Wednesday 31 August 2011

A Year of Adventures in BC Wine

The real first anniversary of this blog was August 27th, but I was busy with a spontaneous Pinot Noir tasting at home with friends and so neglected to mark the day in any way! I knew it was some time around the beginning of Fall but forgot to check the date of my first post until today; my first blogiversary has come and gone already!

I’ve had a great time over the past couple of years collecting, enjoying, and exploring BC wine and the amazing and interesting people who make it with passion, determination, and real love. I’ve met many great people and made new friends at wineries like Black Widow, CedarCreek, Di Bello Wines, Fairview Cellars, Fort Berens, Le Vieux Pin, Painted Rock, Road 13, Seven Stones, SpierHead, Stag’s Hollow, and Tinhorn Creek. I’ve followed from Vancouver via Twitter and Facebook the trials and tribulations of grape-growing and harvest, wine-making and bottling. I’ve been educated by and engrossed in conversation with the staff at superb local shops such as Firefly, Legacy Liquor, Swirl, and Village Wines. And I have been honoured to attend celebrations of BC wine put together by organizations such as the BC Wine Institute, BC Wine Appreciation Society, Liberty Wine Merchants, and the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival. Last but not least I have enjoyed many good times sharing great BC wines with my friends and family.

Beyond the Proprietors and Winemakers, great wineries are kept that way by the many great staff who work there, from General Managers to Marketing and Hospitality staff, and the hard-working members of the vineyard team. I look forward to getting to know even more of the many innovative people who are helping to grow and strengthen this industry in the coming years – and to share in the literal fruits of their labours. Cheers!

Monday 29 August 2011

Osoyoos Reflections–Part I

Last weekend my wife and I travelled to Osoyoos for a short trip to celebrate our wedding anniversary – our first trip to the Okanagan in over two years. I’ll skip ahead to our primary conclusions before detailing the trip at length: 1) I really need to visit wine country at least once a year; 2) Said trip should not take place on our anniversary! Fortunately we are still happily married, but by the end of the trip all the tasting, note-taking, and cataloguing had become “work” and not the pure celebration of our relationship we needed – and she deserved! Nevertheless we still enjoyed ourselves immensely and came home with many happy memories, photos, and wine.

One of the highlights of any trip to the Okanagan is the regions you pass through on the way. The Similkameen Valley is my favourite by far; I discovered this beautiful oasis several years ago. As the number of excellent wineries in the valley grows the Similkameen is becoming a destination in its own right for those interested in great BC wine (not to mention the stunning natural beauty evident throughout). Our first stop after a lunch picnic in Manning Park was Herder Winery & Vineyards outside Keremeos. We could not have asked for a better start to our trip as Lawrence & Sharon Herder welcomed us to their beautiful winery and home, and shared some of their delicious, muscular wines. The Herders own close to 15 acres of land, which includes what Lawrence aptly describes as “2 acres of rock” shown in part below. Assuming he doesn’t want to start a rock-climbing school the remaining acreage is put to very good use by Lawrence, producing a small portfolio of primarily red wines, plus a deliciously fresh and fruity Chardonnay that showed deft use of oak. Herder is particularly celebrated for their very well-priced and highly complimented Meritage, one of the best value red blends in the province. This fall should see the release of the 2008 Josephine, their top-tier red blend, plus the 2009 Meritage, both of which I’m looking forward to immensely.


Leaving Herder we travelled south towards Cawston, and our old friend Orofino Winery: we discovered this little gem by accident back in 2005 returning from our first anniversary trip to Summerland. Somewhat “lost” in our first voyage through the Similkameen we stopped for directions at what turned out to be a winery, and left with treats such as late-harvest Muscat with which we delighted in sharing over the winter. The Orofino winery is a unique strawbale building with ideal insulating qualities perfect for the extreme temperatures found in the Similkameen. Looking at the building in the photo below you wouldn’t even know the walls are constructed of sturdy bales of straw covered in stucco! One of the facets of Orofino’s operations I particularly respect is their practice of posting detailed information about the sources for all their grapes, including the Merlot acquired from Kaleden, outside the Similkameen appellation. Among the wines we tasted was that very Merlot – otherwise known as Red Bridge Red – and we found it to be bright and fruit forward, with fairly high alcohol and acidity as well. Many Orofino wines are now sold out but we also got to sample the Riesling, a fresh and dry citrusy wine typical of 2010 BC Rieslings, plus the 2010 Chill, their first ice wine. Only 50 cases of Chill were produced so it’s likely found at the winery exclusively. We found it refreshingly floral, almost herbal in fact, and not as sweet as one would imagine – an acquired taste perhaps but a unique offering and fairly economical as well ($22 for 200ml).


With little time to spare before closing we raced south to the final winery we had time to visit – Seven Stones. Proprietor George Hanson welcomed us with cheer and poured several of his well-crafted wines while we admired the artisan products and jewellery for sale throughout the tasting room. George’s small-lot wines are gaining increasingly prominent awards and some sell out quickly, so we didn’t get to try wines like “The Legend,” his premium red blend. Nonetheless, I was more than happy to sample the regular Meritage, of which the 2008 will be released within days. The 2007 being poured was very well balanced, with a long spicy finish; a worthy follow-up to the multiple-gold-medal-winning 2006 vintage that I am pleased to have in my cellar. Also equally powerful were the 2009 Cabernet Franc – a young, peppery red with delectable plum aromas – and the 2008 Pinot Noir, which gained extra oomph from a Hungarian oak barrel. The tasty 2009 Chardonnay has a complicated back story, as George used two different yeasts and aged half in oak and half in stainless steel, yielding four separate components that were eventually blended to produce a toasty wine with flavours of pineapple and citrus. Last but not least is the 2010 Pinot Noir Rosé, which quite nicely expresses the mineral and sage notes familiar to Similkameen wines. Although we could have stayed and admired the beautiful view across the valley, George’s very punctual dog was gently reminding us all it was dinner-time, and we left with a few bottles in arm and an Osoyoos check-in awaiting us.


Cellar Highlights – a few of the bottles I acquired this first day:

  • Herder Merlot (2008): A big chewy red possessing a lot of elegance and potential, I was very pleased to get a bottle for my cellar given only about 100 cases were produced.
  • Herder Syrah (2008): A powerhouse that John Schreiner likens to “the Similkameen’s answer to Zinfandel,” this wine will likely improve with a couple years in bottle according to Anthony Gismondi; 162 cases were produced and it is now sold out.
  • Orofino Red Bridge Merlot (2009): Revised labels for 2009 help to clarify that this is indeed a Merlot and not a red blend, and the wine remains just as well received as previous vintages, with John Schreiner complimenting the low-cropped vines that have yielded a big ripe wine full of substance. Approximately 650 cases were produced, and I’m happy to now have a three-year vertical!
  • Seven Stones Row 128 Merlot (2009): Having won Best of Class at the Okanagan Spring Wine Festival, it has the tannin structure to age for quite a while. About 460 cases were produced and it was just released in June, so relatively plenty should be around for a while.
  • Seven Stones Cabernet Franc (2009): Like the Merlot this youthful wine has a promising future, but has already won the “Battle of the Benches” at the Okanagan Summer Wine Festival. Production was ramped up from 90 cases to 235 cases due to the increasing popularity of this wine!

Monday 15 August 2011

August Wine Club: Fruit Bounty

Having skipped our monthly wine club in July due to the conflicting schedules of all three couples during the busy vacation season we were all looking forward to this month’s meeting of delicious food and fine local wines. This month’s features turned out to include a consistently superb white blend from the Golden Mile, a couple of crisp rarities from just down the street, plus a unique fruit wine inadvertently aged in bottle!


Our appetizer course – after much teasing of the hungry diners by the chef – turned out to be a most surprisingly delicious salad containing artichokes, chorizo (or Tofurkey Veggie Sausage for the vegetarians), and cantaloupe. I would likely never have put together those ingredients but they worked marvellously with the subtle dressing and fresh tarragon. The wine accompaniment was the very familiar Tinhorn Creek 2Bench White (2009), a consistent star from Sandra Oldfield. With very fresh and clean floral aromas of peach and melon this wine can be excellent on its own, but the full body and crisp finish make it very food-friendly as well. The current release comes from the 2010 vintage, but the blend remains exactly the same with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Viognier, and a touch of Muscat. We were all very pleased with how well this wine paired with such an unconventional salad, but perhaps it was destiny given Anthony Gismondi’s review, in which he professed his love for “the spicy nose and sausage aromas” and the “fine mix of flavours including melon rind.”


When planning the main course I once again started with the wine and worked my way up to food. Having one bottle of Road 13 Chenin Blanc (2009) available I ordered a newer 2010 vintage from the winery to yield a mini-vertical of this enjoyable but somewhat rare wine. The only other major producers of BC Chenin Blanc I can think of are Quails’ Gate and Inniskillin. To add to the scarcity, the 2010 Chenin Blanc at Road 13 is available only through the winery – unlike last year none was sent to stores, private or public. To pair with these exciting wines I sought the advice of Road 13 General Manager Donna Faigaux, who provided the excellent suggestion of Onion Tart or Spinach Ricotta Quiche. Having been convinced not to make both by my oh-so-reasonable wife, I settled for the onion tart with a side of creamed spinach, and a second side dish of Tomatoes Provencal for good measure! Fortunately all the food turned out well and helped the wines shine. The 2009 had all of the big floral characteristics describe by Anthony Gismondi plus lively flavours of peach and nectarine and a noticeable minerality that excited us. The backbone of minerals and acidity that John Schreiner likes so much is back in the 2010 release, along with marginal but detectable increases in residual sugar and acid. I should mention that both vintages contain a small proportion of Riesling, and the doubling from about 7% in 2009 to 14% in 2010 was very noticeable: I was surprised at how easily I could smell the Riesling. Ultimately, the 2009 vintage was our favourite of the two due to its more unique characteristics: although the Riesling is said to help balance the wine and benefit the fruit it seemed to dampen what were for us some of the more intriguing notes of the Chenin Blanc itself.


Our dessert for the evening was a topic of intense discussion given the inexperience of the chefs with this particular dish. The precise cooking time needed to ensure the Pavlova was properly prepared was up for debate, but in the end it turned out absolutely beautifully – as you can see for yourself! Topped with heaps of fresh whipped cream and big juicy berries it tasted just as great as it looked! The wine pairing came from Summerland’s Sleeping Giant Fruit Winery, from which a visit two years ago yielded a bottle of Strawberry Rhubarb table wine described by the winery as “pie in your glass.” After two years in bottle the wine had actually browned slightly and taken on a bit of a sherry-like quality, but the strawberry and rhubarb flavours were still pronounced and complimented the fresh strawberries on the Pavlova. A blue cheese tang was also present that had some bemoaning the lack of late-night cheese shops available to provide a confirmatory pairing – leaders of commerce and industry take note!

Next month we move to desserts as this month’s appetizer team takes on the heavy lifting of entree and hosting duties. I already have something in mind that has been waiting for a long time for the proper fruit to be in season, so I’m very much looking forward to synchronicity! This weekend my wife and I head off to Osoyoos for a weekend to celebrate our wedding anniversary and visit a few of our favourite wineries in the Similkameen and South Okanagan, so I should have plenty to write about over the next few weeks!


Tuesday 9 August 2011

SpierHead Tasting II & Blending Experiment

Following a late May release party and tasting of wines from new Kelowna winery SpierHead I was honoured to receive samples of the six wines I tasted that day from owner Bill Knutson. Having given them sufficient time to recover from the bottle shock winemaker Tom DiBello warned us about in May I finally managed to coordinate some friends for a tasting this past weekend. We started with the two whites currently available – 2010 Chardonnay and Riesling – while the four reds decanted for a couple of hours (all four came from the 2009 vintage).


While I had recalled more tropical flavours and orchard fruit aromas in the Chardonnay the experience we had at present was of a toasty wine that also possessed significant mineral notes. Knowing that only a very small percentage had seen oak treatment (using staves instead of barrels) I was honestly surprised by how much oak influence now comes through. My “tasting panel” described aromas reminiscent of smoked cheddar, charcoal, and flint, while being unable to pull out any specific fruits. Judging by our experience it would appear that Icon Wines’ suggestion of focusing on the “austere and mineral characteristics” to yield a Chablis doppelganger in the future would indeed be quite feasible.

The Riesling followed and invoked a great deal of praise for the refreshing, bright fruit flavours and long finish. Fruits such as mango, pineapple, and especially lime and green apple were detected, with even crab-apple making an appearance for some. In the months since I first sampled this wine it was received positive reviews from many local critics, including Anthony Gismondi, Daenna Van Mulligen, and Jurgen Gothe, plus Liam Carrier at Icon Wines. This was one of the more memorable wines of the evening, and came out on top of most guests’ favourites list.

The backdrop for the four red wines were some delicious pizzas from Firewood Cafe, which helped keep us upright as we surpassed the 1:1 person-to-bottle ratio. We began with the Merlot, possessing a rich velvety nose of vanilla, black liquorice, and red fruit. Panel members reported that it smelled “warm and cozy” and the smooth texture was paired with a delicious finish of ripe black cherry flavours. Ultimately the Merlot was declared to be the favourite red of the tasting. The Cabernet Franc was next: lighter in colour with less rich aromatics it was more acidic and brighter than the Merlot. The spicy palate had elements of cranberry, blood orange, and even some pepper on the end; it paired quite well with pizza sprinkled in hot sauce, while the Merlot was said to have been excellent purely on its own. The final single varietal wine was the Cabernet Sauvignon, which possessed a similar fruit profile to the Cabernet Franc but without the spiciness. It was dark and rich, with aromas of currants quite prevalent, as well as acidity and some tannins on the palate.


The final bottle of red was SpierHead’s approachable Bordeaux/Meritage blend, “Vanguard”. Vanguard blends Merlot (45%), Cabernet Sauvignon (45%), and Cabernet Franc (10%) – the same three grapes found in the single varietals we had just tasted. Knowing this going in I had the idea of attempting to create our own reproduction of Vanguard using the three varietal wines, to examine how blended wines integrate and incorporate the multiple grape varieties used. Before doing so we tried out the Vanguard with palates fresh from tasting the three components: the wine is quite tasty, and the components work together nicely. The richness of the Merlot could be detected alongside the tannins in the Cabernet Sauvignon, and the spiciness from the Cabernet Franc was also noticeable. Without having just tasted all three of those single varietals we would not have been able to so easily detect and appreciate what each brought to the blend, so it was already a really interesting learning experience.

The components in Vanguard were each fermented and aged separately for 18 months before blending and bottling in May, so all told the wine has been integrating for almost four months. Our reproduction would be integrating for about four minutes, so differences were expected! Carefully measuring the remaining amounts of each single varietal we combined them to create “Vanguard II”, with the same exact proportions as the original. Comparing the two alongside one another they smelled nearly identical; it was on the palate that the differences became apparent. Our blend was said to taste “like the exact same wine but a year younger,” with more tannins and green notes apparent. Feeling adventurous we even made “Vanguard III” with the remaining wine, using 55% Merlot this time, plus 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc. The higher proportion of Merlot definitely upped the warm flavours as the tannins decreased; this would probably yield a wine with less aging potential than the original Vanguard, but we enjoyed it.

There are only two other wineries I can think of with which you could attempt an endeavour similar to our own: Fairview Cellars and Sumac Ridge. Both release varietal Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon, although the two wineries could not be more different! The extremely small lots released by Fairview Cellars’ owner Bill Eggert would be much harder to find than the Sumac Ridge wines, but his legendary prowess with reds – Cabernet Sauvignon in particular – would likely yield a very rewarding experience remaking red blends such as “Two Hoots” and “Madcap Red”. The more widely available wines from Sumac Ridge may be a better bet for those wanting to try a similar experiment at home (should SpierHead be unavailable of course): they can often be found in BC Liquor Stores and VQA Stores across the province. Get some friends together with a few bottles of wine and you’ll be thoroughly entertained while gaining a greater understanding of and appreciation for the art of the blend.