Monday, December 23, 2013

The best new wineries of 2013

Photo: 50th Parallel owners Sheri-Lee Turner, Curtis Krouzel (centre) and Grant Stanley

With a remarkable number of wineries still opening or being developed in British Columbia (more than 260 are licensed), the new entrants will need to be good to succeed.

Of those which opened tasting rooms or came to market in 2013 with a significant number of wines, six stand out and several  others bear watching.

These are my stars for 2013.

50th Parallel Estate Winery. Every wine I tasted there scored 90 points or better and most of the wines went on to win awards at numerous wine competitions. For the most part, the wines were from young vines and were made in something of a Rube Goldberg facility – but by skilled winemaker from New Zealand named Adrian Baker.

When Adrian moved in mid-2013 to develop a neighbouring winery project, Grant Stanley, who had made exceptional wines for a decade at Quails’ Gate, became a partner in 50th Parallel, joining founders Curtis Krouzel and Sheri-Lee Turner, an enthusiastic young couple from Alberta. With a new winery being built for the 2014 crush, the wine quality here has nowhere to go but up.

50th Parallel is at Carr’s Landing in Lake Country, about half an hour’s drive south of Vernon.  What makes this northerly location work is the vineyard: the long slope down toward Okanagan Lake has a sun-bathed southwestern exposure. And the vineyard has been intelligently planted with varieties that will ripen this far north.

Pinot Noir comprise the largest blocks in the vineyard, followed by Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Chardonnay. The 2011 Pinot Noir, one of the releases this spring, is a lovely feminine expression of the variety, with strawberry and cherry flavours and with a silky texture. I scored it 90 points, with potential to add a point or two with bottle aging.

I have tasted the 2012 Pinot Noir twice from barrels. Reflecting the vintage, it is deeper in flavour and richer in texture. The winery will be releasing 1,400 cases next year. It is a wine not to be missed – along with the rest of the portfolio.

Tightrope Winery. This Naramata Bench winery has no tasting room yet and is not planning one for a year or two. The wines that Tightrope released this year are made under the license of Ruby Blues Winery. Winemaker Lyndsay O’Rourke, who launched Tightrope with her viticulturist husband, Graham, (right) is the winemaker at Ruby Blues.

Now in their early 40s, the O’Rourkes developed an appreciation of wines while working in Whistler restaurants. They moved to the Okanagan in 2003, took some Okanagan College courses in winemaking and grape growing until realizing that, to get really serious a
bout it, they had to take full-time courses. Both went to Lincoln University in New Zealand. On returning, Graham joined Mission Hill’s viticultural team and Lyndsay joined Ruby Blues.

They bought their 10-acre property in 2007 when they returned from New Zealand. Seven acres has been planted with Pinot Gris, Riesling, Viognier, Pinot Noir and Merlot, along with small blocks of Cabernet Franc and Barbera. The first production was 900 cases from the 2012 vintage.

I was able to taste four of the debut releases – Pinot Gris, Riesling, Viognier and Rosé. I scored all 90 except for the Viognier, which got 91. It is a strong start from a confident and well-trained couple.

Maverick Winery. This winery, located on Highway 97 midway between Oliver and Osoyoos, expects to open a tasting room in the spring. Plans to do this year were delayed by a highway realignment. However, the winery has an agent in Vancouver and got wines in the market in 2013. All are 90 points or better.

Maverick is owned by winemaker Bertus Albertyn (left), his father-in-law, Schalk De Witt and their spouses. Bertus and Schalk are both South Africans. Schalk came to Canada in 1990 to practise medicine, buying property in the Okanagan in 2006 with vineyards in mind.

Bertus came to Canada in 2009 after marrying Elzaan De Witt who had followed her father into medicine and who has  since established her own Okanagan practise. No father-in-law with vineyard land could have been luckier than Schalk to have a son-in-law like Bertus, a graduate in winemaking and viticulture from the top university in South Africa.

In the Okanagan, Bertus was the winemaker at Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, making four vintages before leaving this summer to concentrate fully on Maverick. The winery has eight acres under vine and 12 to 15 acres to be planted next door to the Osoyoos Larose vineyard.

The Highway 97 vineyard is planted with is planted to Pinot Noir, Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc and a little Chardonnay. The varieties planned for the other property include Chenin Blanc.

The wine style emerging here is quite distinctive. The whites in particular are built to aged five to seven years. Bertus is making his Pinot Gris in the mold of Chenin Blanc with bold flavours and crisp acidity. His white blend, Origin, is a delicious and intriguing blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Gewürztraminer. His outstanding red blend, called Rubicon, is Syrah and Cabernet Franc. Maverick even has a Syrah port, a 92 point wine that is rich and spicy.

Sages Hills Vineyard and Winery. This Summerland producer has no tasting room yet; its debut wines were made at the nearby Okanagan Crushpad Winery by Tom DiBello, a consultant who was there in 2012.

The 2013 crush was made in a building at the Sage Hills property, suggesting that a tasting room will follow in 2014. The winemaker this fall – Tom having succeeded Bertus at Burrowing Owl – was Danny Hattingh, a young South African who also makes the wines for Saxon Estate Winery.

Sages Hills is owned by Rick Thrussell, (left) a former home builder now following a long-held dream to living in the Okanagan and run a winery. His vineyard is strictly organic. However, he has not certified the vineyard because he does not think the organic standards are strict enough.

Of the three Sage Hills wines I tasted this summer, only the Gewürztraminer failed to reach 90 plus. I have it at 88. It may have been suffering bottle shock: Tom DiBello later told me it was the best Gewürztraminer he had ever made. Sage Hills still has a $45 Pinot Noir to release. I am waiting with some anticipation.

Harper's Trail Estate Winery. This was the first of the four Kamloops wineries (two still under development) to open a tasting room this summer. Owned by business couple Ed and Vicki Collett (he runs a mining equipment company), Harper's Trail has made a significant bet in a region thought to be marginal because of the cold winters. So far, most of the varieties in the 29-acre vineyard have made it through five or six winters.

The flagship varietal here is Riesling. Three of the 10 wines released in 2013 were Rieslings, including a commendable late harvest wine. The dry Riesling was a 91 point favourite. I was also surprised by the vibrant 90 point Cabernet Franc. The other releases, 89 and 90 pointers, included Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, a Field Blend White and a rosé.  

It looks like the Kamloops wineries have their anchor tenant. 

winery is owned by Ed and Vicki Collett, a longtime Kamloops business couple (he runs a mining equipment company). They have a major commitment to growing grapes in a region long considered marginal because of its cold winters. Since 2008, about 29 acres have been planted, with plans for more.They came to market in 2013 with a comprehensive portfolio that included one red, a 90-point Cabernet Franc, and half a dozen whites. I have 89 to two of those but 90 or 91 to the rest. The flagship white variety here is Riesling, released in several styles from dry to late harvest.Harper’s Trail is anchoring a growing number of Kamloops wineries. Privato also opened its tasting room this summer and two other producers are under development.Harper’s Trail Estate Winery.the first Kamloops winery with a tasting room, which opened this summer. Harper’s Trail has been a client of Okanagan Crush Pad. The 2013 crush, however, was made in a building at the Kamloops vineyard.
The winery is owned by Ed and Vicki Collett, a longtime Kamloops business couple (he runs a mining equipment company). They have a major commitment to growing grapes in a region long considered marginal because of its cold winters. Since 2008, about 29 acres have been planted, with plans for more.
Culmina Culmina Family Estate Winery.  Donald and Elaine Triggs (left), with their daughter, Sara, opened this winery in August and released a $48 red Bordeaux blend called Hypothesis. I scored it 92. The rosé and the Chardonnay that were also released were solid with room for upside.

This winery is all about raising the bar, which is one reason it is called Culmina. This represents the culmination of the Triggs family’s career in wine.

Donald, who was born in 1944, has been in the Canadian wine business since 1972, with the exception of a brief excursion into managing a fertilizer company in the 1980s. His company, Vincor, had become the 14th largest wine company in the world before being taken over in 2006 by Constellation Brands. Within a few   months of that takeover, Donald and Elaine began sinking their life savings into the Culmina project on the Golden Mile.

“Retirement to me is a nasty word because it implies stopping,” Donald says. “I don’t think life is about stopping. It is about continuing and doing what you love.”

Their savings have been invested in 50 acres of vines planted on three mountainside benches. They have added a state of the art winery. For their winemaker, they recruited the talented Pascal Madevon, formerly the winemaker at Osoyoos Larose Winery and have backed him up with top flight consultants. With no money or effort being spared here, we can expect more great wines from Culmina.

Their savings have been invested into 50 acres of impeccably developed vineyards and a state of the art winery. They managed to lure the very talented winemaker and viticulturist Pascal Madevon from Osoyoos Larose. It is safe to product that Culmina will soon produce a family of must-have wines.

Other new producers the showed promise right out of the gate in 2013 included Lariana Cellars at Osoyoos, which debuted with a 95 point Viognier; Corcelletes Estate Winery at Cawston, where winemaker Charlie Baessler is being coached by Maverick’s Bertus Albertyn; Bonamici Cellars, the venture of winemaker Philip Soo and partner Mario Rodi, with débuted with two 90-point blends; and Seven Directions, the tiny rosé specialist of winemaker Daniel Bontorin.

Finally, there was C.C. Jentsch Cellars, which opened in September with three 90 point wines and one 89 pointer. It seems to me there remains potential here to be unlocked and I expect that to happen now that winery has a cellar of its own and a cellar hand/winemaker with experience at two other top wineries.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Adega on 45th and friends: a medley of wine reviews

Photo: Adega on 45th owners Alex Nunes and Fred Farinha

What follows are notes on wines reviewed in recent months. Finishing a book and other activities interfered with reporting on them promptly.

However, most of the wines are readily available, either in wine stores or directly from the wineries. The reality is that B.C. wines are not selling out as quickly as they have in the past. The reason: there is so much more choice.

The owner of a major winery told me recently that he believes that the current surplus of B.C. wines amounts to a year's supply of VQA wines. That might be extreme but there is something to that. Just look at the price reductions this fall from some producers of VQA wine.

It may not be the best of times to be a wine producer but it is not a bad time to be a consumer.

Here are wine notes. 

Adega on 45th Viognier 2012 ($20). The wine begins with fruity aromas of pineapple and apricot. On the palate, there are flavours of peach, apricot and guava. The finish is crisp and dry. 89.

Blasted Church Gewürztraminer 2012 ($17.50 for 1,738 cases). This is a serious Alsace-style Gewürztraminer (to distinguish it from the off-dry aperitif versions). It has that almost oily texture I associated with Alsace, with aromas and flavours of citrus, lychee and anise. The finish is dry. Consider this with turkey.  88

Blasted Church Hatfield’s Fuse 2012 ($18.50 for 9,000 cases). The production volume suggests this has become the winery’s flagship white. The 2012 is a nine-grape blend, with the blend based on aromatic varietals. Consequently, the fruity, floral and spicy aromas jump from the glass. The palate is a fruit salad that includes tangerine, grapefruit, lychee and pineapple. The texture is juicy and the finish lingers. 90.

Blasted Church Mixed Blessings 2012 ($18.50 for 607 cases). This is something of a clone of Hatfield’s Fuse, with four aromatic varietals in the blend and a touch more residual sweetness. Aimed primarily for sales to restaurants, the wine is sold out. It is a fleshy and juicy white with aromas of peach and tropical fruits which are echoed on the palate. 89.

Blasted Church Pinot Gris 2012 ($20.50 for 4,000 cases). This is a wine with focussed purity of fruit aromas and flavours – citrus, apple and pear. The wine has good weight and a long finish. 90.

Blasted Church OMG 2011 ($27 for 1,000 cases). This label means Oh My God … and that kind of was my reaction on tasting this delightful sparkling wine. The cuvee is 45% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Noir and 10% Pinot Blanc. In the flute, the wine puts on a terrific display of fine bubbles. It begins with clean aromas of apples. On the palate, there are fruity apple flavours with a toasty note from the lees. The wine is crisp; the bubbles give a creamy texture. 91.

Blasted Church Sauvignon Blanc 2012 ($19.50 for 642 cases). This wine begins with aromas that are both herbal and herbaceous and continues to deliver flavours of grapefruit and grapefruit rind. The bright acidity gives the wine a crisply dry finish. 89.

EauVivre Riesling 2012 ($20). The wine begins with aromas of fresh apples, continuing to flavours of lime and lemon. There is a good backbone of minerals and brisk acidity balanced by a touch of residual sugar. 89.

EauVivre Cabernet Franc 2011 ($22). This is a classically brambly varietal, with aromas and flavours of raspberry and cherry. The wine has a personality of rustic vivacity. 88.

Gray Monk Pinot Auxerrois 2012 ($16.99 for 5,600 cases). This is an excellent white varietal but, strangely, championed only by a few producers. It would be hard to find a better champion than Gray Monk. This is such a delicious and refreshing white, with aromas and flavours of melon, apple and apricot. The alcohol is only 11.7%. It was pretty easy for two of us to finish the bottle and look around for more. 90.

Gray Monk Pinot Blanc 2012 ($15.99 for 2,852 cases). This wine begins with aromas of apples and grapefruit. On the palate, there are flavours of apples, melons and grapefruit. There is a hint of residual sweetness on the fruity finish. 88.

Gray Monk Riesling 2011 ($14.99 for 3,895 cases). Here is a superbly balanced Riesling, with nine grams per litre of acidity and 22.9 grams of residual sugar. As a result, the wine seems less sweet than it actually is and it projects aromas and flavours of citrus and peach, with the tiniest hint of petrol adding complexity. The acidity leaves the wine tangy and refreshed. 90.

Gray Monk Unwooded Chardonnay 2012 ($16.99 for 4,882 cases). This is a delightful wine, beginning with aromas of peach and citrus leading to flavours of peach, pear and apple. The texture is full and the finish is clean and refreshing. 90

Nagging Doubt Chardonnay 2012 ($19.50 for 150 cases). Nagging Doubt is still a virtual winery selling through its website. It is establishing its own winery in East Kelowna. This was just released. I got a bottle from Andrew Meyer and Terry Meyer-Stone who grew the grapes on their Anarchist Mountain vineyard. This is a powerful Chardonnay, with 15.3% alcohol but with such rich and intense fruit that there is no heat to speak of on the palate. It begins with aromas of citrus and butter and a toasty note from subtle oak. On the palate, there are flavours of tangerine and stone fruit. 91.

Nk’Mip Cellars Winemaker’s Riesling 2012 ($17.99). Here is a classically disciplined Riesling, with a slight touch of petrol and citrus on the nose and with concentrated flavours of  lemon and lime wrapped around a backbone of minerals and bright acidity. The finish is crisp and dry. 90.

Nk’Mip Cellars Winemaker’s Pinot Noir 2012 ($21.99). This is a light-bodied quaffer with cherry flavours and with a silken finish, but not much length. 87.

Nk’Mip Cellars Talon 2011 ($22.99). This is a blend of  33% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32.4% Syrah, 17% Merlot, 10.7% Cabernet Franc, 6.3% Malbec and 0.5% Pinot Noir. It is designed to be an early-drinking red with the sophistication that comes from blending and aging for 18 months on barrel. The wine begins with aromas of vanilla and black cherry, leading to flavours of plum, chocolate and spice on the finish. 89.
Nk’Mip Cellars Qwam Qwmt Syrah 2009 ($34.99). A bold, ripe and satisfying wine, this begins with aromas of vanilla, white pepper, black cherry. On the palate, there are flavours of black cherry, plum and pepper. The soft ripe tannins give this a generous, mouth-filling texture. 91.

See Ya Later Ranch Belle 2011 ($19.09). This is one of the SYL wines name for one of the dogs that belonged to a former owner of the property. The wine, a blend of 85% Viognier and 15% Pinot Gris, is anything but a dog. It is crisp and refreshing, with aromas and flavours of apricot and apples, with a touch of citrus on the lingering finish. 88

Synchromesh Riesling 2012 Thorny Vines Vineyard ($18.90). The vineyard is on the Naramata Bench, where a few other wineries have a track record for good Riesling. This wine begins with a hint of petrol and grapefruit on the nose. The favours explode on the palate – lime and grapefruit, popped by a generous amount of residual sugar very nicely balanced with acidity. Close your eyes and you think you are in a good German wine region. 90.

Synchromesh Riesling 2012 Storm Haven Vineyard ($31.90). This is the Okanagan Falls vineyard beside the winery – a rocky terroir that screams Riesling. I won’t even try to top the winery’s own notes: “Ripe crab apple, pineapple, mango meat, coconut, banana, lemon and apple sauce are all prevalent.  In the mouth the wine shows the same, adding Asian and anjou pear, honey, sweet apple blossom, lime, rose petal, lemon curd and banana.  The finish is an endless balance of honeyed sweetness teetering on a broad range of acids and stoney minerality.” Suffice it to say, I also think this is a very fine wine. 92.

Synchromesh Pinot Noir 2011 Palo Solara Vineyards ($24.90). Still youthful in personality, this wine should be cellared for a year or two; or at least decanted if impatient. It has spicy aromas of cherry and raspberry which are echoed on the palate. The bright acidity gives this wine a tangy leanness. It has the promise of fleshing out with some age while retaining its lively vivacity. 88-90.

TNT Chardonnay 2012 ($22.90 for 150 cases). This is the latest release from Okanagan Crush Pad of a wine made under the hand of sommelier of the year. The sommelier involved here was Terry Threlfall, the 2012 Sommelier of the Year. The name of the wine is taken from his initials. This wine was fermented in one of the concrete eggs that OCP uses and which seem to add texture to the wine. The wine has aromas of apples and citrus leading to flavours of of citrus, apple and apricot. The bright acidity and the minerality give the wine a nicely defined backbone. 90.

Unconventional Wisdom “I Told You So” Viognier 2012 by Elephant Island ($22.99). Better known for its fruit wines, Elephant Island added a red and a white grape wine in 2010. In my mind, it established itself as one of the Okanagan’s premier Viognier producers. Fruity and floral on the nose, this wine has flavours of peach and tangerine. As the wine warms up, the fruit flavours add a honeyed note, with a touch of sweetness on the finish. 90.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Black Hills releases in 2013

Photo: Black Hills Wine Experience Centre

When Black Hills opened in 2000, there were only 60 wineries in British Columbia.

Not many of those were yet making great Meritage blends. As a result, Nota Bene, the Cabernet Sauvignon anchored-blend from Black Hills, caused an immediate sensation. For many years, it has been one of the hardest to get of the collector wines from the Okanagan.

Today, there are four times as many wineries in British Columbia, and a lot more good Meritage reds to choose from. Nota Bene no longer sells out in a week. You might actually be able to find a bottle of Nota Bene 2011, the current release, in your local VQA store – still in time to enjoy it for Christmas.

Black Hills has more than doubled the production of Nota Bene since making its first vintage in 1999. The quality of the wine has remained consistently high. The more recent vintages arguably are better because the wines are made with far better winemaking equipment and with grapes from more mature vines.

The wine is just as collectible as ever. That it no longer sells out in a flash has nothing to do with quality; perhaps that has a little to do with its $52.90 price and  everything to do with the vastly greater choice of icon wines that the collector has.

If you are not a collector with a big budget, don’t despair.  A few years ago, Black Hills launched a second label called Cellar Hand. Both the red blend and the white blend under this label are $20 or less and the wines over-deliver in quality.

The winery is based on a 27-acre property on Black Sage Road, much of which was planted in 1996. The founders made the wines for a number of years in rustic Quonset hut before building a new winery in 2007, set amidst the vines. The group of investors which bought Black Hills in 2008 have since expanded the winery and further refined the winemaking equipment.

The new owners also have begun to offer regular tastings in an elegant Wine Experience Centre not far from the winery, whose tasting room always was too small. The Centre, which opened two years ago, is in a superb setting manned by well-trained tasting guides. This has become a priority stop on the wine tasting route every summer.

The wine lounge, which also has flatbread pizza available, added a charging station for electric cars this summer. This is the first winery charging station in the south Okanagan and one of only two in the Okanagan. The other is at Tantalus Vineyards, easily within range if you are tooling around the valley in your Tesla.

Here are notes on the current releases.

Cellar Hand Free Run White 2012 ($15.90). This is a complex, fruit-forward blend of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Viognier, Chardonnay, Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc. It begins with aromas of pear and citrus. On the palate, there are flavours of apple, citrus and ripe pineapple. The finish is crisp and refreshing. 88.

Cellar Hand Punch Down Red 2011 ($19.90). This is a blend of 45% Syrah, 28% Merlot and 27% Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine begins with ripe aromas of black cherry and vanilla, leading to flavours of black cherry, black currant and plum with touch of pepper on the finish. The texture is generous and firm enough to allow aging this in bottle a few more years, if you can stay away from it. 89.

Black Hills Alibi 2012 ($24.90). This is 75% Sauvignon Blanc and 25% Sémillon. The wine begins with aromas of herbs, citrus fruits and orange rind. The flavours are intense, including herbs, orange peel, pink grapefruit and melon. The finish is crisp and refreshing. 90.

Black Hills Chardonnay 2012 ($29.90). This elegant Chardonnay begins with aromas of citrus mingled with buttery notes and very subtle oak. On the palate, there are flavours of grapefruit, tangerine and peach with a bright acidity that gives the wine a fresh and tangy finish. 90.

Black Hills Viognier 2012 ($24.90). The wine is elegant and rich on the palate, beginning with citrus, pineapple and stone fruit aromas. The flavours are a marvellous fruit salad of apricot, nectarine and ripe apple. The wine has a defining spine of minerality and a crisp, dry finish. 91.

Black Hills Syrah 2011 ($34.90). The wine begins with alluring aromas of plum, black cherry and pepper. There is a big dollop of fruit on the palate, including black cherry and black berry, along with spice and pepper. The earthy gamey notes on the long finish are classic for the varietal from the south Okanagan. 91.

Black Hills Nota Bene 2011 ($52.90). This is a blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc. Dark in hue, the wine explodes in the glass with aromas of black currant, blackberry, cherry and cedar. On the palate, there are flavours of black currants and dark fruits set on layers of chocolate, coffee and sage. The wine is approachable now but built to cellar through its 10th birthday. 93.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Quails' Gate Old Vines Foch makes friends

A friend who retired to New Zealand after a fine career as home winemaker in BC ingratiated himself with Kate Radburnd, the chief winemaker at the C.J. Pask Winery by giving her a bottle of Quails’ Gate Old Vines Foch.

It is unlikely that she would ever have encountered the Maréchal Foch grape during a long and distinguished winemaking career there. It is not impossible, however, since the New Zealand industry, like Canadian wineries, relied on many hybrid grape varieties through to the 1970s.

Radburnd began her career about the same time as New Zealand switched massively to the classic European varieties. Hence, a Canadian Maréchal Foch wine – arguably the best Canadian Foch – should have been a treat for her.

The Stewart family which owns Quails’ Gate has a block of Foch in its West Kelowna vineyard that likely was planted in 1964. The Stewarts decided not to pull the vines out in 1988 when most Okanagan growers ripped out hybrids to make room for the European classics. That was a fortunate decision.

In 1994, Jeff Martin, an Australian winemaker, was recruited to be the winemaker at Quails’ Gate. He found that most of the vines in the Quails’ Gate vineyard were relatively young, having been planted since 1990.

Much of his Australian experience was making big reds with grapes from mature vines.  To make a big red in the Okanagan in the mid-1900s, he had to do his best with Maréchal Foch. His best was so good that the Quails’ Gate Old Vines Foch has been a cult wine ever since. And the winery has extended its Foch franchise to add a reserve Old Vines Foch and a Port-style Foch.

Grant Stanley, the New Zealand-trained Canadian who was the Quails’ Gate winemaker for 10 years until leaving this summer, refined the Old Vines Foch. Jeff’s model had been Australian Shiraz; his Foch was big, bold and swaggering. Grant is obsessed with making finessed Pinot Noirs. His Foch was by no means a Pinot Noir but it seemed to have become more polished and less muscular.

This fall’s releases from Quails’ Gate included both of the Old Vines Foch wines, along with an excellent Merlot and an even better Cabernet Sauvignon. Any of these wines would have turned Kate Radburnd’s head.

Here are notes on the wines.

Quails’ Gate Merlot 2011 ($24.99 for 3,050 cases). This wine begins with alluring aromas of black currant, blackberry and blueberry. The aromas are echoed in the juicy flavours and are accentuated by hints of spice and chocolate. The tannins are ripe but also firm. Decanting is recommended. 89.

 Quails’ Gate Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 ($24.99 for 1,100 cases). This is an exceptionally well-growth Cabernet Sauvignon, especially since it comes from the winery’s Boucherie Mountain vineyard, not from Oliver or Osoyoos. The wine begins with aromas of cherry and cranberry. The palate has layers of vibrant fruit flavours, including blackberry, black cherry and vanilla. The texture is firm but supple. This is such a delicious red that it needs to be sold in a magnum. A 750 ml bottle is not enough. 90.

 Quails’ Gate Old Vines Foch 2011 ($24.99 for 4,800 cases). The grapes for this came primarily from 29-year-old vines in an Osoyoos Vineyard that Quails’ Gate owns. Fans of Foch will be a little unhappy to hear that this block is being replanted with Chenin Blanc. Quails’ Gate has concluded that the white variety, which is in short supply but makes a very popular wine, will do better on Osoyoos sand that the Foch. This is a dark wine with smoky black cherry aromas. On the palate, it presents gamey flavours with a touch of sour cherry (the acidity is brisk). This is the ideal red to have with venison or bison. 88.

Quails’ Gate Old Vines Foch Reserve 2011 ($40 for 1,400 cases). This is made from vines planted in 1964 and that accounts for the rich, almost chewy texture. The wine begins with aromas of spice, vanilla, black cherry and chocolate and it delivers flavours of black cherry and plum. It finishes with what the winery described as “sweet and sour” notes. Again, the acidity is a touch higher than is usual in a red wine. In this wine, that is not an issue. The huge concentration of fruit needs the acidity to help the flavours jump from the glass. This is a generous and satisfying red to pair with a pepper steak or a bison rib eye. 91.

Quails’ Gate Fortified Vintage Foch 2011 ($22.99 for 375 cases). Made in the tradition of Port, this wine, which spent 18 months in barrels, has 18% alcohol. Dark in hue, it has aromas of spice, chocolate and cherries. On the palate, the wine is rich in texture, with flavours of black cherry and chocolate. Imagine drinking a Black Forest cake! 91.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Meet Nanaimo's Noble Beast Wines

Photo: Noble Beast's Julian Bakker

If you share my interest in small new labels of British Columbia wines, you will welcome Nanaimo-based Noble Beast Wines.

This is the creation Julian and Lisa Bakker, a young couple who were drawn to wine during a 2003 honeymoon in the Okanagan. As Julian recounts the story, they did not have much money (like so many newly weds). Looking for something to do, they discovered that most wineries offered free tastings.

“We fell in love with the whole culture surrounding wine,” he says.

A decade later, they are selling two solid wines made with Okanagan grapes: a 2012 Gewürztraminer and a 2011 Merlot Cabernet blend. Quantities are small – 150 cases of the Gewürztraminer, slightly less of the red. There was a 2010 Pinot Noir but it is sold out. That means the wines are hard to find, aside from the winery’s web site. A good place to start is in restaurants and private wine stores in Nanaimo. These are identified on Noble Beast’s web site.

Born in Etobicoke, Ontario, Julian has lived in Nanaimo since 1993. He was 13 then when his parents moved there from Ontario (his father was taking an island teaching job). Lisa, who is a nurse, is from Shawnigan Lake. The couple are dedicated island residents. Their ambition, once Noble Beast is established, is to buy a small farm somewhere on Vancouver Island and plant a vineyard.

Julian is something of a Renaissance man. A pianist and guitar player, he has played in rock bands and he continues to be involved in arts production. He has worked as a freelance photographer. He also has a master’s degree in geography from the University of Victoria.

When he began asking Okanagan winemakers how to get started in the business, one of them suggested he go to an Okanagan Falls winery now called Synchromesh Wines. It had been launched in 2010 as a small custom crush winery and, for a time, functioned as something of a collective for a group of winemakers.

One of those winemakers was Mark Simpson, a veteran Vancouver beer maker who has diversified into winemaking for his own label (Siren’s Call) and for several clients. Mark agreed to take Julian as one of his clients and the first Noble Ridge vintages were made under the Synchromesh license. Synchromesh has since reduced its custom crush activities.

This year, Mark moved the business to his own Okanagan Falls winery, called BC Wine Studio. The clients that followed him included Julian Bakker and Noble Beast.

Julian’s long term plan is to acquire his own skills at making wine, which should not be difficult for someone who has already mastered photography, music and geography. Meanwhile, he can rely on Mark to help him line up good Okanagan grapes and make the wines.

“The game plan is to get to the 500 case level,” he says. “I have been pouring my energy into developing the business.”

In 2012, only 200 cases were produced for Noble Beast, of which only 50 were red. In the 2013 vintage, 150 cases of white wine and 72 cases of red have been produced. The current plan is to grow cautiously to 300 cases in the 2014 vintage. At this point, the portfolio is tightly focussed on dry Gewürztraminer and a red Bordeaux blend.

The winery’s catchy name has a simple origin. He and Lisa own a Boston terrier which they call Noble Beast.

Here are notes on the wines.

Noble Beast Gewürztraminer 2012 ($20.50). Made in a European style, the wine begins with spicy fruit aromas. These lead to grapefruit flavours in a rich texture and dry finish. 88.

Noble Beast Merlot Cabernet 2011 ($27). This wine begins with aromas of vanilla and red fruit. On the palate, there are flavours of black cherry, blackberry and raspberry. The firm texture suggests this wine will cellar well; with decanting, it is already approachable. 88-90.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Hester Creek champions Cabernet Franc

Hester Creek winemaker Rob Summers

Cabernet Franc as a varietal wine is being championed by more and more wineries in the Okanagan.

One of the most notable of these champions is Hester Creek Estate Winery. This winery’s Cabernet Franc Reserve has emerged as a red that should be in the cellars of serious collectors of Okanagan wines.

That might surprise those who recall that the winery was heading for receivership a decade ago. In mid-December 2003, a disgruntled winemaker named Glenn Barry, who had just been hired that summer, returned to Australia when he could not collect salary he believed was owing to him.

The bank sent a couple of Okanagan winemakers to look after inventory. They were astonished to find most of the records for the 2003 vintage were missing, along with identifying tags on tanks and barrels of wine. While it was never proven who did that, it was certainly the low in Hester Creek’s history.

The turning point occurred a few months later when Curt Garland (right), a businessman from Prince George, bought the winery. He has since invested about $25 million in the winery. Hester Creek is now one of the best wineries in the Okanagan and it has the awards to prove it. One example: its 2010 Cabernet Franc Reserve won the Lieutenant Governor’s Award of Excellence earlier this year.

One of Curt’s shrewdest hires was winemaker Rob Summers. Recruited in 2006, Rob already had had a distinguished career in Ontario where he had risen to become the national winemaker for Andrew Peller Ltd. Since arriving in the Okanagan, he has designed Hester Creek’s modern winery and worked with the vineyard crew to improve what was already one of the south Okanagan’s better sites. And he has restructured the wine portfolio. It is now a trim and focussed portfolio led by an iconic red called The Judge and by several reserve reds.

This fall, Rob led an impressive vertical tasting of the winery’s Cabernet Franc Reserves from 2005 through 2011, the current release. For good measure, he also added the winery’s first Chardonnay, a Merlot Reserve and the 2010 Judge.

The quite evident rise in the quality of the Cabernet Franc wines tracks the significant improvements made at Hester Creek since Curt and Rob arrived.

 Cabernet Franc Reserve 2005 was made by Hester Creek’s former winemaker, Eric Von Krosigk, under challenging circumstances. The wine was still in tanks when Rob arrived in the spring of 2006 and he was able to tweak it.  “We were able to control the barrel program and the maturing program and that helped a lot,” he says.

“The old winery was the house that Jack built,” Rob explains. “It was added onto and onto. It was very hard to keep that place clean – there were a lot of wood walls, the floors were not sealed. We had no hot water. We had to make hot water with a little power washer and a generator. There were lots of challenges. There is a little more microbial stuff going on in the 2006 and 2007, a little bit of funkiness. It is good but the wine is a little more ‘old world’ style.”

Only 250 cases were made in 2005, compared with 1,200 cases in more recent vintages.

Should you have a bottle or two of the 2005, it won’t disappoint you. In fact, the firm texture suggests this might age a few more years. It begins with lovely berry aromas, leading to flavours of black cherry, blackberry, chocolate and tobacco. 88.

Cabernet Franc Reserve 2006, Rob’s first vintage here, was made with leading edge Italian fermenters from a firm called Ganimede. The winery, on Rob’s recommendation, bought a pair in 2006. Today, the winery has 14. It is believed to be the only Okanagan winery with this equipment.

The fermenters are designed to capture the gas released during fermentation, recirculating it through the liquid. The gas breaks the cap of skins and keeps the skins immersed without releasing hard tannins.

“With red fermentations, cap management is a big part of how the wine will turn out,” Rob believes. “With the Ganimede, that mixing of the wine with the cap is very thorough but it is also very gentle. We get very good extraction of colour, with very ripe tannins very early on in the process.”

It certainly had a positive impact on the 2006, which – while still firm – is not as hard as the 2005. It is nice brambly red, with red currant and cherry aromas, flavours of blackberry and currant and with a spicy finish. 89.

Cabernet Franc Reserve 2007 benefitted not only by further changes in processing but by much more attention to the vineyard. Beginning in 2007, the vineyards were converted over two years to drip irrigation, which not only saves water but is more precise. As well, Rob began introducing French barrels to a winery that traditionally used American oak.

This wine begins with complex aromas of vanilla, prune plum and cherry, leading to flavours of black cherries and plum and a touch of new oak on the finish. The wine is full on the palate with soft, ripe tannins. 90.

Cabernet Franc Reserve 2008 has no hint of the old world. By that vintage, Rob had exorcised the brettanomyces from the winery. The fruit aromas and flavours are fresh and clean and the texture has become seductive.  The flavours include raspberry with pepper on the finish. 92.

“If you are doing a blind tasting and you have to guess the wines, you can usually pick out Hester Creek’s Cabernet Franc by that raspberry character,” Rob says. “Sometimes it is very subtle, as in 2011 and 2010. But it will become more prominent as the wine ages. If you look at 2008, 2009, even 2010, there is that raspberry and black currant note. It even surprised me when I was making the wine: raspberry in Cab Franc! And pepper.”

Cabernet Franc Reserve 2009, one of the better red vintages in the Okanagan, was the first made in the efficient new Hester Creek winery. Sanitation issues were a thing of the past. As well, about three quarters of the barrels were French oak. All that is reflected in the wine’s greater finesse.

It is bold and ripe, with spicy red berry aromas and with flavours of black cherry, raspberry and mocha. 92.

Cabernet Franc Reserve 2010 begins to show the additional vineyard improvements made after Hester Creek hired Mark Sheridan  (right) as general manager. He is a veteran Australian-trained viticulturist who had been recruited to the Okanagan a decade earlier to manage Vincor’s vineyards.

“With the drip irrigation, that we can reduce the berry size by adding some water stress to the vine at a time when the cells in the berries are dividing,” Mark explains. “That is before veraison. You put a mild water stress on and the cells won’t divide as much. You end up with a smaller berry and the advantages of that is a higher skin to pulp ratio. You get more intense flavours.”

This wine – the award winner – begins with complex aromas of cherry and toasty vanilla, likely reflecting the barrels. The palate is rich with flavours of cherry, raspberry, blackberry and a lingering finish of spice and chocolate. 92.

Cabernet Franc Reserve Block 3 2011 ($28.95). Production reached 1,200 cases and that is not enough for a wine that now sells out every year. However, Hester Creel is unlikely to make more than 1,500 cases of this annually. The block, now identified on the label, will not produce more grapes. Cabernet Franc also is important as a blender in other Hester Creek reds.

“There is a finite amount we can produce from that block,” Rob says. “The Judge – our premium blend – also draws from that block.”

As one would expect, the 2011 is still lean and youthful, with aromas of blackberry and raspberry and with flavours of blackberry and red currant. This vibrant red should be cellared for another four or five years to allow it to develop toward its peak. 90-92.

“Stylistically, 2008, 2009 and going forward is where I wanted to be stylistically, where the fruit is very vibrant and clear,” Rob says. “It is not a fruit bomb but it is there. The tannins are well integrated into the wine. The oak aging program   is well integrated, with more French oak. That’s why you see that [quality] ramp up.”

At the completion of this vertical tasting, three other Hester Creek releases were also poured. Here are my notes:

Chardonnay 2012 ($24.95 for 500 cases). Hester Creek’s first oak-aged Chardonnay, this is an elegantly sculpted wine. It begins with aromas of citrus and toasty oak. On the palate, there are bright and refreshing citrus flavours delicately framed with buttery notes. 91.

Merlot Block 2 Reserve 2011 ($28.95 for 500 cases). A supple wine, this begins with aromas of cassis, plum and toasty vanilla. The concentrated texture is full, with flavours of cassis, blueberry and mocha. 92.

The Judge 2010 ($45 for 425 cases). The fourth vintage of this iconic wine, it is a blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The wine has layer upon layer of rich flavour – plum, cassis, vanilla – in a bold and concentrated frame. The ripe tannins mean it is approachable now but, with cellaring, there is more potential to unlock. 94.

If you find any of these sold out, you need to join the two-year-old Hester Creek wine club, which has more than 1,400 members. They get first crack at all of these premium wines.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Bartier Brothers expands its portfolio

Photo: Michael Bartier at the start of a brilliant career

The first wines released by Bartier Brothers were The Cowboy, a white, and The Goal, a red. Michael and Don Bartier, who were born in Kelowna, recall Okanagan history with those labels. The Cowboy was inspired by the rodeo career of the late Kenny MacLean of Okanagan Falls, the World Rodeo Champion in 1962. The Goal recalls the 1955 World Hockey champions, the Penticton Vees.

The brothers now have begun to make their own Okanagan history with this winery. Launched initially under the Okanagan Crush Pad umbrella, Bartier Brothers is positioned to puts its own roots down on a vineyard on Black Sage Road. “The wines are the culmination of my career, the sum of everything I have learned,” Michael says.

The brothers are sons of an accountant. Don took up that profession in Calgary in 1978, where he pursued an oil industry career. Influenced by Michael’s passion, he planted the Lone Pine Vineyard, a small block of Gewürztraminer in Summerland, several years before the brothers collaborated on their initial vintage in 2010.

Michael, who was born in 1967, has a 1990 degree in recreational administration at the University of Victoria. “I wasn’t interested in the recreational field,” he admitted later. “By the time I realized that, I was too far along in my degree to stop those studies.” On graduation, he spent five years selling wine.

Returned to the Okanagan in 1995, he briefly considered becoming a rock climbing guide until taking a job at Hawthorne Mountain Vineyards (now See Ya Later Ranch). He was quickly promoted to assistant winemaker. (The photograph at the head of this post was taken during his Hawthorne Mountain days.) He began taking winemaking courses and, in 1998, did a vintage at the Thomas Hardy Winery in Australia. Since 2002, he has honed his craft at Stag’s Hollow, Township 7, Road 13 and finally, at Okanagan Crush Pad with multiple client wineries.

By the 2012 vintage, Bartier Brothers was producing more than 2,000 cases, with most of the fruit from Cerqueira Vineyard, which the brothers have under contract. This six-hectare (15-acre) Black Sage Road vineyard with unique mineral content, is planted with Sémillon, Chardonnay, Syrah and the Bordeaux varietals, giving Michael many options to display what he has learned in 20 years.

Here are notes on the wines.

Bartier Bros. Sémillon 2012 Cerqueira Vineyard ($19.90 for 144 cases). The wine begins with aromas of fresh apple slices. On the palate, there are flavours of apple and melon and herbs. It has a good backbone of minerals and bright acidity to give the wine a crisp finish. 90.

Bartier Bros. Gewürztraminer 2012 Lone Pine Vineyard ($18.90 for 144 cases). The complex of this wine has been augmented with the addition of 11% Sémillon in the blend. The wine begins with a fruity aroma – more floral than spicy. There are flavours of lychee and a hint of residual sweetness, nicely balanced with acidity to create a refreshing finish. 90.

Bartier Bros. Unoaked Chardonnay 2012 Cerqueira Vineyard ($19.90 for 215 cases). The wine begins with a lovely aroma of citrus and apple. The aromas are echoed on the palate along with lime and peach. The rich texture was promoted by leaving the wine on lees, without stirring, for five months. 89.

Bartier Bros. Merlot 2011 Cerqueira Vineyard ($26.90 for 350 cases). It was supposed to be a cool vintage in 2011 which may why this Black Sage Road still had Merlot hanging in mid-October. The grapes ripened well for the alcohol of this wine is 14.7%. There is also 14% Cabernet Franc in the blend. The texture is so generous that there is no heat on the finish. Because the wine is under screw cap, I would recommend decanting it, letting the aromas open up with breathing. The wine has flavours of blackberry, cherries and vanilla. The firm ripe tannins mean the wine has structure to age. 89-91.

Bartier Bros. Syrah 2011 Cerqueira Vineyard ($26.90 for 325 cases). This is 87% Syrah, 13% Cabernet Franc. There is a brooding, earthy personality to this wine that implies a touch of Rhone. There are flavours of prune and peppery chocolate on the rich palate. 90.

Bartier Bros. The Goal 2011 Cerqueira Vineyard ($29.90 for 345 cases). This is 90% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc. The wine begins with cherry and plum aromas. The palate is generous, with flavours of black cherry, black currant and sage. The firm tannins suggest this is a good candidate for cellaring. Decant it if you are impatient. 90.