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.

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