Saturday, 30 April 2016

Collectibles: April 2016

I was reminded of the diversity that can be found in wine production schedules this month, seeing full-bodied Merlot and Syrah emerging alongside the spring’s freshest whites and Rosé. While some days see me finding long-sought bottles in out of the way stores, or finally caving to my desires for the last batch of some rarity for which I have no room, every April collectible is a brand new release. With a couple exceptions, these seven wines are exclusively small lot productions rarely seen in stores, necessitating immediate purchase when spotted, or acquisition directly from the winery.

April 2016 BC wine collectibles

Tantalus 2013 Old Vines Riesling: Although BC now has a healthy proportion of world-class Riesling, it’s Tantalus and their old vines that receive the greatest cult status. While the winery’s regular Riesling is exceptionally delicious as well, the dry and intense Old Vines version is a consistent collectible with superb aging potential. Released after two years of bottle age it sells out fast from the winery, and has been absent from VQA stores for years. Intense acid in 2013, reaching 10.7g/L, is barely tempered by a relatively low 9.1 g/L of residual sugar, leading reviewers like WineAlign’s David Lawrason to praise the powerful texture, riveting acidity, and outstanding length: “It should age decades.” Hearing that Winemaker David Paterson believes the 2013 is his best ever provides quite the impetus to sock some away! Swirl VQA Store $35

CedarCreek 2013 Platinum Pinot Noir Block 4: One of two reserve-tier Pinot Noir at CedarCreek, the Block 4 received a Gold medal from the National Wine Awards last summer. Despite bottling in March 2015 it is only now trickling into stores after a year of bottle aging and great patience on the part of collectors. The Block 4 typically differs from the lighter more floral Block 2 label, with robust body and spiced mocha character suggested after going through wild fermentation and 15 months in French oak. Like the other Platinum wines it comprises a small lot, with 420 cases produced from 2013 (alongside 325 cases of the equally new Block 2). New owner Anthony Von Mandl’s confidence in his property appears strong, given the 50% price increase the Platinum Pinots experienced after the winery’s acquisition in 2014. Swirl VQA Store $66

Church & State 2013 Coyote Bowl Syrah: The reserve-tier Syrah from Church & State’s Black Sage Bench Coyote Bowl Vineyard is another benchmark for the varietal from BC, with a slew of decorations to its name in previous years, including a Lieutenant Governor’s Award. The newest vintage was just released after having been bottled last August following 22 months in 40% new French, Russian, and American oak. The winery’s crown jewel home vineyard is yielding an abundance of quality Syrah grapes, enough for 1,075 cases from the superior 2013 vintage. Having tasted it alongside a handful of other BC Syrah recently I found it leaning towards the serious and savoury side, with readily apparent peppercorn atop intense dark fruit, plus sufficient structure to keep it sound for a few years in the cellar. Swirl VQA Store $38

Road 13 2012 Jackpot Syrah: Although Road 13 established a loyalty club many years ago, they have now structured their program to feature thrice-annual customized shipments. My first shipment offered the opportunity to add a bottle of the newest release reserve-tier Syrah. Blending Syrah with Malbec (in 2012 and 2013) yielded the Golden Mile winery Platinum medals at two consecutive National Wine Awards competitions. Fresh from 22 months (French oak & steel) barrel aging, I fully expect their small production (139 cases) Jackpot Syrah to continue demonstrating the winery’s growing mastery with the variety. Interestingly the tasting notes suggest a departure from previous vintages that emphasized meaty character, focusing instead on a Northern Rhone profile of “blueberry, orange peel, dark chocolate, plum, black pepper, and grilled almond.” Winery Direct $40

Le Vieux Pin 2013 Retouche: Like the discretely Syrah-infused “Hermitaged” Bordeaux produced by outlaw winemakers of old, Retouche is 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, and 20% Syrah. The new blend marks an abrupt change from previous years however, when it included only Cabernet and Syrah. It was recently released to Wine Club members and a few lucky restaurant clients, but is worth seeking out for collectors – only 125 cases were produced (still, a big increase from the 61 cases in 2012). The combination of prime grapes from the famed U2 Block north of Oliver, the Golden Mile, and the home vineyard on the Black Sage Bench spent 18 months in used French oak, ensuring the fruit flavours shine. Having tasted it earlier this month John Schreiner complimented the cassis aromas and concentrated “flavours of black currant, coffee, and dark chocolate.” Winery Direct $69

LaStella 2014 Fortissimo: This well-priced Super Tuscan-style blend is the Italian-inspired winery’s workhorse. Compared to smaller lots of varietal Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sangiovese the Fortissimo practically routs the rest with 1,374 cases produced in 2014. Although it hasn’t necessarily been a stated goal, it is exciting to see Sangiovese finally reach the second-highest proportion of the blend for the first time, with 21% following 57% Merlot, and trailed by 11% each Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc. The grapes – from five vineyards throughout the southern Okanagan – were aged in more than 40% neutral oak, with only 15% new barrels used. Fortissimo is consistently well crafted for current consumption as well as elegant aging; I was surprised to discover I now have seven vintages in the cellar! Swirl VQA Store $38

LaStella 2013 Allegretto Merlot: Although the iconic Maestoso Merlot is the king at LaStella, the Allegretto has risen in the ranks to provide for a relatively close second status, and is often even more difficult to acquire! Allegretto comes from the Stagg’s Vineyard on the west side of Osoyoos Lake, further south than the lakeside home vineyard where Maestoso is grown. The pure white sand and low water retention in Stagg’s allows the Merlot vines to be grown on their own rootstock (without fear of phylloxera infestation), leading to the “Pie Franco” designation (“on its own foot”). Four acres of lovingly tended vines yielded a total of 275 cases in 2013, which spent 18 months in used French oak before bottling. The result is a well-integrated wine that the winery believes leverages the strong growing season to offer “more immediate appeal upon release” than previous vintages. Winery Direct $69

Sunday, 24 April 2016

BCWAS 8th Generation Tasting

After having visited 8th Generation Vineyards during two fall bus tours – the most recent in 2013 – the BC Wine Appreciation Society welcomed owner Stefanie Schales to Vancouver this month for a spring sit-down tasting. Stefanie and her husband Bernd have owned their Summerland winery since 2007, after emigrating from Germany and acquiring an Okanagan Falls vineyard in 2003. The winery name is spot-on, as both of their families have contributed to the wine industry since at least the mid-eighteenth century!

Stefanie Schales introduces the wines of 8th Generation

While Bernd received formal oenological education in Germany, Stefanie originally trained there as an architect. Her resulting organizational, detail-oriented skillset has rendered Bernd extremely grateful she serves as “the very epicenter of managing both our business, as well as our young, energetic family.” After time spent in the German, New Zealand, and South African wine industries the Schales discovered the beauty and potential of British Columbia during a 2001 vacation. Plans to operate from the initial Okanagan Falls vineyard were revised when the opportunity arose to acquire the former Adora Winery property in Summerland. Since then, 8th Generation has become an essential and obvious stop for wine fans as they pass by via Highway 97, the Okanagan Valley’s main artery.

With several chilled sparkling, white, and Rosé wines leading the evening’s presentation Stefanie wasted little time after introductions before detailing the portfolio and imploring sample sips. The most recent incarnations of the winery’s wildly successful Frizzante were foremost, with 2015 “Integrity” white and 2014 “Confidence” Rosé on hand. The first release of Frizzante Chardonnay in 2009 has led to the current pair of frosted-glass, crown-capped blends. The brand new Integrity comprises 52% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Gris, and 18% Kerner, bursting with lemon zest on the nose and fresh flavours of tropical fruits and Elderflower. What little remains of the older Confidence comes from a Limited Edition special production run of pure Pinot Noir, and showed off rich red berry aromas atop an off-dry but balanced cream soda mousse.

Something for every palate in this broad portfolio crowned by Riesling

It should come as no surprise that 8th Generation is particularly enthused about Riesling, and various styles and vintages beckoned, but first Stefanie presented her bone-dry Chardonnay. After a lengthy absence the oaked white returned in 2014, having spent four months sur lie in mixed age French barrels. The maturing vineyard in Okanagan Falls is yielding high quality grapes in ideal terroir that has been turning out some of BC’s most renowned Chardonnay: close neighbours include Blue Mountain and Noble Ridge. The newly released small lot (of 150 cases) was showing pleasant popcorn, stone fruit, and toasty oak aromas, while the buttery palate finished bright with a lemon meringue pie reminder.

Before they warmed up too much it was time for an in-depth examination of Riesling, including some informative German terminology tips. Stefanie had brought four wines covering three vintages and three styles, all sourced from 30-year-old vines on the estate vineyard in Okanagan Falls. In 2013 Bernd added a new style to the portfolio in the form of the “Riesling Selection” and the small quantity that still remains provided a rare opportunity to taste the results. Wild fermentation plus extended skin contact with a mere 8g/L of residual sugar provided a soft, lemon-lime palate with hints of starfruit and a mineral-driven finish. Stefanie was sure to suggest a few hours air, even full decanting, to best enjoy the Selection.

Award-winning and creative Riesling from one of BC's benchmark producers

Last year 8th Generation was honoured to receive a Double Gold Medal at the All Canadian Wine Championships and the status of Best in Canada for their “regular” 2014 Riesling. Surprisingly some remains, despite the bargain price of $21, and it was a necessity for this tasting. A full 24g/L of sugar encourages the expression of tropical fruits but the wine was surprisingly balanced, mouth-watering in fact, with a long sweet finish. From the 2015 vintage the newly released “Classic” Riesling was also enjoyed, with 10g/L of sugar in a citrus-scented, fruit-forward “good table wine” as Stefanie put it. Those present were particularly lucky to also sample the upcoming 2015 Selection, still aging in bottle before a winter release. Plenty of citrus blossoms and tropical fruit aromas conjured Ehrenfelser comparisons at this young stage, while the tart apple flavours and soft, rich texture impressed yet again.

After a break for palate recovery thanks to bountiful cheese and charcuterie platters from Les Amis du Fromage, the wines got a little darker. Easing in the reds was brand new 2015 Pinot Meunier Rosé, a popular and highly sought-after wine sourced from the Summerland vineyard. The winery describes the 16g/L sugar content as a “dangerous sipper” and it clearly contributes to the creamy texture. Twenty-four hours of skin contact after a gentle pressing has again delivered the reliable strawberry-rhubarb and pink grapefruit profile, with a fresh and fruity palate of candied characteristics (but balancing acidity). Stefanie emphasized it will be sold out before summer, so the order sheets on hand were a valuable addition to the evening.

Food pairings are easy with the bright wines of 8th Generation

While the whites are clearly king at 8th Generation, the Schales haven’t missed the opportunities afforded by the Okanagan’s diverse terroir. Varietal reds and blends have a smaller but significant place in the portfolio, offering something for everyone in the tasting room. Pinot Noir and Syrah from the Summerland vineyard are each bottled individually (plus Syrah icewine under the right conditions), and guests were afforded a taste of both. The newly released 2013 Pinot Noir provided classic characteristics of red currants, mushrooms, and wet leaves on the nose; with a dry, spiced palate of cherries, raspberry, and an intense earthy finish. The 2013 Syrah offered similar archetypal aromas including leather and peppered sausages, plus tart red fruit flavours and a light, smooth texture.

A pair of blends showed two very different ways to enjoy red wine, with a nod to the Schales’ relaxed European traditions. New 2014 Cabernet-Merlot brings together 80% Merlot from the Okanagan Falls estate vineyard with 20% Cabernet Sauvignon from a Naramata Bench grower. The admittedly youthful but velvety palate yields rich, dark flavours with a vein of milk chocolate cherries flowing through the finish. Still, admirers with a modicum of patience will gain benefit from time for further integration. The new 2015 “Red One” offers more immediate appeal by design, in the style of summer sipper found at home in the Rheinhessen. Naramata Bench vineyards have provided unoaked Merlot and a touch of Syrah for a bottle best enjoyed chilled, perhaps even as the base of a spritzer or Sangria. In Stefanie’s opinion, the fruit forward sipper is the perfect remedy for hot summer days.

As evidence that Bernd and Stefanie are as serious about longevity as any German winemaker, she closed the tasting by recalling a recent evening at home: to celebrate the move to a new tasting room they cracked open several older bottles on permanent display in the space being vacated. Every wine, white and red, was excellent, with the exception of a 2008 Pinot Noir bottled under cork. Obviously a case for the durability and security of screwcaps, along with evidence for the clear quality of the Schales’ wines from even the early years of production. Hopefully there remains a few bottles of 2007 Riesling deep in the cellars of lucky BC wine aficionados to serve as additional proof. At the very least a few of the latest vintages undoubtedly found their way to shelter in Society members’ cellars thanks to Stefanie.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Okanagan Falls Puts Another Foot Forward

Most people could be forgiven for failing to notice the wineries around Okanagan Falls have become an assembly to be reckoned with in recent years. Unlike more historical marketing groups in areas like the Naramata Bench, Okanagan Falls wineries only banded together very recently. In a few short years as a formal Winery Association this diverse group of businesses are helping place BC wine on the international map, and commanding significant respect and attention in their own right.

Some of the fourteen wineries and hundreds of wines from the OFWA

This week the Association hosted their fourth annual trade & media tasting, showing off upcoming and recent releases from the fourteen member wineries in The Loft at Earl’s Yaletown. One admirable characteristic of this group is freedom from some of the political machinations that can distract other bodies, evident by the embrace of Skaha Bench wineries like Blasted Church, Painted Rock, and Pentâge, plus Kaleden concerns like TopShelf and Krâzē Legz. Moreover, the Association continues to grow at a healthy pace, as new wineries such as Nighthawk Vineyards work alongside prominent established businesses like Blue Mountain, See Ya Later Ranch, and Wild Goose. The opportunity to taste wines from these creative ventures and speak with the variety of owners and winemakers was not to be missed. Many thanks to my friend and fellow BC Wine Appreciation Society member Shelley Hayashi for the wonderfully illustrative photos!

The renowned white wines of Wild Goose drew my attention immediately, with additional regard for the maturing red program at the Kruger family’s pride and joy. General Manager Roland Kruger had in hand samples of 2015 Pinot Gris plus Pinot Blanc fresh of this week’s bottling line. The surprisingly perfumed Pinot Gris led into the delicious newly-bottled Mystic River Pinot Blanc, awash in crisp orchard fruit flavours that should continue this wine’s acclaimed tenure. The 2013 Red Horizon Meritage also showed the growing creativity of Winemaker Hagen Kruger, who has deftly blended 55% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, and a hefty proportion of 20% Petit Verdot. Visitors to the winery can also sample varietal Pinot Noir and Merlot to supplement the better known aromatic whites while envisioning a bountiful future for this BC original.

Brand new whites from Wild Goose and great big reds from Painted Rock

My longstanding, well-deserved favouritism for Painted Rock took me to the table manned by proprietor John Skinner, his daughter (and Business Development Manager) Lauren, plus Senior Sales Consultant Jill Butterworth Penner. All three of these dynamic team members were happy to pour complex 2014 Rosé plus a triplet of intense 2013 reds: Merlot, Syrah, and the sold-out Red Icon blend. The Icon was being poured from the only format that remains available – magnum – while John awaits the appropriate time this summer to bottle his in-demand 2014 vintage. Of particular interest was hearing about a slight increase in new oak for the 2014 reds after years of decreasing proportions, as recommended by consultant Alain Sutre. This admirable responsiveness to vintage conditions is reflective of John’s independent approach to each annual lot (and why the Red Icon is a completely different, delicious blend every year).

At the Stag’s Hollow table, owner Larry Gerelus and winemaker Dwight Sick were pouring the embarrassment of riches that is their portfolio as of late. Despite the suggested four wines per table, I counted at least double that from this supremely adventurous winery, soon to present pioneering varieties such as Teroldego and Dolcetto, in addition to existing, finely crafted rarities like Albariño, Grenache, and Tempranillo. New this year is also the Muscat Frizzante, smoothly spritzy and packaged under practical screwcap to ensure easy enjoyment over the summer months. Rather unexpected but desirable interpretations of (barrel-fermented) Sauvignon Blanc and rare Osoyoos-grown Riesling were also serving to throw guests for an enjoyable loop. Fans of creative winemaking with an ever-present focus on quality would be wise to join the Stag’s Hollow Wine Club, soon to be blessed with exclusive varietal Malbec.

Creativity abounds at Stag's Hollow and sparkling refreshes from Blue Mountain

Blue Mountain is one of British Columbia’s oldest wineries, having virtually defined BC sparkling wine (not to mention Burgundian varieties) for decades, thanks to “43 years of continuous grape production by one family.” Christie Mavety was available alongside Keystone Fine Wines representative Christine Fawcett to remind those present that her family’s focus on estate-grown excellence remains strong, while pouring the well-known “Gold Label” Brut as well as mouth-watering 2008 Blanc de Blancs. The vintage bubbly represents a move by the Mavetys to further develop their portfolio in recent years, with a total of four sparkling wines that include impressively-aged Reserve Brut (e.g., 2007 at present) in addition to existing vintage Brut Rosé. Meanwhile, the 2014 Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay varietals being poured were simply icing on the cake that included the highly impressive Pinot Noir.

Efforts to ensure early bottling at Liquidity Wines allowed for Customer Experience Manager Erin Korpisto to show off 2015 Pinot Gris as well as the straight-forward “White Blend”; with the Blend providing a surprisingly well-aligned composition of 32% Chardonnay, 30% Viognier, 20% Pinot Gris, and 18% Sauvignon Blanc. A pair of Pinot Noirs provided insight into the red program that should soon see an additional third reserve tier added to the existing “Select” and “Estate” Pinot. At the same time the 2012 “Dividend” red was showing lovely integration, featuring a traditional Right-bank Bordeaux configuration favouring 72% Merlot. Later this year the new 2014 Dividend will provide a glimpse of the delicious possibilities in a Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant blend.

Liquidity wines and some of the many Riesling from Synchromesh

The bonanza of Riesling from Alan Dickinson’s Synchromesh continues to grow, and he was happily pouring several different vineyard-specific examples from the 2015 vintage. The entry-level blend of all four vineyards has been joined by a similar version labelled simply “Drier” with 27 g/L of sugar to the former’s 34 grams. The sugar levels for 2015 peak at nearly 51 grams from the Four Shadows Vineyard outside Penticton, but acidity serves to sufficiently balance each wine, including that from the flagship Storm Haven Vineyard home property. Particularly appealing was a 2013 Botrytis-affected Riesling produced in a surprisingly dry style, providing the complex Botrytis flavours without a sugar rush to distract the palate. I was also enamoured from the get go with Alan’s new Cabernet Franc Rosé, a bone dry, 11.3% alcohol beauty with delicate colour and precise texture, and of which there were only 88 cases produced.

The personal touch was present again from Noble Ridge owners Jim & Leslie D’Andrea, on hand to discuss their fifteen-year-old winery and stunning estate vineyard overlooking Vaseux Lake. Crisp 2014 Pinot Grigio provided a lip-smacking homage to Jim’s Italian roots, while 2012 Reserve Chardonnay was everything a Chard-fan could hope for with velvety toffee flavours. The 2013 Reserve Pinot Noir and Meritage greatly impressed me, particularly as they represent only the middle-tier bottlings, with the highly infrequent “King’s Ransom” series a further step up in quality and exclusivity. Even better news came regarding newly released 2011 “The One” sparkling, a 220-case-lot successor to last year’s Lieutenant Governor’s-Award winning 2010 vintage. Leaving estate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for forty months en tirage via traditional method production should provide another success story in the coming year.

Single vineyard Chardonnay and Pinot Noir is the focus at Meyer

Before departing I ensured another taste of Meyer Family Vineyards’ Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, after having sampled the same wines at the recent Vancouver International Wine Festival. While Jak & Janice Meyer could not be present, their small lot whites and reds were poured instead by friendly International Cellars representatives. The pairs of single vineyard Chardonnay (Old Main Road & McLean Creek) and Pinot Noir (McLean Creek & Reimer) all came from the newest 2014 vintage release. As with my experience at VIWF I felt that all four called for more time to mature, albeit intense and expressive at present. Giving Winemaker Chris Carson’s complex Burgundian varietals time in the cellar can be highly rewarding, and the reason I have yet to open 2012 Chardonnay and even some 2008 Pinot Noir.

Although I failed to reach each and every table and taste all the wines available from this continually-growing collective I was given a chance to reflect on how many of my favourites wineries can be found in this relatively unassuming part of wine country. Fortunately regular visits and club shipments ensure I maintain a steady supply at home. The enviable position of Okanagan Falls mid-valley actually makes visiting surprisingly easy – it can be reached in one hour from Kelowna and a mere 30 minutes from Osoyoos and the Canada-US border. I’ll be back again soon, and am grateful to the Okanagan Falls Winery Association for providing yet another reminder why it’s wise to visit often!

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Collectibles: March 2016

Buds are already starting to show on the grape vines as wine country wakes from winter’s slumber. I received three club shipments this month as spring operations begin alongside the 2016 vintage. A few club reds were combined with some gems I brought home from the Vancouver International Wine Festival to yield a healthy compilation of collectibles. Some of the local Wine Festival wines are not yet released to the public, having been sold in limited quantities exclusively at the Festival store, but as wineries open their doors this month and next availability will increase dramatically.

March 2016 BC wine collectibles

Quails’ Gate 2014 Stewart Family Reserve Pinot Noir: The legendary West Kelowna winery’s flagship product is a staple for collectors, and the newest vintage (of 974 cases) was very fortunately on offer at the Wine Festival. A taste provided generous and precise varietal character from the winery’s Mount Boucherie Bench old vines (12-29 years of age). My notes ended up duplicating the recently released formal tasting notes detailing spiced red berry fruit. In the last few years Quails’ Gate has consistently aged their Reserve Pinot Noir for ten months in 50% new French oak; this year replicates the same formula for success. Drinking impressively well now it should age marvellously, secured under screw cap. VIWF Store $45

Gold Hill 2013 Cabernet Franc: The first release from 2009 won this new Golden Mile winery (from experienced wine growing brothers Sant and Gurbachan Gill) a Lieutenant Governor’s Award and multiple high accolades. I was excited to find the Gill family manning the booth at their first Vancouver Wine Festival, and soon found myself under the spell of their impressive Cabernet Franc’s newest vintage. The beautifully aromatic nose brought me back repeatedly for another sniff, and the luscious texture solidified my purchase decision. The solid value price of $27 at the winery will keep Gold Hill well within the ranks of local Franc producers to watch. VIWF Store $29

Sandhill 2013 Small Lots Syrah: The legendary Syrah that Winemaker Howard Soon crafts from the Phantom Creek Vineyard on Black Sage Bench is always in high demand, and seldom seen in stores. Shortly after the newest vintage was released last September it was awarded a prestigious Platinum medal at the Okanagan Fall Wine Festival’s BC Wine Awards. Surprisingly it took until now to sell out at the winery, particularly given that only 250 cases (fresh from 14 months in new American oak) were produced. I spent the autumn fruitlessly scanning shelves in every wine store I entered, being unable to visit the Kelowna tasting room in person this year. Imagine my surprise when I recently came across a single bottle on the shelf of my local BC Liquor Store. BC Liquor Stores $41

Poplar Grove 2012 CSM: A spring release red available to Wine Club members, the CSM tends to fly a little bit under the radar given the popularity of the winery’s Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and The Legacy icon red blend. CSM is produced in relatively small quantities, and typically exclusive to the winery tasting room, with Club members getting first crack at it upon release. This year’s blend is primarily Merlot (51%) and Syrah (41%), with 8% Cabernet Sauvignon bringing up the rear. The three grapes were naturally fermented, separately, and aged for 21 months in French oak before another year of bottle aging. Like most of Poplar Grove’s reds it is an excellent cellar candidate, with the winery suggesting up to decade from vintage. Winery Direct $35

Culmina 2013 Merlot: Owners Don & Elaine Triggs and daughter Sara were all present at the recent Wine Festival, showcasing their young Golden Mile winery’s first single-varietal reds. The gorgeous floral blueberry nose and palate of the Merlot caught my attention immediately, sending me dashing to the on-site store for a bottle (from only 168 cases). Having sampled the wine just before the Festival, John Schreiner complimented the “voluptuous texture” in his enthusiastic 92-point review. The Triggs were also pouring samples of the equally new Small Lots Cabernet Sauvignon, well-structured and complex with great aging potential: had any of the 96 cases been for sale on site I certainly would have snagged a bottle! VIWF Store $35

Cassini 2012 “The Aristocrat” Cabernet Sauvignon: I received the valuable opportunity to taste this superb wine at the winery over New Year’s, during a visit with the BC Wine Appreciation Society. Despite the highly appealing concentrated, ripe dark fruit (from an Osoyoos East Bench vineyard), I initially hesitated to buy given the preponderance of 2012 wines overflowing from my cellar – including Cassini’s equally exciting Cabernet Franc. By March I had reconsidered – especially given how few retail stores feature this rarity (only 190 cases were produced after selecting 8 barrels from amongst 45). Highly affirmative reviews – such as John Schreiner’s praise for the “rich and polished texture” – have helped encourage me to find a spot amongst the other excellent 2012 reds. Swirl VQA Store $47

LaStella 2012 Arioso Sangiovese Grosso: The production of a premium Brunello-style Sangiovese from this outstanding Italian-inspired Osoyoos winery has long been the hope of their many fans. For years a small proportion of Sangiovese went into the “Fortissimo” Super-Tuscan blend, but in 2012 sufficient volume was apparently available to bottle a single select barrel (25 cases) as a rare pure varietal wine. Even more than three years after harvest it remains a (stunningly aromatic) beast of a wine in the eyes of winery staff, who haven’t yet decided on a formal release date given the decades they believe it could age. Those bottles not yet allocated to the winery’s elite Wine Society could begin trickling out later this fall, assuming any remain unspoken for. An ultra-rare collector’s item worth every penny for BC wine adventurers. Winery Direct $69

Saturday, 12 March 2016

BCWAS Covert Farms Tasting

In a return to form after a year of festival-style events and dinners, the BC Wine Appreciation Society sat down for a portfolio tasting of a single winery this month, hosting Derek Uhlemann from Covert Farms Family Estate. As winery Sales Manager (and Farm Chef) Derek is well versed in the full range of wines available from the Covert family’s 25-acre organic vineyard and namesake winery at McIntyre Bluff. Derek’s digging in the cellar provided a sold-out crowd with the opportunity to taste aged examples as well as brand new barrel samples.

Covert Farms' Derek Uhlemann presents a full range of organic wines.

The youthful 2015 vintage was first out of the gate with a Sparkling Zinfandel, a crisp naturally fermented creation that carries the Méthode Ancestrale nomenclature. As Derek explained, the low-Brix, trimmed shoulders from maturing Zinfandel clusters were put to use making a small lot of 9.9% alcohol bubbly, and guests got a chance to relish the bright cranberry raspberry results. The sparkling provided a good backdrop for Derek’s historical recollection of the more than half-century-old homestead founded by California tomato farmer George Covert. George’s grandson Gene and his wife Shelly now manage a comprehensive farm that spans 650 organically farmed acres.

Although the 1970s and ‘80s saw Covert fostering nearly two hundred acres of hybrid grapes to yield “unremarkable ‘Chateau Okanagan River Channel’ wines,” today is a much different story. Gone is the “White Diamond” in favour of much more exotic (and palatable) white varieties such as Semillon, Viognier, and Roussanne. Thanks to Derek’s cellar sleuthing, there was the opportunity to enjoy a four year vertical of the Amicitia White blend following the newest 2014 Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon. The vineyard’s pure sand bench yields a mineral and citrus presentation of Sauvignon Blanc; blending in 20% Semillon provides body that complements the fresh and tart, traditional grassy character.

Whites, Rosé, and a range of reds from Covert Farms

A small percentage of both Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc is included in the Amicitia White but this rare blend is predominantly Rhone grapes, with Roussanne unexpectedly leading the way over and above Viognier’s smaller contribution. Although a handful of 2007 and 2009 Amicitia was discovered at the winery, only a batch of unlabelled 2008 made it through the years in drinkable condition. As a result a comparison was available for a relatively aged version against the more recent 2012-2014 vintages. Oxidative, Sherry-like character was readily apparent in the golden, straw-coloured older wine, with an intensely flavoured, viscous palate present upon tasting. The younger vintages showed Roussanne’s strong influence, presenting stone fruit flavours of yellow peach amongst hints of greenery and even petrol, with mild tannins and a similar generous body.

Before delving into several red bottle and barrel samples there was a moment to appreciate the 2014 Rosé, a blend of 76% Merlot, 22% Pinot Noir, and 2% aged Syrah. The small component of Syrah comes from the 2013 vintage to add additional complexity to the wine, well within allowable blending boundaries. The same long finish offered by the whites is present in the Rosé’s food friendly palate, with leafy red fruit flavours of wild strawberry. More of that same Syrah is found in the 2013 “MDC”, a blend of 54% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Zinfandel, and 21% Syrah. The jammy, rich palate, and peppery, toasted cocoa flavours seem like a superb tribute to Winemaker Gene’s late father, Michael Dunham Covert, a Cabernet aficionado for whom the wine is named.

Covert Farms Amicitia Red & MDC Cab-Zin-Syrah

One red blend isn’t enough for Covert Farms however (and in fact neither is two – they also produce a Cabernet-Petit Verdot – “The Bluff”). The Amicitia Red further demonstrates the range of grapes grown in just twenty-five acres, this time assembled into a traditional Bordeaux configuration. The 2013 vintage poured reflected an increase in Merlot now that the winery produces varietal Cabernet Sauvignon, bringing together 52% Merlot, 18% Cabernet Franc, 17% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Malbec, and 6% Petit Verdot. The result is a nicely balanced, fruit forward, and understandably complex medley of juicy fruit.

A three-year selection of barrel samples awaited the conclusion of the tasting: Derek had brought everything from the newly bottled 2013 Grand Reserve Zinfandel to the fledgling 2015 Grand Reserve Merlot, a blockbuster of nutty blueberry jam just beginning a long slumber in used French oak. The ripe and rich Zinfandel follows up the inaugural 2012 in the stylishly-labelled Grand Reserve series, and should prove very popular upon its September release to the growing waiting list. The parallel series of Grand Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon skipped 2013 and will follow its first vintage with the sophisticated 2014 sample we tasted, showing off archetypal black currant and eucalyptus notes from an elegant texture with impressive potential.

The Society’s much appreciated volunteer pouring crew was reminded of the work involved in clearing several hundred glasses as the evening wrapped up, it having been several months since the last sit-down event of this magnitude. Following a few final sips over order forms, guests left expressing their gratitude to Derek for sharing these exciting wines so generously. Covert Farms’ inventory was surely shrinking just as their waiting list was growing by the end of this tasting!

Sunday, 6 March 2016

VanWineFest 2016: BC Wine Report – Part II

An earlier post detailing this year’s Vancouver International Wine Festival focused on the four BC wineries sharing their wares for the first time. With 22 additional local wineries (and one superb Sakemaker) on hand as well, there was more than enough to keep my attention for three days. Dozens of veteran winery principals from across BC were equally enthusiastic as those pouring for their first time. Given the alphabetical organization I generally explored our local wineries just as they were laid out, and found everything from Averill Creek to Wayne Gretzky Estates.

My first sample of the entire Festival came from Andy Johnston’s Averill Creek, where Pinot Noir is king in Vancouver Island’s Cowichan Valley. The 2012 being shown was impressively clean and pure – with its still-upcoming release status testimony to Andy’s patience as he continues to let the 2011 shine. I came back more than once too for a glass of apples and creamy raspberry scones in the 2010 Brut, another very charming preview. Three tables down, Burrowing Owl owner Chris Wyse had a bevy of rich reds on hand, plus the 2014 vintage of his winery’s famed Pinot Gris. Age-worthy 2012 Athene (Cab-Syrah) and 2012 Meritage impressed just as much as dark and ripe 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon and surprisingly silky 2013 Cabernet Franc. Steps away, the Triggs family was present in force to pour the wines from their blossoming Culmina project, while Winemaker Pascal Madevon discussed the winery’s new varietal reds in detail. The dry and focused 2014 Decora Riesling and toasty, citrus-mineral 2013 Dilemma Chardonnay complemented the complex and collectible small lots of 2013 Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon (168 and 96 cases respectively).

Elaine & Sara Triggs introduce Culmina's highly collectible new 2013 Merlot

Okanagan Crush Pad’s Chief Winemaker Matt Dumayne was pouring the Summerland winery’s home label Haywire. The likeable traditional method sparkling “The Bub” 2013 was available alongside organic 2014 Pinot Gris and the fascinating Free Form 2014, a naturally-fermented blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Eight months of skin contact and full malolactic fermentation without any sulphur made this risky venture into a “textural sensation” of dry citrus flavours and fine tannins. Behind Haywire Head Winemaker Rob Summers had a selection of Hester Creek’s wine on hand, showing the benefits of increasing oak integration in his bottle-aging 2012 reds. Time in bottle has given the ripe fruit an opportunity to emerge in smooth Reserve Cabernet Franc as well as in brown-sugar-spiced icon blend The Judge. The new 2015 Trebbiano continues the grape’s Golden Mile success story, where 48-year-old vines consistently produce refreshing fragrances and long, soft fruit flavours.

Nearby, the wines of Meyer Family Vineyards provided a study in 2014 single-vineyard Chardonnay and Pinot Noir courtesy of Winemaker Chris Carson. Kelowna’s Reimer vineyard yielded a bright, youthful red fruit Pinot Noir and Naramata’s Old Main Road vineyard offered creamy Chardonnay with fresh tree fruit flavours. From the Okanagan Falls home vineyard on McLean Creek Road, young, mineral-driven Chardonnay and rich, dark fruit Pinot Noir will grow even better with age if given the chance. Across the aisle Lauren Skinner and the team from Painted Rock had the rare and special 2014 Chardonnay along with elegant, complex 2014 Rosé – a blend of red Bordeaux grapes. Lauren was leading the charge at her family’s sixth consecutive Festival appearance, showcasing the newest 2013 reds: suave Syrah, brooding Merlot, and the stellar Red Icon beckoned me daily.

Well within reach the synchronized squad at Poplar Grove was where Winemaker Stefan Arnason could be found with the winery’s champions. Newly-bottled, ever-popular Pinot Gris gushed fresh stone-fruit, and similarly modern Blanc de Noirs blended big reds to yield candied pink grapefruit aromas and earthy red fruit flavours. The allure of sold-out 2011 The Legacy offered up a perfumed leather nose before a smooth spicy finish; patience is a necessity for those awaiting the bottle-aging 2012. Neighbouring tablemate Tony Stewart was offering the expression of 2014 at Quails’ Gate, introduced by uncommon Chenin Blanc, refreshing one’s palate with crisp textures and a tangy finish. The Stewart Family Reserve Chardonnay made subtle use of oak in a creamy, toasty drop delivering a bright finish, while textbook Reserve Pinot Noir displayed perfect balance surrounding cloves and red fruit. Turning around brought the Summerhill smile of CEO Ezra Cipes and the exciting new Blanc de Franc 2011: sparkling Cabernet Franc repeatedly enchanted me with fresh fragrant berries and a fabulously smooth, clean mousse.

Summerhill CEO Ezra Cipes is bubbling about the new Blanc de Franc sparkling wine

The final line of BC wine was home to Thornhaven Winemaker Jason Fraser, revitalizing guests with 2014 Brooklyn’s Blend, Summerland’s unique merger of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. This clean and summery field blend was took on the new name in honour of the Fraser family’s newest addition. Apart from the winery’s definitive Gewürztraminer I was also taken with the elegant 2013 Syrah, thanks to a silky, earthen palate and well-tuned balance following the Platinum-winning 2012. It was only logical to next make time for Harry McWatters, still working his magic on the Black Sage Bench at TIME Estate Winery. The pleasingly approachable 2012 Red Meritage was nicely softened after a couple years in bottle, and the charmingly textured 2014 White Meritage provided another measure of the creamy character I’ve enjoyed in the past. A jump to the right found Tinhorn Creek Winemaker Andrew Windsor proud papa to barrel-sampled 2014 reserve Chardonnay. Andrew’s first vintage at Tinhorn yielded such divine wine it demanded a new addition to the Oldfield Series tier. The necessity was obvious upon tasting the round, rich, creamy caramel behind the newly deployed “Golden Mile Bench” sub-appellation label.

Tinhorn Creek Winemaker Andrew Windsor beams with pride in the winery's first reserve Chardonnay

The “big three” beverage companies were present as well, but I found myself drawn primarily to the smaller independent wineries. That being said, it was good to see that parent company Peller had arranged for Sandhill Master Winemaker Howard Soon to give the international guests a little something to think about with 2012 Small Lots Sangiovese and Italian-inspired red blend “Three”. Mark Anthony Group’s Mission Hill rarely misses a Wine Festival, and this year freshly appointed Head Winemaker Darryl Brooker was present to pour a gamut of rarities from the new, high-end Terroir Collection. Constellation Brands’ Black Sage Vineyard was showing off an impressively fragrant 2013 Zinfandel, while the company’s See Ya Later Ranch property poured the peppery 2013 Rover Shiraz. The conglomerate’s Jackson-Triggs “Sunrock” brand had more Zinfandel blended with Shiraz in the “Illumina”, as well as a two-vintage comparison of the well-respected Cabernet Sauvignon (2012 & 2013).

The only session in the Tasting Room for which I was absent was the final evening on Saturday, which generally provides the most entertaining people-watching if anything. Of course that final session is also where the next year’s theme region is announced, so I was thrilled to hear the good news in short order over social media: the 2017 Festival will feature Canada as theme region, just as our nation begins celebrating its sesquicentennial. My very pleasant surprise at the news came about in large part due to earlier discussions with members of the organizing committee, who had suggested to me that certain challenges precluded such a possibility. Apparently the difficulties were overcome through what must have been hard work and delicate negotiations. The growing ranks of Canadian wine aficionados worldwide must be excited at the opportunities that will come about in Vancouver next spring – I know I’ll be first in line for tickets!

Saturday, 5 March 2016

VanWineFest 2016: BC Wine Report – Part I

The Vancouver International Wine Festival is without a doubt the local vinicultural highlight of the year. This year’s Festival marked the 38th iteration of this landmark event, bringing together hundreds of international delegates from fourteen countries – including theme region Italy – to share their love for wine with 25,000 guests. I was extremely happy to attend several events, including five visits over three days to the massive Festival Tasting Room, where principals from 155 wineries gave voice to their respective stories over a glass.

The Wines of BC Information Booth was showing the home terroir

Second in volume to each year’s theme region are always our own local wineries, reaching near-record representation this year with twenty-six grape wineries, as well as Vancouver’s own Artisan SakeMaker. Presence at the Festival does not come cheap given the logistical costs involved, so it is a joy each year to see many friendly faces from British Columbia’s great variety of wineries. Amongst the twenty-six tables, the BC contingent was populated by a dozen congregations returning from last year, and most excitedly, four wineries new to the Festival entirely. Bookended by the educational Wines of British Columbia booth promoting the province as a whole, the expansive BC section of the Tasting Room was kept abuzz throughout the Festival.

While certain to expand my palate exploring the wines of the world I repeatedly visited the many BC wineries present and pouring, being particularly sure not to miss the new participants. Veteran local winemaker Michael Bartier and his brother Don were present to share their Bartier Bros. bottles, fresh from opening their Oliver tasting room last fall. A trio of youthful 2013 reds were on hand alongside fresh and tropical 2014 Gewürztraminer and the clean lemon curd flavours of 2013 Semillon. Smooth, approachable textures and ripe fruit flavours were universal across varietal Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Syrah; all ready for current consumption but with the elegance to age gracefully.

Nearby, Sant Gill and his nephew Navi were to be found proudly pouring their Gold Hill wines at the Festival for the first time. After years growing fruit in the Golden Mile, Sant, with his brother Gurbachan founded Gold Hill in 2009, the same vintage for which their young winery was recognized with a Lieutenant Governor’s Award. That famous 2009 Cabernet Franc certainly has a worthy successor in the beautifully aromatic 2013 I sampled – and immediately sought out for purchase. Also on hand were exciting varietal Malbec, new 2014 Cabernet Merlot, 2012 Meritage, 2014 Chardonnay and the off-dry 2014 “Charisma White” blend of Pinot Gris, Viognier, Sauvignon blanc, and Gewürztraminer.

Sant & Navi Gill have much to be proud of in their Gold Hill Cabernet Franc

Two other BC wineries new to the Festival included Kamloops’ first winery, Harper’s Trail, plus new Naramata Bench label Tightrope. General Manager Tracy Roche brought a series of estate-grown wines from Harper’s Trail, including cool, clean, and elegant Cabernet Franc 2013, said to evoke impressions of the Loire Valley. The intensely fruit forward but pleasantly dry 2014 Merlot comes from the Bartier brothers’ Cerqueira Vineyard on Black Sage Bench, while 2013 Pinot Gris and a pair of expressive 2013 Riesling (including Late Harvest) are all Kamloops.

Tightrope was represented by owners Graham and Lyndsay O’Rourke, a duo of experienced local viticulturist and winemaker, respectively, now focusing exclusively on their promising winery and 10-acre Fleet Road vineyard. The O’Rourke’s wines have been garnering national attention, and I was pleased to sample the wonderfully balanced, crisp 2014 Pinot Gris, lusciously textured 2014 Viognier, smooth and delicate 2013 Pinot Noir, and the elegant new white-peppered 2014 Syrah.

I went on to visit nearly every table in the local contingent, while keeping matters fresh by circulating to Italy and back via the other dozen countries represented in the room. Greeting and meeting the many winemakers and proprietors pouring their very own wines was an energizing experience, as always. The opportunity to sample a range of new local highlights, let alone international icons and rarities, kept me fully engrossed over three days of concentrated focus. I offer my many thanks to the Festival and partner Heth PR for facilitating media accreditation to enable this exciting tour of the wine world all in one place! My summary and impressions of the remaining resident wines and wineries follows in Part II.