Sunday, October 27, 2013

Great Northern rolls down the line again

It was a big day in July 1907 when the first Great Northern Railway train pulled into the station at Keremeos.

The Great Northern was a railway company founded in 1889 in Minnesota by a group headed by James J. Hill, a legendary name in railroading. Its major lines ran between Minnesota and the Pacific Coast.

The line that came through the Similkameen may have been the Vancouver, Victoria & Eastern Railroad but it was owned by the Great Northern.

According to the Wikipedia entry on the Kettle Valley Railroad: “The Kettle Valley] railroad was built primarily in a mile-for-mile battle with the Vancouver, Victoria and Eastern Railroad (VV&E). The VV&E was actually owned by Great Northern Railway. The competition between the KVR and the VV&E during constructions of both railways was intense and resulted in many areas within the Southern Interior being serviced by two railways, when one would have been sufficient. Eventually, the hatchet was buried between the KVR and VV&E, as they both were forced to collaborate when constructing their railways through the Coquihalla Valley.”

All of these historic railways are now gone. (The American portion of the Great Northern was absorbed a generation ago by Burlington Northern.)

But by a remarkable coincidence, both Kettle Valley and Great Northern now live on wine labels. The Kettle Valley Winery opened in 1996 near Naramata and was named the railway whose right of way between Penticton and Kelowna ran high above what is now Naramata Road. (Today, it is a popular hiking and cycling route with access to numerous wineries.)

Several years ago, Bob Ferguson and Tim Watt – the owners of Kettle Valley Winery along with their wives – bought a vineyard just southeast of Keremeos, close to the former right of way of the Great Northern. (Technically, the Great Northern Vineyard, as it is called, is owned by spouses Colleen Ferguson and Janet Watts, who happen to be sisters.)

The first wines from this vineyard, which have just been released, carry the Great Northern label. Like the Kettle Valley wines, the Great Northern wines also have a steam locomotive on the labels, keeping historic railroading in the family.

The current vintage with the Great Northern grapes is being handled primarily by Tom’s son, Andrew. His title still is assistant winemaker but, given his resume, a promotion should be in the offing. He completed enology studies at Lincoln University in New Zealand in 2010. Subsequently, he has gained experience doing vintages in Chile, New Zealand, Nova Scotia and the Okanagan.

The first releases from Great Northern, of course, were made by Bob and Tim. Here are notes on the wines. The wines are available at $22 a bottle in mixed cases – four bottle each of the three wines.

Great Northern Viognier 2012 (101 cases). This has the classic Viognier aromas and flavours of apricot, peach and ripe apple. The texture is rich, reflecting the fact that a portion of the wine was fermented in older French oak. But the flavours and the finish are crisp and tangy, reflecting the tank-fermented portion of the blend. 90-91.

Great Northern Zinfandel 2011 (46 cases). Think California ripeness! The wine has 15.6% alcohol. It is a big, almost porty wine with vanilla and black cherry aromas; spicy brambly flavours; and – as you would expect – a touch of heat on the finish. 89.

Great Northern Syrah 2010 (47 cases). Reflecting a cool vintage, this is a medium-bodied Syrah with notes of plum and with a touch of white pepper on the finish. The relative lack of intensity is due perhaps to the youth of the vines at the time. This would have been the first fruit from a vineyard which was just a year old when the Kettle Valley owners took it over a few years earlier. It could also be that this vineyard wants deliver elegance rather than power – although that seems unlikely, judging from the muscular Zinfandel. 87.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Fort Berens begins new Lillooet winery

Fort Berens Estate Winery owners Rolf de Bruin, Heleen Pannekoek

On releasing these wines last month, Rolf de Bruin, a co-proprietor of Fort Berens, also announced that construction of a new winery was starting beside the Fort Berens vineyard in Lillooet.

By the fall of 2014, the winery will be able to move all of its processing to Lillooet. During the previous five years, Fort Berens has done most – but not all – of its wines at various Okanagan wineries. It has outgrown the modest processing facility it now has.

In his note, Rolf says: “The new winery will feature a stunning tasting room, underground cellars for barrel aging, and a fermentation room to allow for gentle handling of our wines. We’ll also have facilities to serve outdoor lunch and cater events and weddings.”

The architecturally-designed building sounds like an excellent addition to the tourist infrastructure at Lillooet.

Rolf and his wife, Heleen Pannekoek immigrated from Holland in 2008, trading an urban lifestyle in banking and finance for wine growing. When they found that Okanagan land prices were too high, they decided to pioneer commercial winemaking at Lillooet. There is no question that the Lillooet summers will ripen grapes. The Lillooet winters are a risk but the Fort Berens vineyard has, for the most part, been able to thrive. The more established the vines become, the better their choice looks.

It probably is only a matter of time before other wineries are opened in this region. Rolf says that Fort Berens continues “to look for opportunities to work with local famers to establish more vineyards in our region.”

As well, Fort Berens is considering joining a market initiative involving the new Kamloops and Shuswap wineries to draw wine tourists away from the beaten path.

Here are notes on the wine.

Fort Berens Chardonnay 2012 ($18.99 for 275 cases). This is the first Chardonnay winery’s Lillooet vineyard. There is no question about Lillooet’s ability to ripen fruit. These grapes were picked on September 20 at 23 Brix, which translates to 14.1% alcohol. About 30% was fermented in French oak; and a third was aged nine months in French oak. The result is a complex wine that showcases the vineyard’s ability to produce appealing fruit flavours. The wine begins with citrus aromas. On the palate, there are flavours of apple, pineapple and orange peel. The vibrant but well balanced acidity makes this a lively, refreshing, medium-bodied Chardonnay. 90.

Fort Berens Pinot Noir 2011 ($24.99 for 65 cases). The grapes for this wine came from the first harvest of Pinot Noir in the winery’s Lillooet vineyard. The yield was extremely low (about one ton of grapes per acre). As a result, the wine is dark in hue, with dramatic aromas and flavours of cherry and raspberry, accented with vanilla from 15 months aging in oak. There is a hint of clove on the finish. The texture is the classically silken texture of fine Pinot Noir. This wine has been offered exclusively to the winery’s Discovery Wine Club. This is a good reason for joining. 90.

Fort Berens Cabernet Franc 2011 ($25.99 for 251 cases). Two-thirds of the grapes in this wine were grown in the Lillooet vineyard; the remainder came from Black Sage Road. This is a wine with vibrant red berry aromas and flavours – blackberry, raspberry, cherry. The bright acidity adds to the brambly flavours and the rustic personality. 88.

Fort Berens Meritage 2011 $27.99 for 743 cases). This is a blend of Lillooet grapes and fruit from the Sundial Vineyard on Black Sage Road. The wine is 47% Merlot, 34% Cabernet Sauvignon and 19% Cabernet Franc. It was aged 12 months in French and American oak barrels and another six months in bottle before release. Dark in colour, it begins with an appealing aroma of black cherry, black currant and vanilla.  On the palate, the wine’s long ripe tannins give it a generous  richness. The flavours echo the aroma with added touches of chocolate and spice. 91.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Cassini Cellars: the big red house

Photo: Winemaker Adrian Cassini

It has been one of those summers, filled with house guests, monthly visits to the Okanagan and revision of one of my wine books.

In between all of this, I have tried to stay on top of wine reviews – not always with the alacrity they deserve. I did not get down to all of the wines from Cassini Cellars before several were sold out. Obviously, Cassini fans need not wait on my reviews to snap these good wines.

Cassini is a well-located winery on Highway 97, midway between Oliver and Osoyoos, which has developed a house style that has repeated now for several years. Almost without exception, the wines are bold and packed with flavour.

The Cassini samples also included several verticals of the winery’s leading reds, with the winery owner Adrian Cassini looking for feedback on the cellaring potential of the wines.

The oldest wines were from the 2007 vintage. They are still drinking well, but the fruit has begun to show signs of fading prematurely. The problem, in my view, is that winery used synthetic closures in its initial vintages. These are dubious closures when wines are designed for long term aging. Even though I am told the current generation of synthetic closures are much improved, I note that Adrian returned to natural corks for his Collector’s Series reds in 2009. He also uses screw cap for whites and rosé wines.

There is no reason why the Cassini reds, with good closures, will not cellar well for at least a decade.

Cassini Cellars Unoaked Chardonnay 2012 ($19). This wine is an excellent example of a typical Cassini wine: it is packed with fruit, beginning with aromas of pear and apple and tasting of apples, peaches and passion fruit. The wine has good length and a long, crisp finish. 90.

Cassini Cellars Chardonnay Reserve 2009 ($29 for 375 cases). The wine presents an appealing gold hue in the glass, along with buttery aromas of peach and tangerine. The generous palate has flavours of peach, ripe apple, tangerine, vanilla and spice, all framed by subtle oak. The wine has a synthetic cork and should be consumed now, when it is at its peak. 92.

Cassini Cellars
Gewürztraminer Muscat 2011 ($19 for 611 cases). The blend includes just seven percent Muscat but that is enough to give this swaggering wine spice orange peel aromas and flavours of fine Scots marmalade, with raisins on the off-dry finish. 91.

Cassini Cellars Rosé 2012 ($19 for 444 cases). This is an exuberantly fruity rosé with aromas and flavours of cherries, raspberries and strawberries, with a long finish. It is an unconventional blend - Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Marsanne and Roussanne – but no less delicious for that. 89.

Cassini Cellars Merlot 2011 ($19 for 1,340 cases). Here is a ripe and powerful Merlot, with aromas of spice and red fruit and with flavours of black currant, black cherry and vanilla with a hint of sage on the finish. The rich favours go on and on. 90.

Cassini Cellars Pinot Noir Reserve 2010 ($N.A.). This is a pretty wine with strawberry aromas leaping from the glass. The silky palate has flavours of strawberry and cherry. 88.

Cassini Cellars Quattro Rosso 2010 ($29 for 608 cases). This is a blend of 67% Merlot, 21% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Cabernet Franc and 1% Syrah. It begins with aromas of plum, vanilla and leather, leading to spicy flavours of plum, mocha, coffee and vanilla. The tannins are still firm, making this a good candidate for cellaring. 90.

Cassini Cellars Collector’s Series Syrah 2007: The wine begins with a hint of white pepper and dark fruit on the nose, leading to flavours of plum and chocolate. The wine is tasty but clearly has peaked. 88.

Cassini Cellars Collector’s Series Syrah 2008: The wine begins with earthy, peppery aromas; flavours of plum, liquorice and chocolate with pepper on the finish. This wine is at its peak. 90.

Cassini Cellars Collector’s Series Syrah 2009: The wine begins with complex aromas of spice, smokiness and plum. On the palate, there are layers of fruit – black cherry and black currant – turbocharged with black pepper, liquorice and vanilla on the long finish. 91.

Cassini Cellars Collector’s Series Syrah 2010: ($29 for 550 cases). This wine begins with aromas of vanilla, liquorice and plum. On the palate, there is a nice peppery bite that gives way to red fruit and vanilla on the palate. The soft ripe tannins mingle with the earthy, gamy flavours of the variety. The finish is long. 90.

Cassini Cellars Syrah 2007: ($NA). This wine has held its bold, fruity flavours better that its big brother in spite of a synthetic cork. The wine still had a core of earthy black cherry flavours. 90.

Cassini Cellars Syrah 2008: ($NA). This is a gamey, even rustic, Syrah, with aromas and flavours of pepper, black cherry and plum. The muscular earthiness of this wine, with 14.8% alcohol, is satisfying. 90.

Cassini Cellars Syrah 2009: ($NA). This begins with a smoky, peppery aroma with plum and black cherry flavours along with earthy and gamey notes. The long ripe tannins contribute to the wine’s bold, generous finish. 91.

Cassini Cellars Maximus 2007: ($34). This is the winery’s top of the line Bordeaux blend. There are flavours of black currant, coffee and vanilla but the fruit seems to be drying out, leaving a slight bitterness. Even with a decorative wax seal on top of the closure, the synthetic closure seems not to be doing the job. 88.

Cassini Cellars Maximus 2008: ($34). This wine, also closed with a synthetic cork, is still full of aromas and flavours of pepper, black currant, vanilla, coffee and dark chocolate. The blend is 63% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot and 6% Malbec. The wine has a firm, muscular structure. 90.

Cassini Cellars Maximus 2009: ($34). This wine, closed with natural cork,  is 48% Cabernet Sauvignon, 39% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Franc and one per cent Malbec. It begins aromas of vanilla, black cherry and black currant. Rich and ripe on the palate, it delivers flavours of cassis, mulberry, and blueberry, with a touch of cedar and spice on the finish. This wine will age very well. 92.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Gold Hill Winery's 2013 releases

Photo: Gold Hill Winery

Now open three years, Gold Hill Winery has developed a winemaking style that swings for the fences, aiming for wines that are full and generous.

Over and over again, the technical sheets for the individual wines disclose that the grapes were crushed and then given a prolonged cold soak before fermentation, sometimes with daily pump overs. This is a technique to extract the maximum colour, aroma and flavour. Many wineries do it but perhaps not as consistently as Gold Hill.

As well, after fermentation, the reds and some of the whites are aged in French oak for up to 18 months.

The currant releases often have labels with Roman numerals, indicating – I believe – the number of vintages of that variety that the winery has made. It is a curious idea but it makes for conversation.

The winery is owned by brothers Sant and Gurbachan Gill, immigrants from India.  Sant, who was born in 1958, came to the Okanagan in 1984. Younger brother Gurbachan, born in 1967, followed him in 1989, in the same year that Sant bought his first house in Osoyoos. After a few years of orchard work, the brothers in 1991 began working in vineyards owned by Kal Gidda, one of the principals at Mt. Boucherie Estate Winery. The experience they picked up during almost a decade with Kal and his brothers shaped the future for the Gill brothers. Today, they plant and manage vineyards for others as well as looking after their own extensive vineyards.

The highway-side winery is based on a farm that they bought in 1995. They continued to grow peaches, apricots and cherries there until they switched to grapes in 2007. In plantings since then, the brothers have put in the mainstream varieties – Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Malbec, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Viognier and Gewürztraminer. They also own or lease smaller vineyards in Osoyoos, Okanagan Falls and Kaleden; the latter produces Pinot Noir for the winery.

Here are notes on the current releases, made by consulting winemaker Phil Soo.

Gold Hill Chardonnay 2011 ($20.90). Textbook example of unoaked Chardonnay, this begins with aromas of apples and peach, leading to flavours of apple, pear, lemon and lime. The brisk acidity gives this wine a tangy, refreshing finish. 90.

Gold Hill Gewürztraminer II 2012 ($18). The intensity of this wine – spicy orange peel aromas and flavours – is almost over the top. As a wine by the glass, this is a wine everybody will notice. From the aromas and flavours, I suspect that the skins got a long cold soak before fermentation. 90.

Gold Hill Pinot Gris II 2012 ($18). This wine’s delicate blush in the glass reflects a little bit of skin contact. That also accounts for the bold and juicy flavours of pear, ripe apple and nectarine, with a hint of citrus and mint. 90.

Gold Hill Viognier I 2012 ($21.90 for 180 cases). The 15.2% alcohol gives this wine a touch of warmth on the finish but that’s the price to pay for full-flavoured ripeness. Aromas of peaches and apricots jump from the glass, leading to flavours of peach and nectarine on the rich palate. 89.

Gold Hill Rosé II 2012 ($). This is a dark-hued and masculine rosé with a smoky aroma and flavours of plum and cherry. It is made primarily with Cabernet Franc with a touch of Pinot Gris. The colour and the intense flavours come from a long cold soak on the skins. 87.

Gold Hill Cabernet Franc II 2011 ($26.90 but sold out). The winery has made a name for itself with this variety after the debut release, from 2009, won a Lieutenant Governor’s Award. The winery skipped the 2010 vintage, which took place before the award, but did not repeat that error with 2011. This has the classic brambly and raspberry aromas and flavours of the variety. 88.

Gold Hill Merlot II 2011 ($24.90 for 258 cases). This wine’s rich aromas and flavours were enhanced by fairly daring winemaking. After the grapes were crushed, they were left to cold-soak for 10 days with a thrice-daily pump over before fermentation was begun. The result is a juicy and satisfying red, with notes of cherry, blackberry, blueberry and vanilla. Aged in French oak for 18 months, the wine has developed a polished texture. 90.

Gold Hill Pinot Noir I 2011 ($24.90 for 99 cases). There actually is 25% Merlot in this blend, a rather unusual treatment of Pinot Noir. It also submerges the personality of what was a light Pinot Noir to begin with. This wine is an easy quaffer with notes of raspberry on the nose and palate. 87.

 Gold Hill Syrah II 2011 ($26.90 for 135 cases). The wine begins with aromas of plum and black cherry. On the palate, there are flavours of black cherry, black currant, coffee and cola, with a rustic earthiness on the finish. 89.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Nikki Callaway seems a great catch for Quails' Gate

 Quails' Gate winemaker Nikki Callaway

Two Okanagan wineries are elated at the news that Mission Hill Family Estate Winery emerged from this year’s Decanter Wine Awards with a huge accolade for its Martin’s Lane Pinot Noir 2011.

One is Mission Hill. Proprietor Anthony von Mandl told the Kelowna Capital News that he was “totally shocked when I learned our Pinot Noir was named best in the world.”

The other? Quails’ Gate Estate Winery which now employs Nikki Callaway, the winemaker who made the Martin’s Lane Pinot Noir.

The Decanter Award actually reads that the Martin’s Lane wine was “best in class” for Pinot Noirs under Pinots under £15. Nevertheless, it is a major award for a winery that is a relatively recent entry into the production of premium Okanagan Pinot Noir.

“I am still in awe,” Anthony told the newspaper, “that a wine from the still emerging Okanagan Valley could win against the best Pinot Noir in the world from Burgundy, Sonoma County, Oregon and New Zealand. It is a seminal moment for the entire Canadian wine industry.”

I reviewed the wine in July and I repeat here what I said about it.

The impressive new Martin’s Lane Pinot Noir, the second vintage, makes a statement about the Pinot Noir program at Mission Hill.

California writer John Winthrop Haeger, who is now at work on a Riesling book, published North American Pinot Noir in 2004. Blue Mountain was the only Okanagan winery to get a full profile. “Most [other wineries] are in the position of Mission Hill, where management is at the point of trying to decide ‘whether to get really serious’ about pinot,” he wrote.

That decision has been made. “Our push in the last five years has been on Pinot Noir,” says Ingo Grady [a senior Mission Hill executive]. That has included planting about 30 acres at two East Kelowna vineyards and another 30 at Naramata Ranch. Nikki Callaway, one of the winemakers in the team under head winemaker John Simes, has been given specific responsibility for making Pinot Noir.

“And there is talk about building a Pinot winery at the Ranch,” Ingo says.

Martin’s Lane Pinot Noir 2011 ($45 for 485 cases) is a blend of four Dijon clones from Mission Hill Kelowna and Naramata Ranch vineyards. The wine has an appealing deep hue and aromas of strawberry and raspberry. The texture is concentrated but silky, with flavours of cherry, blueberry and spice. (91.)

At the time that blog was being written, Nikki was moving from Mission Hill to Quails’ Gate, replacing winemaker Grant Stanley. Judging from the Decanter Award, Quails’ Gate has quite a catch. Quails’ Gate is already one of the Okanagan’s oldest and best producers of Pinot Noir. The winery has a huge focus on Pinot Noir as well as on Riesling, another one of Nikki’s specialties at Mission Hill.

Born in Calgary in 1982, Nikki is the daughter of a physician who worked for many years in Saudi Arabia and Dubai. Nikki lived in Saudi Arabia for 10 years until she was 14 and had completed elementary school. At that point, her family moved to Dubai so she could complete high school.

She came back to Canada f0r a bachelor’s degree in microbiology at the University of Victoria. She had not mapped out a career path although she was interested in wine. “Dad talked me out of medicine,” she recalls. “He thought I would have more fun drinking wine.”

So she went to Beaujolais in 2004 and picked grapes for two months while checking out French wine schools. She chose the University of Bordeaux and graduated in 2007 with a Diplôme National d’Oœnologue (in spite of a chauvinist professor who kept trying to make her cry).

The winemaking program included hands-on cellar work in French wineries. Upon graduating, she worked about five months in a French winemaking co-operative. Then she went to South Africa to do a crush there before returning to France and doing another crush at a Loire winery.

She might have stayed in France but she could not get a work visa. So she returned to Canada in 2009 where Mission Hill offered her a four-month job. “It turned out to be four years,” she says now.

The differences between Mission Hill and Quails’ Gate include scale. Mission Hill crushed 5,000 tons of grapes in 2012 while Quails’ Gate will crush 1,000 tons this year. “The best experience I got at Mission Hill was to deal with that volume,” Nikki says.

If she were being interviewed today, she probably also would give more credit to what she learned about making Pinot Noir and Riesling at Mission Hill.

At Quails’ Gate, Grant had established an elegant style of winemaking. “There is no real reason to make any drastic changes,” Nikki says. In the future, however, there might be a more distinctive difference between the “regular” and the reserve wines.

One thing she gets to do at Quails’ Gate which she was not allowed to do at Mission Hill is ferment some wines with indigenous yeasts. In his 10 years at Quails’ Gate, Grant Stanley made increasing use of wild yeast fermentation. Nikki is comfortable with this because her thesis for her winemaking degree was on yeast analysis.