Photo: Jason James in the Steller's Jay cellar
Since establishing Steller’s Jay as a sparkling wine brand
on its own, Constellation Brands has slowly expanded the portfolio.
With the release of a Sparkling Gewürztraminer, there are now
three sparkling wines under the Steller’s Jay label, including the original Cuvée
and a Sparking Shiraz, released last year.
Sparkling wines from Gewürztraminer are comparatively rare.
It is a variety that drops acidity as it ripens – but acidity is important in a
good sparkling wine. However, Jason James, the Steller’s Jay winemaker, obviously
saw to it that the grapes for his sparkling wine were picked before they were
super ripe. This wine, which did its secondary fermentation in bottle like
Champagne, has enough acid to give it a refreshing finish.
Jason did not make this a clone of the very popular Sumac
Ridge Gewürztraminer table wine, which has often been an off-dry fruit bomb.
The sparkling version is made with wonderful restraint and delicacy.
Steller’s Jay formerly was a star in the portfolio of Sumac
Ridge Estate Winery (also owned now by Constellation Brands). It was the first
premium quality British Columbia sparkling wine made by the classical method.
The first vintage of Steller’s Jay Cuvée
The development of classical sparkling
wine in British Columbia dates from trials started in 1983, by Gary Strachan
when he was at the Summerland Research Station. Soon after arriving there from Ontario
in 1977, he
noticed the wineries all complained that British
grapes were excessively acidic. "Why
don't we exploit that and make sparkling wines?" he asked himself.
Sumac Ridge founder Harry McWatters
soon involved himself with Strachan's research project, which was funded by a
grant from the National Research Council. To a degree, they were re-inventing
the wheel. After all, Dom Perignon, who died in France
in 1715, generally is
credited with figuring out how to retain bubbles in wine. However, the French,
understandably, have had a long tradition to keeping to themselves the
technical nuances of making Champagne. "There were lots of books about Champagne
but they didn't give you the technical background in how to make it,"
Winemaker Harold Bates, who had
acquired sparkling wine experience with T.G. Bright & Co. in Niagara Falls,
helped in the first year of the Summerland trials. In the second year,
technical assistance was provided by Eric von Krosigk, a Vernon
native who was just completing winemaking
studies in Germany
that included apprenticeship with a sparkling wine producer. (Subsequently, Eric
became the winemaker at Summerhill Winery, the producer of Cipes Brut and other
After several trial lots of
sparkling wine had been made at Summerland, Sumac Ridge committed to commercial
quantities of sparkling wine, with the first major release being made July
1991, on the winery's tenth anniversary. The wine, blended from pinot blanc,
pinot noir and chardonnay, is Steller’s Jay Cuvée, named for the raucous blue-feathered
creature that is British Columbia's provincial bird.
In the years since
then, Steller’s Jay Cuvée has established itself as one of British Columbia’s
top sparkling wines, with a consistent string of awards. For many years, the
wine was made by Mark Wendenburg who preceded Jason James as the Sumac Ridge
The Sparkling Shiraz released last year was actually the second
release of a wine in that style by Steller’s Jay. The previous release was in
This is a bottled-fermented sparkling wine (like Champagne).
Jason James, the winemaker who made it, is quoted as saying: “This is a very
special wine with a lot of depth and complexity. Only premium grapes were
selected and blended to produce this special sparkling wine. The base Shiraz
was treated like a
red wine; harvested at 24 brix and fermented on the skins. As a result, there
is more tannin than in a normal sparkling.”
This style of wine has been produced for many years in Australia
The Liquor Distribution Branch used to list several examples. There are none in
its product catalogue now, which speaks to the limited popularity of this novel
style of sparkling wine.
Here is a note I did last year on Steller’s Jay Sparkling
Sparkling Shiraz NV
($25.99 for 1,000 cases). Open this
wine carefully to avoid having the energetic magenta-coloured bubbles frothing
all over the table cloth. With its deep colour and its bubbles, this is a
spectacular wine in a Champagne
flavours are intense, starting with black cherry and going on to chocolate,
coffee and spice. The wine is technically dry, with its 25 grams of residual
sugar balanced with modest acidity. The texture is plush and rich. This is a
tour de force. 90-92.
And here is a note on the Sparking Gewürztraminer, which is
available just at the winery.
Sparkling Gewürztraminer NV
($21.79 plus tax). As remarked above, the
delicacy and restraint show up with floral and citrus aromas. There is a hint
of lychee and peach on the palate. The wine is very slightly off-dry (18 grams
of residual sugar) but balanced so well that, helped by the fine bubbles, the
finish is dry. 91.