Wednesday, March 28, 2012

It's all about more dirt at Road 13 Vineyards

Photo: Mick Luckhurst

The slogan at Road 13 Vineyards is: “It’s about the dirt.”

Two vineyard deals this spring by the winery have given co-owner Mick Luckhurst substantially more dirt to farm. The winery purchased a former Vincor vineyard on the Golden Mile, between Road 7 and Road 8; and it has entered into an agreement with the Lower Similkameen Indian Band to develop a new vineyard in the Similkameen Valley.

“We had 43 acres,” Mick says. This will take us to 107 acres, and it is still not enough.” The winery expanded its production last vintage to 30,000 cases from 19,000 cases the year before.

“We are moving awfully fast,” he admits. [This is] nothing we ever had originally in mind. A lot of it is just my temperament: you push ahead.”

Mick has a more fundamental reason for increasing the acreage directly under  his farming control: wine quality.

“We have phenomenal relationships and great grapes from our other growers,” he says. “But we won ten major awards last year. All ten of those wines were made with our grapes. Did that strike home!”

One of the reasons that British Columbia wines are as good as they are is because two-thirds of the vineyards are owned by wineries. Wineries do not always grow better quality grapes than contract growers. However, wineries make their money primarily from wine while growers depend on grapes without the benefit of value-added. Wineries might make crop load decisions in their own vineyards to produce $50 wines whereas it would be marginally economic for a grower to make similar cropping decisions because he does not have the revenue from premium wine sales.

Mick and Pam Luckhurst bought Road 13 (then called Golden Mile Cellars) in 2003 after a business career in building supplies and property development. They had moved to the Okanagan from Edmonton that year and took the summer off. Touring wineries with friends drew them to the lifestyle. They took over a low-key winery that was then making a mere 1,000 cases a year and applied their fierce energy into building the business.

They have benefit from three good winemakers in succession: Lawrence Herder in the first year, the Michael Bartier and, since early last year, Montreal-born J-M Bouchard.

“He such an exceptional guy,” Mick says of J-M. “He is pushing us as well to raise the bar” – as if as hard driver like Mick needs someone to push him.

When Mick decided to buy more vineyard, he approached neighbour Chris Jentsch who has a 53 acre vineyard. The price was out of Mick’s budget. However, Chris suggested looking at the Vincor vineyard, 30 acres with 19 planted. Chris planted that originally in 1999 and then sold it to Vincor in 2004.

Vincor, which relies mostly on vineyard land leased from the Osoyoos Indian Band, had been trying to sell the Golden Mile property for a while and recently reduced the price substantially. “I thought I can’t afford to miss it at that price,” Mick says. “It is on a bench, so it drops the cold, which is the single biggest consideration in the valley in my mind.”

 The property needs upgrades to the irrigation system and some soil remediation. Mick believes he will have it in shape within two years.

The vineyard currently grows 7 ½ acres of Merlot; 3 ¼ each of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris and 4 ½ acres of Gewürztraminer. The Pinot Gris might be replaced with a new clone of Syrah. There is another acre to be planted in the future.

The venture in the Similkameen is more long term, with planting likely to begin in the spring of 2013. Mick thinks it is a bit late this year to order vines and get virgin soil ready for planting.

Unlike Vincor, Mick is not leasing the land. The Lower Similkameen Indian Band, which has never before had a vineyard on the reserve, has set up a limited liability company to prepare the land and order the vines.

“The minute those plants go into the ground, that’s ours,” Mike says. “We farm it.” Road 13’s fee to the Band and the cost of farming the vineyard should add up to the cost of grapes on the open market, with the advantage that Road 13 makes the farming decisions.

 “We pick the plants, the clones and the rootstock, and we can farm it ourselves,” Mick says.

The intention is to plant 15 acres of Merlot, seven or eight of Syrah, at least five acres each of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Gamay, and four acres of Chardonnay. There will be smaller plantings of Mourvedre, Tannat, Carmenère, Petit Verdot and Malbec.

The property is not far from the Seven Stones winery. Mick thinks the topography may not have quite the frost-shedding ability of the Golden Mile vineyard. Care will be taken to plant the hardier varieties in the riskier sections.

This unorthodox arrangement also says something about the high cost of vineyard land in the Okanagan and the Similkameen. While prices peaked before the 2008 correction, they have not come down very much. Mike cites one Osoyoos vineyard listed three years ago at $212,000 an acre and now reduced, but only to $188,000.

“There are lots of farms listed for sale and there are way more that are not listed by guys who are getting older and want to retire,” Mick says. “These people want out but they have already put the money in their pocket.”

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Hillside embraces the Naramata Bench

Photo: Hillside Winery

In 1990, Hillside Winery was one of the first two wineries to open on the Naramata Bench.

 The winery’s early vintages – the first was about 25 cases – were all made with Naramata grapes. As the winery grew under a series of owners, it began purchasing grapes from the south Okanagan as well. But once again, the winery increasingly is embracing the Naramata terroir in its winemaking, notably for its flagship wines: Mosaic, its Bordeaux red icon, and Muscat Ottonel, its cult white wine.

Winemaker Kathy Malone, who moved to Hillside in 2008 after a long career at Mission Hill, sang the praises of the Naramata Bench at a tasting this week for the British Columbia Wine Appreciation Society.

What makes the Naramata Bench unique in the Okanagan is its geography. It is a strip of vineyard land, with fairly complex soil, about 25 km long on the east side of Okanagan Lake. The aspect of most of the bench is a gentle slope facing the west, meaning the vineyards benefit from long days of sunlight, with the lake effect moderating summer heat spikes as well as unseasonable winter cold.

The benefit of the sun is magnified when the rays of late afternoon sun bounce from the lake onto the vines. That can have a pronounced effect, as Kathy noted last fall. In a block of Gamay near the winery, she spotted that bunches on some vines had begun to turn red before fruit on nearby vines. Then she noticed this was true of entire rows. It turns out that those rows get just a little extra exposure to sunlight and the reflected light as the sun sets into a gap in the mountains across the lake.

A small thing, perhaps, but terroir is an accumulation of small things. Even after 30 years of viticulture on the Bench, growers are still discovering details about the terroir. If there is ever going to be a sub-appellation declared for the Bench, a lot of details will need to be nailed down to make the case that the wines are distinctive.

What are the best varieties? That may never be a settled question. Whenever one says that this not the place for Syrah (as an example), you can point to a vineyard block where the variety succeeds. “When I first came to Hillside and they told me they were growing Syrah, I thought they were insane,” Kathy says. After all, Mission Hill grows its Syrah on the Osoyoos Bench and has had some struggles even there.

Hillside grows Syrah in a vineyard above the winery that is something of a heat sink. The winery’s 2008 Syrah, one of the wines at the tasting, displayed the ripe tannins and vibrant fruit flavours that Kathy believes is a mark of the Naramata terroir. The wines she showed to the Society, almost entirely made with Naramata fruit, certainly indicate that Hillside has a good handle on the terroir.

Photo: Winemaker Kathy Malone

Here are some notes.

Hillside Un-oaked Pinot Gris 2009 ($18.99 for a production of 1,000 cases) is so named to distinguish the wine from the winery’s barrel-fermented Reserve Pinot Gris, which includes from fruit from Black Sage Road. Kathy says that Pinot Gris grown on the Naramata Bench makes wines with crisp apple flavours and she did not want to submerge that with the tropical fruit of Black Sage Pinot Gris. And this certainly is a bright, refreshing wine with apple and citrus flavours and with excellent weight on the palate. 88.

Hillside Gewürztraminer 2010 ($18.99 for a production of 685 cases). This is a solid wine, with aromas of spice and grapefruit, flavours of guava and tropical fruit and a dry finish. 90.

Hillside Muscat Ottonel 2011 ($19.99 for a production of 692 cases). Those who snap up this wine every year should know that this is the lowest production in five years (probably because spring conditions impacted badly on flowering and fruit set). The winery made 1,084 cases in 2010 – and that wine sold out. The 2011 shows the usual delicate floral aromas – I say rose petal and the winemaker says baby’s breath. This exotic wine is delicately fruity and is balanced to dryness. 90.

Hillside Rosé 2011 ($18.99). The winery made a virtue from necessity when a block of Merlot refused to ripen enough for a red table wine. It produced a terrific rosé – dark ruby in hue, with aromas and flavours of cherry and strawberry jam. This is about 85% Merlot, with the rest made up of Gamay, Pinot Noir, Malbec and Syrah. 89.

Hillside Gamay Noir 2009 ($24.99). Dark in colour, this is delicious, easy-drinking Gamay spent about nine months in barrel, emerging with round, soft tannins. It has aromas and flavours of black cherries, with a hint of mocha on the finish. 88.

Hillside Pinot Noir 2010 ($24.99 for a production of 300 cases). This is Hillside’s first Pinot Noir and the winery was so impressed with the grapes that fall that it has contracted the vineyard, which is near Naramata. (Several Naramata wineries believe the Bench is great Pinot Noir terroir.) This is a pretty wine with aromas and flavours of raspberry and with a silky texture. You need to join Hillside’s wine club to order this. 89.

Hillside Syrah 2008 ($25.99 for a production of 1,095 cases). This is made with fruit from Hillside’s Hidden Valley vineyard supplemented with a bit of Black Sage fruit. The wine announces itself with a dramatic aroma of spice and vanilla. On the palate, there is a delicious scoop of cherry and vanilla and chocolate, with long, ripe tannins. 90.

Hillside Taylor Vineyard Merlot 2009 and Hillside Hidden Valley Vineyard Merlot 2009 (each $24.99 and each about 200 cases). The vineyards are across the road from each other but produce Merlot so different that the winery has decided to make single vineyard wines. Because there was some ambiguity about the pouring order, I will not offer individual notes. Suffice it to say both are 90 point wines.

Hillside Mosaic 2008 ($39.99 for a production of 840 cases). This is 71% Merlot, 18% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Cabernet Franc, with Malbec and Petit Verdot. This is an oak-aged Bordeaux blend built to age five or ten years beyond the current release. It is approachable now but the vibrant core of red fruit is still developing within its oak frame. Give it two or three years to peak. 90-91.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Vancouver Urban Winery launches wine on tap


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Photo: Steve Thorp and Mike Macquisten with the FreshTAP kegs 

Until now, Vancouver’s strong wine culture has had everything but an actual winery.

Steve Thorp and Mike Macquisten have closed the loop by opening Vancouver Urban Winery in Railtown, the trendy new commercial district just east of Main Street, bordering the Port of Vancouver.

Here, heritage industrial buildings are getting a new life as headquarters for social media companies, coffee distributors and fashion retailers like Aritzia. Vancouver Urban Winery is in a splendid high-ceilinged structure that was built in the 1920s for metal fabrication. It has been turned into a winery with the addition of stainless steel tanks, racks of barrels and, crucially, a long bar with 20 taps for dispensing wine.

That is what Vancouver Urban Winery is adding to the city’s wine culture: through a subsidiary called FreshTAP, it has begun providing wine by the keg to restaurants  that have installed wine taps. This promises to revolutionize the way restaurants offer wines by the glass.

This is already a hot trend in the United States. An article last summer in Seattle Magazine listing restaurants with wines on tap commented that “the concept isn’t new [but] modern technology makes serving wines on tap a game changer.”

The reason: the system for wine by the keg means wines sold by the glass should always be fresh, which is not always the case when half empty bottles sit around overnight. Secondly, the shipping economy inherent with keg wines makes it possible for restaurateurs to pass along some savings to consumers.

Steve and Mike are friends who partnered several years ago to set up their own marketing company and then went looking for business ideas. Steve previously operated a sports equipment sales company. Mike previously worked with the Earls Restaurant group before moving into beverage alcohol sales with Molsons and then with Corby Distillers wine agency.

There are two other investors in Vancouver Urban Winery: restaurateur Wayne Holm, a member of the B.C. Restaurant Hall of Fame, and Rueben Major, a chef who is director of culinary development for Earls.

“It was actually Reuben Major who brought the original concept to us,” Steve says. “He was in New York and stumbled on it there.” Subsequently, he found wine on tap was developing in other cities there as well.

“We spent about four months in deep research mode,” Steve says. “We travelled the U.S. and met with the four largest keg packaging companies there.  After four months we put together the entire concept for what is now FreshTAP, the keg side of our business.”

The key to making it happen in the British Columbia regulatory environment was to establish Vancouver Urban Winery as a commercially-licensed winery. They had less trouble selling the idea to Victoria’s regulators than they had selling it to the city of Vancouver.

Here, there had never been a winery and therefore, no zoning for one. The city turned down the first two buildings in which Steve and Mike wanted to install the winery. Then they found the former metal working building at 55 Dunleavy Avenue. There were no zoning impediments and the space works as a winery, with a tasting room. The partners plan to open Vancouver Urban Winery to the public by the end of May. They also plan to make some wine there this fall and to launch a proprietary wine brand.

However, this is primarily a vehicle for FreshTAP. Wineries that want to offer wine on tap deliver it in bulk to Vancouver Urban Winery. Here, the wine is stored under nitrogen until it is transferred into 19.5 litre stainless steel kegs. These kegs are pressurized with nitrogen until filled with wine. At the restaurants, the kegs fit into a system where more nitrogen protects the wines from air as it is drawn off by the glass. It is similar to the way beer on tap stays fresh.

The Edible Canada Bistro on Granville Island was the first restaurant to install the FreshTAP system, offering Nichol Vineyards’s Pinot Gris and Nine Mile Red on tap. The restaurant trumpets the advantages on the system on its website. One of them: “Reducing the bottling costs allows the winery to pass on savings directly to restaurants and through to the consumer.”

Other wineries that have come on board so far include Blasted Church, Desert Hills, Okanagan Crush Pad and King Estate from Oregon. Mike and Steve are negotiating with others interested in getting wines on tap in restaurants. (Not all wineries are buying in: one Okanagan winery owner told me that they will not allow their wines to be repackaged by third parties.)

Other restaurants are also coming on board. For example, The Mill Marine Bistro in Coal Harbour is installing eight wine taps. “We want to work with trend setting restaurants,” Mike says. “It is a matter from day one of making sure that we are working with the right partners that are behind wine on tap, and know the benefits of it.”

Because Vancouver Urban Winery has a large public area, it also makes the facility available for wineries showing their products to the trade. Last week, Okanagan Crush Pad debuted some of its recent vintages including a new three-litre bag in the box package for three of its Haywire brand wines.

That package is another means for shaving the cost of wine to the consumer. A box of wine, equal to four bottles, sells for $54 (the rosé is $2 less), which works out to $13.50 a bottle. The briefcase-sized boxes slip easily into the refrigerator or on the counter. You can draw off a glass of wine whenever you feel like and the wine stays fresh for a reasonable period.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Stag's Hollow begins to roll out the 2011s

Photo: Stag's Hollow Syrah Rose 2011Posted by Picasa

The 2011 vintage was one of the most challenging in the Okanagan in a decade. However, I am finding quite good wines from producers who got a grip on the vintage early in the growing season.

One of those producers is Stag’s Hollow Winery of Okanagan Falls. Larry Gerelus, owner of the winery with his wife, Linda Pruegger, was on the west coast this week to show the winery’s new releases to restaurateurs and wine writers. These included a Syrah Rosé and a Sauvignon Blanc, both from 2011 and both excellent.

He also brought some reds from the 2009 vintage, a fine vintage for reds and a dramatic contrast to the 2011 vintage. The heat units in the Okanagan were among the highest on record in 2009 while 2011 had some the lowest heat units of the past decade. In a way, both years were challenging; 2009 produced big wines with lots of alcohol. A good winery has no choice but to rise to the challenge.

Larry learned how to deal with the weather early in his career as a winegrower. Trained as an actuary, he was working in an oil industry human resources job in Calgary when a wave of downsizing swept through the industry. Larry invested his settlement package in a vineyard near Okanagan Falls in 1992, opening a winery in 1996.

Larry describes the 1996 vintage as “a brutal vintage.” The summer was unusually cool and wet, tough conditions for maturing grapes. But Larry had a stroke of luck. In 1994 and 1995, he had grafted Merlot and Pinot Noir onto the trunks of the Chasselas and most of the Vidal that had been growing in the vineyard. The vines adjusted to this in 1996 by naturally carrying a light crop. “We got relatively ripe fruit,” Larry recalls.

Fast forward to 2011, with its late and cool spring. “Due to the 1996 experience, as soon as I saw the bloom date in 2o11, I knew we were in trouble,” he says. Ideally, the bunches should bloom about mid-June, leaving a good margin of time for the grapes to develop and ripen. In 1996, bloom in the Stag’s Hollow vineyard was about July 4. In 2011, bloom was June 28 and 29.

Remembering that 1996 succeeded because the crop load was low, Larry and his team immediately reduced the number of bunches on each vine in 2011. One might gamble that that vines will catch up if the weather improves but if the vintage starts as late as 2011, there is not much chance that over-cropped vines will catch up in October. By then, the days are too short to mature fruit well.

The 2011 weather, fortunately, turned warm and dry through most of September and into the middle of October. Early reports suggest that moderately cropped vineyards produced the grapes necessary for good wines. The whites are crisp but fruity and the reds – so I am told – have vibrant flavours.

The Stag’s Hollow 2011 Syrah Rosé ($18.99 for a production of 220 cases)  is one of the very few rosé wines made with this grape (Gamay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc are more common). This is 91% Syrah – most of which was whole cluster pressed and left on the skins for three hours to pick up colour and flavour. The remainder of the blend is 5% Viognier and 4% Muscat. The result is a wine with a delicate rose petal hue, a delightful aromatic lift in the aroma and mouth-filling flavours of strawberry and cranberry. The wine is balanced to finish dry but not austere. 90.

Stag’s Hollow Sauvignon Blanc 2011 ($19.99). Not yet released, this attractive wine begins with both tropical fruit and grassy aromas. On the palate, there are flavours of lime and grapefruit. The lingering finish is vibrant and refreshing. 90.

Stag’s Hollow Sauvignon Blanc 2010 ($19.99 for a production of 800 cases). There is probably another month or two supply of this wine in the pipeline. This is crisper, more flinty version of the varietal, no doubt reflecting the vintage and the extra year in bottle. Savoury and herbaceous, this is a great seafood wine. 88.

Stag’s Hollow 2009 Heritage Block ($24.99). To be released in the spring, this is a blend of 63% Merlot, 32% Cabernet Franc and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is approachable now but you would do better to cellar it another year, giving the bold oak a chance to completely marry with the rich fruit. The wine has aromas and flavours of cherry, plum and black currant with some of the classic savoury sage notes of the Okanagan. 88-90.

Stag’s Hollow 2009 Renaissance Merlot ($29.90 for 125 cases). Released last year, this wine is nearly sold out. It is a concentrated and structured wine, well worth cellaring. It begins with aromas of blackberry and plum and shows flavours of plums, cherries, mocha and vanilla. 90.

Stag’s Hollow 2009 Syrah ($27.99). Also released last year, this begins with aromas of blackberry, spice and pepper. On the palate, there are the classic meaty flavours of the variety with red fruit, earth and minerals on the finish. Think of Rhone, not Australia, 90.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Hester Creek's The Judge and friends

Photo: Winemaker Robert Summers

During the recent International Wine Festival in Vancouver, Hester Creek Estate Winery rolled out the second vintage of its icon red, a wine called The Judge, along with several new releases.

The superb quality confirms the turnaround at this winery. It was in bankruptcy in 2004 when Prince George trucking company owner Curt Garland bought it.

He put the winery solidly back on its feet by:

* Recruiting veteran Ontario winemaker Robert Summers to reshape the portfolio.

* Building a totally new winery, filled with state of the art equipment for making quality wines.

* Recruiting Australian Mark Sheridan, formerly the viticulturist with Vincor, as Hester Creek’s general manager. He in turn has added a depth of talent in the winery’s sales team as well as a social media manager.

* Hiring a marketing agency to refresh the look of the brand. The unappealing, even funereal, labels of old have been replaced by crisply clean white labels that stand out in wine stores and look elegant on restaurant tables.

* Building six luxury villas on the mountainside above the winery, helping gives the Okanagan more of the quality lodging that goes with a world-class wine region.

* And opening last year an acclaimed restaurant at the winery, called Terrafina.

All of these moves constitute the foundation for excellent wines at prices that, for the most part, are affordable.

Perhaps the exception is the $45 price on The Judge 2008. However, this is a limited production “best of the best” red aimed at the knowledgeable collectors and their cellars. You will get the message just by lifting the bottle. A package this heavy certainly raises expectations that this blend of Bordeaux reds is not any old judge but the chief justice himself!

In the glass, the wine does not disappoint. It is a big, ripe wine, with aromas and flavours of vanilla, plum and figs. On the palate, it presents with a rich and generous texture, with flavours of coffee, chocolate, liquorice and spice on the finish. It is a powerful and satisfying red. 94.

A recent release is Hester Creek Reserve Merlot 2008 ($26.99). Here is one of those firm Okanagan Merlots with a backbone of minerals and tannin and oak that will repay anyone who cellars this wine a few more years. The ripe black currant aromas and flavours need a bit more time for the core of sweet fruit to develop. 89-91.

The new red at the festival was Hester Creek Select Barrels Merlot 2010 ($18.99).  This is a marvellously ripe and concentrated wine for the price with bold flavours of black currant, coffee and chocolate. The wine seems more approachable than the reserve Merlot even though it is two years younger. 90.

Hester Creek Pinot Gris 2011 ($19) is the winery’s first 2011 release. While it might be suffering a touch of bottle shock, it delivers excellent flavours of citrus and peach. It has the crisp finish that likely will be the hallmark of 2011 excellent whites. 88-90.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Chile is a leader in responsible wine growing

Photo: Eduardo Chadwick

Some years ago, after my first visit to wineries in Chile, a friend said she would not buy Chilean wines because the wineries used too many herbicides and pesticides.

I have no idea where she got a notion that defies common sense. Chilean wine growers are blessed with ideal growing conditions. It would be a colossal waste of money to spray against pests and diseases that do not exist.

That was clearly obvious to me after spending 10 days visiting vineyards in 1989 and again in 2003. Even so, I was taken by surprise by Chilean wine industry’s presentations during the most recent Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival.  Whether we speak of organic/biodynamic viticulture or integrated pest management, or carbon neutral winery operations, Chile’s wineries are leaders in responsible winemaking. If my friend wants to drink healthy wine, she should, in fact, stock up on Chilean vintages.

Chile’s winemaking advantage begins with the geographical isolation of the vineyards. Vine pests and diseases are kept at bay by the world’s driest desert in the north, by the towering Andes on the east, by Antarctica on the south and by the Pacific Ocean to the west. There surely is not an easier place in the world for the application of organic viticulture.

Chile is a real viticultural paradise,” says Eduardo Chadwick, the president of Viña Errázuriz. “We are taking advantage of that.”

Grape growing was brought to Chile in the 16th Century by the missionaries and expanded in the 19th Century when landowners imported classic vine varieties, primarily from France. The first large-scale vineyards were developed with vines that had not yet been infected with phyloxera. That was the American root louse that was brought to Europe around 1860 on the roots of American vines. The European varieties lack the ability to withstand the damage caused by the louse. By the time the Europeans figured out how to work around the pest in the late 1800s (grafting French vines onto American roots), the European wine industry was in dire straits.

But Chile had not imported any vines infected with the root louse – unlike Argentine on the other side of the Andes. To this day, Chile remains phyloxera-free. Healthy vines that grow on their own roots live much longer and, arguably, make better wine.

Chile’s isolation formerly was also negative for its wine quality. As recently as the 1980s, Chileans were drinking nearly all their own wine and the wineries were not competing on the world market.  The whole country had developed a cellar palate and the wine industry had become complacent.

Chilean consumers also had begun to turn to beer and soft drinks, forcing the industry to find new markets. Around 1990, Chilean wineries began to take on the world, initially with value-priced wines. The value wines are still being produced (and the quality steadily gets better); but the wineries also have begun to icon wines matching the best in the world.

I remember scoffing during a Vancouver tasting in the 1990s that consumers would never pay $25 for a Chilean Cabernet. Well, there were at least seven Chilean reds at the Wine Festival priced at $70 and up. The top: Rothschild’s Alma Viva at $133 a bottle. And there were plenty of $25-$45 wines.

“The future of Chile is quality,” Chadwick predicted.

He is right, but the future also will be defined by the responsible winemaking. I believe that the world’s consumers will reward Chile not just for making good wines but for its green and ethical vineyard practices.

For example, the industry there has a new accreditation, Certified Sustainable Wine of Chile, that has been won so far by about 20 wineries or 10% of those that applied.

Photo: Felipe Tosso
One of these is Viña Ventisquero, a winery established in 1998 by a businessman already successful in a range of other agricultural products. Felipe Tosso, the senior winemaker, rattled off the impressive range of green practices here – buying carbon offsets for transport; adopting lighter (“Ecoglass”) bottles; adopting integrated pest management practices, including natural weed control; using renewable energy at one of its estates; adopting strict water conservation practices.

Organic viticulture is now widespread and there is a big move among wineries toward the ultimate: using biodynamic practices. “The ultimate respect to your terroir is biodynamic agriculture,” Chadwick asserts. “If you use chemicals, you suppress terroir.”

Photo: Alvaro Espinoza
The biodynamic methods range from elaborate composting practices. Emiliana Vineyards has its own herd of beef on its property so that the manure used for compost is produced on the same land that it fertilizes. In other words, a closed loop on the terroir. “We try to be partners with nature,” winemaker Alvaro Espinoza says.

Emiliana began growing biodynamically in 2000. Today, the winery has 1,000 hectares, all under biodynamic practices. “I am convinced they make better wines,” Espinoza says.

Photo: Miguel Torres Another praiseworthy initiative is the “fair trade” wine growing practised by Miguel Torres M. at his family’s winery in Chile. All of the Torres vineyards are certified organic. All the growers are paid fairly and all the workers are treated with dignity.
If you want to reward these wineries for their good works, here are some wines to buy.

Errazuriz Sauvignon Blanc 2011 ($14 in the LDB). This is a zesty refreshing white. At the festival, the winery also showed a sensational single vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2011(about $17) from its new coastal vineyard. It is a speculative wine that can now found in private wine stores.

Emiliana Coyam 2009 ($29.99 in the LDB). This is a big ripe wine, primarily a blend of Syrah, Carmenère, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with a dash of Petit Verdot and Mourvedre. The wine has alluring aromas and flavours of figs, plums, coffee and chocolate. 91.

Ventisquero VerTice Syrah Carmenère 2007  ($33; check private wine stores). This is a wine made jointly by Tosso and Australian John Duval, formerly the maker of Penfolds’s Grange. This red has all the earthy plum flavours of Syrah with the lovely spice and red cherry of Carmenère. 90.

Torres Santa Digna Fair Trade Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 ($18; check private wine stores). This is a delicious, juicy red with fruit-forward flavours of black currants and plum. 90.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Quails' Gate goes totally screw cap


Photo: Grant Stanley

You can add Quails’ Gate Estate Winery to the list of producers that have switched entirely from cork closures to screw cap.

The winery’s latest releases, which include two of its premium reserve wines and two dessert wines in 375 ml bottles, all arrived with screw cap. Winemaker Grant Stanley suggests that the dessert wines would have been under screw cap even sooner but for the winery’s inability, until now, to get the required bottles from their supplier in Italy.

I am guessing that Grant had a lot to do with selling the switch to his boss, winery president Tony Stewart. Grant, who was born in Vancouver and joined Quails’ Gate in 2003, began his winemaking career in New Zealand.

The New Zealand wine industry began switching to screw cap more than a decade ago when it seemed like a daring move to go against the cork tradition. The transition turned out to be easier than expected. I once asked a New Zealand winemaker if he was getting any resistance to screw cap closures. “Only from white males over 50,” he replied.

The initial motive for the switch was to reduce or eliminate the number of “corked wines” – wines that had taken on musty aromas and dull flavours from tainted cork. The incidence of corked wines had become unacceptably high by the early 1990s.

For a time, some wineries switched to synthetic stoppers. They are still being used even though they are not entirely satisfactory and even though consumers don’t liked them.

Screw cap closures have been used in the beverage alcohol industry for a long time for spirits and for cheap wine. That image was the reason for industry reluctance: would sophisticated consumers buy bottles with a closure similar to the wines consumed by doorway drinkers?

The answer is yes. Of course, today’s screw caps for fine wine are a better design that those that sealed bottles in the 1970s.

The new motive behind screw cap closures is that wines age more slowly and retain their fresh aromas and flavours better.

That is not to suggest screw cap is a perfect closure – you can get a flawed wine from one of these bottlings if the winemaking is not quite up to standard. I would not worry about that with wine from Quails’ Gate.

Not that cork is bad. The cork producers have improved quality control vastly and the incidence of cork taint is way down. And red wines that age under cork develop complexities that many find appealing.

If the wines are good, they will show well under either closure.

Here are my notes on the new Quails’ Gate releases.

Quails’ Gate Chardonnay 2010 ($19.99 for 4,387 cases). Grant Stanley occasionally takes some heat for making the winery’s “regular” Chardonnay so good that some wonder why they need pay $10 more for the reserve. The point is there is more of this wine and the style is different: only half of this Chardonnay is barrel-fermented. The result is a fresh-tasting wine with a core of sweet citrus-flavoured fruit and very subtle toasty notes of oak in the background. The balance is elegant and the finish lingers.  90.

Quails’ Gate Merlot 2009 ($24.99 for 2,842 cases). According to the winemaker, the accumulated heat units in the Okanagan in 2009 were the highest on record. The result is this super-ripe wine (15.4% alcohol) from grapes grown on the winery’s West Kelowna vineyard. This is a powerhouse, beginning aromas of berries, spice and vanilla and with flavours of blueberry, black currant and blackberry. As the wine breathes, its fleshy texture emerges and that texture seems to be why Zinfandel-like alcohol is not apparent. 90-92.

Quails’ Gate Stewart Family Reserve Chardonnay 2010 ($29.99 for 1,142 six-pack cases). The winemaker makes this wine primarily from mature Clone 95 Chardonnay vines and ferments it in his best barrels. The wine begins with a touch of bacon fat and tangerine on the nose, leading to rich, buttery flavours of tangerine and grapefruit. Even though many of the barrels went through malolactic fermentation, the great acidity of the 2010 vintage has given this wine a fresh, tangy finish. This is a very complex wine and it certainly is worth the extra $10. 92.

Quails’ Gate Stewart Family Reserve Pinot Noir 2009 ($45 for 9,618 six packs). The heat of the 2009 vintage produced a wine with more power and less of the elegance of earlier cooler vintages. Dark in colour and sensuous in texture, the wine begins with intense fruit aromas (cherries, strawberries) and a hint of oak toast. On the palate, there are flavours of black cherry and mocha. 91.

Quails’ Gate Optima Late Harvest Botrytis Affected 2010 ($29.99 for 375 ml; 715 cases).  The kind of botrytis that is called noble rot is rare in the Okanagan because the climate usually is too dry. Quails’ Gate, however, has been making this wine almost every year for two decades. The nearby lake provides the early morning moisture that nourishes the botrytis spores and the Optima grape has thick skins, ideal for gradual dehydration on the vines. The grapes, in fact, are crushed by foot because it is not efficient to crush them mechanically. This is an attractive wine, with aromas and flavours of marmalade, honey and tobacco. 91.

Quails’ Gate Fortified Vintage Foch 2009 ($22.99 for 375 ml; 2,000 cases). The wine is fortified to 19% in the style of vintage port. It might be advisable to lay this down for a few years so that the structure, the plum, cherry and vanilla flavours and the alcohol have a chance to knit together better. There is a dollop of sweet fruit on the middle of the palate and a finish of liquorice and chocolate. 87.