has the good fortune that at least some of its Riesling vines date from 1978. That would account for the backbone of minerals here, along with a slight whiff of petrol, a sign of a serious Riesling. There are herbal aromas and flavours of citrus. It is a nicely balanced wine with a moderate 12.2% alcohol. 89.

Oak Bay Pinot Noir 2007 ($14.99). Oak Bay generally refers to oak-aged wines from St. Hubertus. This is a medium-bodied wine with spice and berries on the nose, with bright cherry flavours and with pepper on the finish. 87.

Oak Bay Marechal Foch 2009 ($18.99). This variety has always produced one of the biggest reds from St. Hubertus. This is a dark wine with the typical gamey flavours of the variety, along with black cherries and with a satisfying hit of chocolate on the finish. 88.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A wake-up call for BC wineries from SFU

Somewhere in the Okanagan wine industry, there are vintners who told researchers from Simon Fraser University that “there was nothing new in winemaking, so [there is] no need for innovation knowledge.”

That mule-headed sentiment is both astonishing and disturbing.

And that is not the only disturbing finding in a paper on the B.C. wine industry by SFU political scientists Andy Hira and Alexis Bwenge.

The paper, 62 pages plus references, was released this week on Prof. Hira’s web site: title: The Wine Industry in British Columbia: A Closed Wine But Ready for Harvest.

The report raised issues about the long-term competitiveness of the B.C. wine industry. “Though the B.C. industry has had remarkable success, we focus on issues on the horizon that threaten the possibilities for growth and stability in the industry,” the authors write.

They note what they call “the makings of a quiet gold rush” on the Okanagan (the study focuses primarily on the Okanagan). I would think that understates the continuing expansion of an industry in which the number of producers has grown by five times in a decade. There are now more than 200 wineries in British Columbia when one includes fruit wineries and honey wineries. At least eight more will be opening this spring.

“The question becomes, then, at what point will growth decelerate or reach a plateau,” the authors say.

Then they lay out where the industry is vulnerable and why; and it goes well beyond winemakers with no curiosity.

* First, there is the vulnerability that new wineries are exposed to because “the cost of land [in the Okanagan] has risen astronomically.”

Most wineries, especially those that have opened since 2005, are small, often owning less than 20 acres and producing only a few thousand cases. These producers do not have much opportunity to reduce their costs if there is a crunch from, say, a rise in interest rates.

* Most wineries sell almost all of their wine in British Columbia. “Therefore, lack of diverse markets is clearly a huge vulnerability for BC wines that led a number of interviewees to express their concern about the future of the industry,” the authors write. A number said that “the saturation point is coming close.”

In fact, I have seen evidence that it is here. Recently, I discussed the 2010 vintage with one producer. His winery harvested less than half the tonnage that it had in the two previous vintages. Many other wineries also had smaller harvests in 2010. Yet the producer I spoke to said it was not altogether a bad thing since the industry now will be able to sell the growing surplus of wine from the 2008 and 2009 vintages.

* A lot of wineries count on wine tourists to buy a substantial volume of their wines. That is one reason, Prof. Hira says, that there is not as much urgency as one would expect about developing markets beyond British Columbia.

“Reliance on just one revenue stream in a market where many suppliers are entering is, needless to say, another potential vulnerability,” he points out.

* Most wineries benefit from government preferences that make it easier and more profitable to sell in the domestic market than is the case for international competitors. For example, wine that bears the VQA seal and is sold directly to consumers escapes the heavy markups that the Liquor Distribution Branch imposes on imports. “ … Even BC wine that is sold in government stores receives a portion of the markup back as a rebate through the VQA Support Program or Quality Enhancement Program,” Prof. Hira notes.

Obviously, any change in that environment would send shock waves through the industry. “Industry participants seem to take the status quo for granted however,” Prof. Hira writes.

* Developing markets beyond British Columbia is not easy. Direct shipping to consumers and restaurateurs, an obvious outlet, is prohibited under a 1928 federal law effectively enforced by provincial liquor boards.

Secondly, export initiatives run up against the fact that “Canadian wines lack any clear reputation or branding …” the professor writes. “Interviews with a couple of winemakers who are producing wines for export markets revealed a complete lack of policy support for such efforts, especially stark if one compares to the high level of export promotional efforts of other winemaking clusters …. Considerably stronger federal, provincial and industry initiatives are needed in this area.”

* The British Columbia wine industry’s organization is fractured at best. One winemaker told Prof. Hira that he chats with his colleagues when and if he sees them in the local pub. “Several indicated that only once in a blue moon did they even interact with neighbours, such as to borrow equipment.” This reflects remarkable insularity.

There are numerous industry associations, none of which represent the entire industry. Local clusters of wineries recently have formed their own marketing groups. The notable success is the Naramata Bench Wineries Association. It remains to be seen whether the other nascent groups will develop a similar profile. Prof. Hira does not think so.

“… None of these associations have anywhere near the critical mass to develop the collective institutions and policies needed to address the vulnerabilities of the industry.”

One might expect this to be the role of the British Columbia Wine Institute. Unfortunately, the BCWI has insufficient funding. As well, a significant number of wineries are not BCWI members.

* Prof. Hira reports that “training opportunities for BC wine personnel are quite limited. A surprising number of wine personnel, including winemakers, come from another background and have had limited formal training… there is no university-led training institute.” In the winery sample SFU worked with, only about 30% of the winery personnel had formal training.

* He also warns about the lack of co-ordination between the Summerland research station (known as PARC) and the Wine Research Institute at the University of British Columbia. “PARC is spread far too thin, covering a wide variety of crops with just a handful of experts. In addition, PARC’s policy of controlling 100% of all intellectual property disseminating from its research efforts, even if collaborative, effectively prohibits research with UBC.”

That said, there seems not to be energetic demand from the wineries for “local” research. “The lack of recognition of the potential value of research was revealed early on in [this] project, with the lack of response, or even hostility, to responding to interview requests, including the support institutions,” Prof. Hira complained.

The professor argues that without a “cluster policy” – which is another way of saying without a lot more cooperation among all of the stakeholders – “the vulnerabilities noted above could lead to major problems in the industry.”

His conclusion is pessimistic. “In general, the policy literature tells us that major policy change does not occur unless there is a crisis.”

Tinhorn Creek releases solid 2008 wines and projects good wines from the 2010 vintage

The South Okanagan will get another winery restaurant in April when Tinhorn Creek opens its Miradoro Restaurant under the management of Le Gavroche proprietor Manuel Ferreira.

The restaurant plans have been underway for about two years. Sandra Oldfield, the winemaker and co-proprietor, had the formal announcement late last year while presiding over a dinner to show off the winery’s latest releases.

It has become something of a tradition for her to speak to the winery’s autumn releases at Le Gavroche, a French restaurant in Vancouver that was opened in 1979. This restaurant established a fine reputation that has endured for more than 30 years. That creates considerable anticipation about Miradoro. The restaurant, which will seat 65 inside and as many outside in fine weather, is to operate 10 months a year. It will close only in January and February.

Construction of the restaurant began just as Tinhorn Creek finished its grape harvest on October 28. That was one of the latest harvests in the winery’s history. “This really was a difficult harvest,” Sandra said about the 2010 vintage.

Some of the challenge was self-inflicted. Early last year, Andrew Moon, the winery’s new Australian vineyard manager, decided to remedy what he believed were poor pruning practises in the 130 acres of vineyards. His actions had the one-time effect of reducing the crop yield to about one tonne an acre compared with a normal yield of three to four tonnes an acres.

The winery brought in about 200 tonnes of grapes and, for the first time in its history, purchased grapes – about 150 tonnes. That may also have been a one-time purchase because the winery’s vineyards should produce normal tonnages again in 2011.

As it turns out, the big reduction in Tinhorn’s own yields was “a blessing in disguise,” as Sandra wrote the winery’s current newsletter. “This was the prefect year in which to have a low crop,” Sandra told her audience at Le Gavroche. “We ended up with pretty awesome wine.”

The growing season in 2010 was perverse. It began late with a cool spring and continued through a summer that was sporadically cool and wet. By August, and probably earlier, growers were concerned that they might not ripen the grapes properly. Most also began reducing the crop left on the vines so that the vines could ripen what remained.

As an example of an extreme reaction to the lousy weather, Poplar Grove Winery dropped so much crop that its final harvest was 80 tons, down from 200 tones in 2009. (Some of that reflected damage to young vines from the October 2009 frost as well.) Poplar Grove winemaker Ian Sutherland speculates that overall grape production in the Okanagan and Similkameen was down as much as 50% on average – and certainly was 20% down at least from 2009.

The irony is that the 2010 growing weather turned around in mid-September and the valleys enjoyed long Indian Summers. “Even Cabernet Sauvignon got ripe,” Ian said. And the cooler summer favoured certain varieties. Sandra comments that the “star” in Tinhorn’s cellar is Pinot Gris.

Since the 2010 wine production is generally lower than in earlier years, one might want to stock up from the abundant vintages now available. One would be well rewarded by adding some of Tinhorn Creek’s current releases to the cellar.

There are two ranges here. The reserve wines are released under the Oldfields Series label to set them apart from the higher volume varietals.

Here are some notes on the wines:

Oldfields Series 2 Bench White ($22.99). This wine is a blend of 44% Chardonnay, 26% Sauvignon Blanc, 17% Sémillon, 12% Viognier and 1% Muscat. Fresh and crisp on the finish, this is a wine with complex flavours of melon, apricot and citrus. 88.

Oldfields Series Merlot 2007 ($24.99). This wine’s dark colour signals its concentrated texture. It is a brooding, muscular red, boldly oaked, with flavours of plums and black currants. This wine deserves to be cellared for another five years. 90-92.

Oldfields Series 2 Bench Red ($29.99 but sold out). The winery released only 350 cases of this wine, its first Bordeaux blend. It is 42% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Merlot and 29% Cabernet Franc. It is an elegant wine with aromas of mint, and currants and flavours of sweet berry fruit with a touch of chocolate and spice on the finish. 91.

Oldfields Series Syrah 2007 ($29.99). This wine begins with aromas of blueberries and mulberries. On the palate, it is both meaty and fruity, with notes of pepper and with firm ripe tannins. The winery made only 500 cases. The wine should be cellared another two or three years. The 2005 version of this wine, which was also tasted at the Le Gavroche dinner, has blossomed into a 94 point wine. For the moment, I give the 2007 Syrah 91 points, with potential to grow in the cellar.

Oldfields Series Kerner Icewine 2009 ($29.99 for 200 ml). Here is a delicious and affordable icewine. It begins with pineapple aromas; this carries over to the palate where pineapple flavours mingle with raisin, caramel and baked apple. The acidity is fresh but not aggressive. 89.

Tinhorn Creek Cabernet Franc 2008 ($17.99). The winery generally makes a very solid red with this variety. This is a particularly delicious example, with blackberry and black currant aromas and flavours plus a touch of black cherry. The long ripe tannins contribute to the satisfying richness on the palate. 90.

Tinhorn Creek Merlot 2008 ($17.99). Like all of Tinhorn’s wines (except for the Icewine), this is closed with a screw cap. Don’t be too casual with the wine: do it a favour and decant it. In my experience, it showed the rich and juicy flavours of plum and currants when the half bottle left over from the tasted was retasted on the second day. 87-89.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Saturna winery is back on the market

Photo: Vineyard on Saturna Island

The latest list of British Columbia vineyard real estate from Sotheby’s International Realty Canada includes Saturna Island Family Estate Winery, priced at $9.7 million.

Larry Page, the Vancouver lawyer who owns the winery, has had it on and off the market several times in recent years. Colliers International listed the property in 2005. In 2010, Allan Mark Angell, a Vancouver realtor of luxury properties, listed the winery at $15 million. In between listings, Page also has negotiated with potential investors in a search for partners in what is the largest vineyard on any of the Gulf Islands.

If Sotheby’s is more successful, it might reflect the value added to the property by the talented young South Africans who managed the vineyard and the winemaking from August 2008 until last month. Winemaker Danny Hattingh and his partner, Megan DeVillieres, a viticulturist, have now left to travel in South America.

Their replacement is Hooman Baradaran, a British-trained winemaker whose previous posting in British Columbia was at St. Hubertus Estate Winery in the Okanagan.

Saturna has had unfortunate personnel problems throughout its history. Larry Page and some partners had acquired property on the island, primarily for the development of housing along the western shore. That left 78 acres of inland property, which was agricultural. Over a lunch with a Vancouver restaurateur, Jean-Luc Bertrand, Page conceived of developing a winery.

In 1995, Jean-Luc began planting the vineyard. Two years later, before planting was complete, he died suddenly. Eric von Krosigk, a consulting winemaker from the Okanagan, was hired to complete the work and to make Saturna’s first wines (from Okanagan grapes). When Eric closed his consulting business several years later, the winery retained former Mission Hill winemaker Daniel Lagnaz. A few years ago, ill health forced Daniel to step aside.

Fortunately for the winery, Danny and Megan were circulating their résumés through the Canadian wine industry in the summer of 2008. Larry responded quickly, recognizing talent when he saw it.

Photo: Megan DeVillieres, Danny Hattingh

Both have diplomas from the Cape Institution for Agricultural Training at Elsenburg, Megan having spent two years in law school before deciding that, like her partner, she preferred working with plants. Danny had also picked up practical experience from 2005 to 2007 at six South African wineries and at Domaine Drouhin in Oregon. He and Megan first came to Canada to visit his stepfather, a doctor in Dawson Creek. Charmed with Canada, they returned promptly to explore wine regions in Nova Scotia, Ontario and British Columbia.

They took charge of a property in need disciplined management. The underperforming vineyard was producing about 18 tons of grapes from 42 acres of vines, enough for perhaps 1,000 cases of wine but not enough for a viable business.

Danny and Megan did the best they could in 2008, having arrived after most of the critical decisions were made in the vineyard. Their interventions did improve the wines. In 2009, which happened to be one of the best vintages on the coast in a decade, they harvested 34 tons of grapes and made good wine.

In fact, Saturna’s 2009 wines, available at the winery and in private wine stores, are among the best ever made here. They include a tangy unoaked Chardonnay, a tropical-tasting Pinot Gris, and an appealing Pinot Noir Rosé and a serviceable rosé from the Merlot block that always struggles to get ripe. There is a
a good barrel-aged Pinot Noir not yet released.

And Danny made 50 cases of a sparkling Chardonnay. He was incredulous that the winery had never made sparkling wine even though island grapes lend themselves to such wines.

The 2010 vintage was much cooler and wetter than 2009. Even so, the South Africans coaxed 40 tons of grapes from the vines. Undoubtedly, they left some good wine from that vintage for the new winemaker.

Photo: Hooman Baradaran
Born in Germany in 1973 of Iranian parents, Hooman came to wine after a degree in hotel management and while working as a sommelier in leading European hotels (Claridge’s in London, for example). He also worked with a London wine retailer.

Those experiences led him to winemaking. He debated between studying at Geisenheim or Australia until learning that Brighton University had a winemaking program as well. It was “three years hard core viticulture and enology,” Hooman recalls.

“Our lecturer was a French British guy who had worked as a winemaker in Sauternes,” he says. “We had another winemaker from Australia; a viticulturalist from New Zealand. We had our own winery. We are able to make different wines, including sparkling. It was scientific as well as practical. We also had to drive tractors and work in the vineyard as well as do our scientific lectures.”

While taking the winemaking degree, he did vintages in Greece, Germany and Washington State, during which time he discovered the Okanagan wine region. He worked at St. Hubertus from 2008 to early 2010.

He will need his experience and his skills to keep Saturna at least at the level achieved by Danny and Megan. Given the usual winemaker’s pride, he will want to move it higher.

And that might help Sotheby’s find a new owner – although there is not a great deal of movement in the British Columbia wine market.

Sotheby’s also lists two other island wineries. Morning Bay Vineyard on Pender Island, directly across the water from Saturna, went on the market last year for $2.9 million. Blue Grouse Estate Winery in the Cowichan Valley, which has been on the market now for several years, has a current asking price of $2,750,000.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Norton grape is championed in print

Several years ago, a dinner guest from Washington, D.C., brought a red wine from Virginia made with a grape called Norton.

It was likely the only bottle of Norton in British Columbia at the time. Virginia wines never make it into this market or, for that matter, into many other markets. The Norton varietal is almost unknown to Canadian wine consumers.

That is unfortunate. This is one of the few indigenous grapes yielding a good table wine. I remember our wine to be plumy and rich, vaguely comparable to Merlot or Carmenère. I would buy it again if I ever saw a bottle.

The varietal’s almost total lack of profile has been repaired by one of 2010’s more interesting wine books: The Wild Vine: A forgotten grape and the untold story of American wine by Todd Kliman. Some 280 pages long, it is published by Clarkson Potter of New York and lists for $29.95 in Canada. I spotted a few copies recently at Indigo and it certainly is available through Indigo’s website.

The grape was created by Daniel Norton. A doctor by profession, and not a very happy doctor, he acquired a Virginia farm as the dowry when he married. He spent much of the rest of his relatively short life (47 years) dabbling in horticulture. “He planted a wide variety of grapes, native and foreign alike, and an array of other fruits and vegetables …,” Kliman writes. “One of his consuming passions involved the crossbreeding of varieties to produce a hardy, disease-resistant grape that would, in addition, make a supple drinkable wine.”

The odds are very long against many successful wine grapes emerging from such breeding programs. How many wineries still produce wines from the De Chaunac or Rougeon grape, to name two developed a century ago by French plant breeders.

About 1821, one of Norton’s crosses produced the variety later named for him. His paperwork was less than adequate; Kliman speculates on what was crossed with what. Nothing is conclusive except that the new grape could handle the Virginia climate which had destroyed the European varieties; and the wine he eventually made was palatable, unlike the wines made from the native labrusca grapes. He was able to get the variety listed in a famous plant catalogue in 1822. By time he died in 1842, others were taking up the grape.

The early champions included German settlers at Hermann, Missouri. A colony had been established there; incentives were given for wine growing and Norton was one of the varieties planted. “By 1870 Missouri led the nation in wine production,” Kliman writes. And Norton wine made by a Missouri winery won a gold medal in a Vienna competition in 1873. Five years later, a Norton won another gold in Paris.

Kliman says that the golden age for Norton was 1870 to 1890. Norton wine was lauded not just for its taste but also for its presumed healthfulness as “the best medicinal wine in America.”

Why did Norton stop being the most famous red in America? Firstly, the California wine industry emerged, overwhelming the market with good wines that were cheaper than those from Missouri. Some Norton was planted in California but the variety did not thrive there.

Secondly, Prohibition virtually wiped out wine growing in Missouri (California’s growers survived by shipping grapes for home winemaking). Ottmar Stark, the largest vintner in Hermann, ordered his vineyards pulled put. “A full decade before the stock market crash of 1929, Hermann was plunged into the Great Depression,” Kliman wrotes.

Some Norton vines survived in what Kliman terms the vineyard of a bootlegger. In 1965 Jim Held, a legitimate vintner obtained cuttings and started bringing the vine and Missouri winemaking back. Missouri has never regained the prominence it once had and the wineries now make a lot of sweet wine from Concord grapes. But they also make commendable Norton (among other varieties). Sometimes, the varietal name is Cynthiana; it is the same grape.

Prohibition pullouts seem to have eradicated Norton entirely from Virginia, its birthplace. In 1988, an individual named Dennis Horton decided to start a winery in Virginia with, among other vines, Norton cuttings he obtained from Held in Missouri. Horton’s first vintage was released in 1992.

Kliman’s book is structured around another vintner who clearly makes stunning Norton and has a passion for the wine that won over Kilman, who initially was sceptical about Norton.

The book has also won me over, even if it is frustrating not to have been able to open a bottle while reading this book.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A tasting of Le Vieux Pin's current releases

While the strategies of sister wineries Le Vieux Pin and LaStella continue to be moving targets, the focus is becoming clearer.

With its current releases, Le Vieux Pin (LVP) offers its last Pinot Noir. In spite of having made a good impression with earlier vintages, the winery management has decided to concentrate on the varieties that perform best in the south Okanagan. The Oliver-based LVP is switching largely to Rhone varieties while Osoyoos-based LaStella is emphasizing Italian and Bordeaux varietals.

This is not exactly hard and fast. The winery also produces wines to suit the opportunity. When the Cactus Club restaurant chain came calling, LVP blended 500 cases of a delicious white called Feenie’s Blend Blanc 2009. It is available almost exclusively through the restaurant chain, with 25 cases held for sale at $19.90 through the LVP web site.

This wine would normally fit into the winery’s introductory range, which include Petit Blanc and Petit Rouge at just over $20 each.

Next up the ladder are the varietals. At the top of the range are the reserve wines, exclusive wines under the Équinox label. Limited in volume, these wines are offered first to members of the LVP wine club and to those on the waiting list. They are priced appropriately.

Whether one buys the introductory wines or the varietals or the pricey exclusive wines, the wines all express their low-yielding vineyards superbly. Some earlier vintages were so exuberantly ripe and fruity that only the intense concentration of the wines masked the daringly high alcohol levels.

“The trend I am enforcing is restraint,” says Rasoul Salehi, the executive director of the wineries. His instruction to the winemakers: “Just tone it down a little.”

In other words, don’t sacrifice elegance just to get power. Intellectually, one agrees with that even if it is great fun to drink the equivalent of a five-litre turbo-charged V8.

Here are notes on some current and coming releases.

Le Vieux Pin Équinoxe Chardonnay ($60). Only 72 cases have been released. This barrel-fermented wine still manages to be a fresh as Chablis. It begins with aromas of citrus, honey and hazelnut and shows citrus and stone fruit flavours. The aromas and flavours blossom in the glass. This is a very elegant wine. 90.

Le Vieux Pin Équinoxe Syrah 2008 ($70). There are 70 cases of this dark, meaty red, a wine with aromas and flavours of plums, black cherries and white peppers. The finish is very long and satisfying. 92.

Le Vieux Pin Équinoxe Cabernet Franc 2007 (Sold out). Only 26 cases were released. The wine is a tour de force with aromas of blackberries and menthol and flavours of lingonberries and red licorice. 95

Le Vieux Pin Syrah 2008 ($45). This is a 487-cases release from young vines on Black Sage Road. It is a lovely wine, with sweet fruit on the palate – plum, black cherry and a touch of black pepper. It is appealingly full-bodied. 90.

Le Vieux Pin Viognier-Roussanne 2009 ($35). The winery has released 360 cases of this exotic and complex white. It begins with aromas of spice, honey suckle and tropical fruit; it tastes of banana, almonds, citrus, marzipan. It has good weight on the palate and a dry finish. 92.

Le Vieux Pin Merlot 2008 ($35). This will be the last Merlot under the LVP label. The winery is releasing about 350 cases this fall. It is a dense, brooding red with flavours of black cherry and plum. The tannins are still a little aggressive but the further bottle aging will round them out. With age, layers of fruit will emerge. 90.

Le Vieux Pin Petit Rouge 2008 ($23). This is an 800-case blend with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and a touch of Pinot Noir. The wine is juicy and appealing, with sweet berry aromas and flavours of black currants and plums. 90.

Le Vieux Pin Pinot Noir “Adieu” 2008 ($35): This wine is so named because it is the winery’s final vintage of Pinot Noir; the long term plan when LVP opened in 2006 was to transition to the Rhone varieties that had been planted in the winery’s new vineyard. This wine – 953 cases have been released – is a memorable goodbye. The wine includes fruit from three Okanagan vineyards – one in the north, one in the central part of the valley and one in the south. That provided winemaker James Cambridge with a balanced palate of flavours, minerality and acidity. The wine begins with aromas of strawberry and raspberry; the flavours lean more to raspberry, with a finish of bright, lively fruit. In the glass, the wine opens gradually to show the classic weight and silky texture of the variety. The structure suggests that the wine will develop even more complexity for those with the patience to cellar it a few years more. 89.

LaStella Fortissimo 2008 ($35). This is a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc with about 8% Sangiovese and aged not in conventional barrels but in large French puncheons. The object is to make a mellow, full-bodied wine with soft tannins. This is a juicy red, with sweet berries in the aroma and with flavours of cherries enhanced with savoury spice. 91.