Wednesday 29 February 2012

February Wine Club: Popular Pinot Noir

As is becoming more common with our wine club, we once again stumbled onto an inadvertent theme: soon after getting together this month the six of us discovered we had all brought Pinot Noir, seven bottles in total from the three couples in attendance! Given that we have been dining together on a monthly basis via this club for nearly a year and a half, it’s amusing that although we have never brought duplicates, we have often brought complimentary bottles – sometimes from the same winery. In this case we once again avoided duplicating each other, and it would appear that spending as much time together as we all do gave us a simultaneous hankering for good Pinot Noir.


In my case, as appetizer chef I came about Pinot Noir organically, as I started with the food I wanted to make and thought about the wine later. I’ve been wanting to make stuffed mushrooms for ages, and they seemed like the perfect appetizer dish, and then I realized – why stuff a button mushroom when you can stuff a Portobello? Searching for an especially rich take on the dish I was pleased to come across Portobello Mushrooms Stuffed with Eggplant and Gorgonzola; add on a side of roasted beets with Parmigiano shavings and I was ready to choose the wine selection. When considering what bottle of BC’s finest to contribute to our monthly celebration I try to be fair and balanced, so that we can enjoy a wide variety of wineries. Having not yet contributed anything from Kelowna’s well known Quails’ Gate Winery it seemed like a natural choice given their Burgundian focus. With mushrooms, eggplant, and beets on the plate Pinot Noir was squarely in my sights, and Quails’ Gate describes the heartbreak grape as their “flagship product”.

Quails’ Gate produces an Estate-tier Pinot Noir for $25 and their more exclusive Stewart Family Reserve version for $45. I decided to try both! With the extra bottle aging received by the Reserve wine, it proved impossible to match vintages so I settled on the 2008 Reserve and the 2009 Estate. Trying the two wines side by side with the same food was very enjoyable, and we quickly found that the fresh, bright fruit found in the 2009 was ideal with the beets, while the slightly darker, earthier 2008 Reserve fared best with the mushroom and pungent gorgonzola. Both wines also expressed mineral notes and smoky aromas but the 2008 showed more of each, along with a smoother palate minus much of the acidity of the 2009. Both wines were clearly well made from excellent fruit, and each displayed unique strengths; I look forward to trying further examples of the Reserve in the future (I have 2007 and 2008 aging in the cellar, and the 2009 was just released).


Our host had himself a good chuckle when I pulled out two Pinot Noirs after arriving, as he had four more awaiting us, in paper bags for a blind tasting. To accompany this flight he had taken it upon himself to create “Tofu à la Bourguignonne” out of respect for the vegetarian half of the room (and the adventurous omnivorous other half). Served alongside Pomme Aligot (i.e., mashed potatoes with cheese) and steamed spinach, it was a mouth-watering sight to behold, and did not disappoint on the palate either. The rich, earthy dish was ideal for a generous wine accompaniment, yet we restrained ourselves and only opened three of the four bottles – what admirable self-control!

The first wine was pleasantly warm and earthy; with soft but noticeable tannin and a reasonably tart finish it contained a lot of dark, concentrated berry flavours. The second bottle was a lighter, fruitier iteration with generous cherry flavours and just a touch of caramel on the finish. Our third wine was the sweetest (but not in a bad way) as well as the darkest in colour, with leather and fresh blueberry aromas that led to well balanced blackberry and currant flavours. After trying all three I was confident the first one was my favourite, and also the best one on its own, although many others were fans of the third wine as well. The reveal – in consecutive order – showed us Le Vieux Pin 2008 ‘Adieu’ Pinot Noir, Nicolas Potel 2009 Chorey-les-Beaune, and Averill Creek 2007 Pinot Noir from Vancouver Island’s Cowichan Valley. With so many wines available to sample (including the two unfinished Quails’ Gate bottles) we continued sipping them after dinner, and found all seemed to be improving as they had time to breathe. Unfortunately for anyone desiring an overall “winner” it’s too close to call between the two BC wines. However, Le Vieux Pin has ceased production of Pinot Noir in favour of Rhone varieties, so perhaps Averill Creek has the final word as they continue fine-tuning their already considerable expertise.


As we tried our best to finish off five bottles of wine, the dessert team sprung into action and prepared their mysterious dish: all we knew is that it required an open flame! We were soon very pleasantly surprised to see chocolate fondue with fresh fruit and homemade mini-cheesecake wedges. To accompany this colourful feast was Summerhill Cipes Rosé, a Pinot Noir-based dry sparkler made from organic grapes. Even better, a portion of the profits from sales of this wine help support Robert Bateman’s Get to Know Your Wild Neighbours program that helps to connect children with nature. The wine itself showed off smooth delicate mousse and juicy raspberry flavours, with low acidity and a light enough body to easily cut through the rich chocolate-coated cheesecake. As an aside, I discovered later that the same couple contributed cheese fondue as the appetizer course exactly a year ago – not that I’m complaining, when one has a fondue set one finds an excuse to use it, and we’re happy to benefit!


Having enjoyed another delicious meal and many exciting wines I’m already looking forward to next month, when my wife and I get to host.  I’ve already picked out two fantastic wines (with hopes for a third if I can find it anywhere), and now have to decide which version of the entree on which to settle – the easier one that can be prepared further in advance, or the challenging one that could yield a more attractive plate. Stay tuned for more delicious BC wine!

Saturday 25 February 2012

CedarCreek Platinum Club – February 2012

I received my third Platinum Club shipment from CedarCreek this month – I have now come full circle with an entire year’s worth of club shipments, and am quite happy to continue as a member! The February shipment is advertised as being Platinum exclusive, in that it features solely the Platinum (Reserve) series of red wines (the Chardonnay having arrived in the Fall). The six bottles I received included prominent medal-winners, pre-releases, a pair of “siblings” and an exclusive once-in-a-lifetime bottle.


First off the siblings, seen in the form of the 2007 and 2009 Platinum Merlots: the 2007 is the currently available vintage, while the 2009 version is not scheduled for wider release until July. What is perhaps immediately apparent in looking at these two wines is the lack of a 2008 vintage! CedarCreek boldly – and bravely – decided to forgo Platinum bottlings of their red Bordeaux wines from 2008 (the Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Meritage). The cool growing season simply did not produce grapes that the winery felt were quite up to the standard deserving of the Platinum name, which means the Estate series wines that received said fruit significantly over-deliver at their price point.

Following in the footsteps of the Lt. Governor’s Medal received for the 2006 Platinum Merlot, the 2007 scooped up a Gold medal at the 2010 Canadian Wine Awards, as well as an ebullient review from Anthony Gismondi, who suggested it is “a good example of why BC can make better Merlot than most other regions in the world.” CedarCreek suggests the 2007 will age better than the ripe 2009, which is almost Californian in its immediate attractiveness. No surprise that the 2009 is hence higher in alcohol (14.9% vs. 14.6%) and in sugar (more than double the 1.5g/L found in the 2007). The 2009 vintage may sell out fairly quickly upon release, given its approachability and the fact that only 507 cases were produced versus 878 cases in 2007.

Also included in the shipment were two Platinum Meritage blends, one from the 2007 vintage, and the other the exclusive “Colbert Edition” limited release. The 2007 Platinum Meritage received Silver at last year’s Canadian Wine Awards, prior to which Gismondi suggested it “needs a few years” in the cellar (although John Schreiner was quite pleased with the “remarkable polish and elegance” he enjoyed in early 2011). I have two bottles in the cellar so perhaps we’ll see how it’s aging when I open the first one in Winter 2013/2014. The wine is a blend of 44% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Malbec, 5% Cabernet Franc, and 3% Petit Verdot. As for the “Colbert Edition” Meritage, it comes from a small lot of less than 150 cases of a special blend aged for 21 months in four barrels made from a single 350-year-old French oak tree! CedarCreek got the only barrels to make it to North America – from only 40 produced out of that solitary tree – and likely thought long and hard about what to put in them! The final blend includes nearly twice as much Cabernet Franc as the 2007 Meritage, with Merlot seeing a reduction as a result. My friends and I enjoyed an advance “Colbert” bottle last Fall on my birthday, at which point we decided there needn’t be any rush to open another bottle – an opinion shared by the Canadian Wine Awards judges, who awarded the wine Silver in 2011.

The final two bottles in the case were new releases from the 2009 vintage, including the Platinum Cabernet Sauvignon (which also skipped 2008), and the third release of Platinum Malbec. I now have three vintages in a row of CedarCreek Platinum Malbec, and continue to cherish each of these rare bottles (only 153 cases were produced for 2009). I tasted the 2008 at the February 2011 BCWAS CedarCreek tasting and revelled in the never-ending mint chocolate aromas; that wine received a Gold medal at the 2010 Canadian Wine Awards. Given the warm weather in the 2009 vintage the new release is hoped to exhibit plenty of ripe dark fruit on top of the chocolate notes. Both the Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon were aged for 20 months in (60% new) French oak, but the winery feels confident that juice from such a hot year will have no trouble embracing all that new oak. Even better the Cabernet Sauvignon includes a special early-ripening clone from Napa (which is now impossible to acquire), so hopefully the dreaded green characters that can sneak into cool-climate Cab will be minimized in this vintage.

The next Platinum Club Shipment should come in June, bearing the aromatic whites from the anxiety-inducing but ultimately successful 2011 harvest. The Spring shipment will hopefully include floral Gewurztraminer, racy Riesling, and the heavenly “fruit salad in a glass” Ehrenfelser, as well as crisp Pinot Gris, and the charming new (Pinot Noir) Rosé that first appeared last year. The juicy Platinum reds should keep us warm for the remainder of Winter, but Summer is slowly approaching and I for one couldn’t be happier!

Wednesday 22 February 2012

BCWAS: Le Vieux Pin & LaStella Tasting

It’s not often that we get to enjoy two wineries at a BC Wine Appreciation Society tasting, but at this month’s sold out event we were lucky enough to sample the French-focused, and Italian-inspired wines of Le Vieux Pin and LaStella, respectively. The trick to getting access to both of these southern Okanagan wineries is that they are both owned by the same parent company, Enotecca, although each winery has independent vineyards and winery operations in Osoyoos (LaStella) and Oliver (Le Vieux Pin). The wineries maximize their efficiencies however, and share staff, including General Manager Rasoul Salehi, who guided us through a tasting of five wines from Le Vieux Pin, and four from LaStella.

Rasoul began the evening by introducing the wineries and their philosophy, which is to produce artisanal, terroir-focused wines that express the purity of the grapes and vineyards in which they grow. Enotecca is not focused as much on making “delicious” wines as they are on making honest wines, which is why the wineries never use any correction techniques to make their wines more consumer-friendly. The other major guiding principle of these wineries is sustainability, which Rasoul insists is (relatively) easy in the Southern Okanagan: “anyone who doesn’t farm sustainably is lazy” in his opinion. All of the vineyards are currently organically farmed, and it is believed they have been since inception (before Enotecca owned them). Techniques such as natural pest control (e.g., falconry) and on-site composting go hand in hand with the deficit irrigation and “low-input viticulture” practiced by Le Vieux Pin and LaStella. The result has been spectacularly expressive, small-lot wines that are praised the world over (in large part thanks to Rasoul’s hectic travel schedule).

We started out tasting two of Le Vieux Pin’s Viognier blends, fruits of the winery’s recent focus on Rhone varieties. The 2009 Viognier-Roussanne came out last year to very high acclaim, and the 360 cases produced sold out in relatively short order. Fortunately the winery held back a a few, and we got to enjoy the unique honeyed flavours produced by aging some of the Viognier in a single Acacia wood barrel. With about 13% Roussanne to complement the majority Viognier the wine yields an impressive nose rich in perfumed tropical, floral, and mineral notes, followed by an very slightly oily mouthfeel showing delicious citrus and peach flavours. If the 2009 was excellent, the 2010 version was truly sublime, and we were very lucky to receive an advance tasting of this Spring release. For the 2010 vintage winemaker Severine Pinte added Marsanne (9%) while decreasing the Roussanne component to only 1.5%: the resulting blend has is an even more complex wine that smells a bit sweeter, with slightly more citrus on the palate (courtesy of the cooler 2010 vintage). Many guests were saddened to hear that only 253 cases were produced of this beautiful, refreshing wine – now named “Ava” after Severine’s daughter – to be released next month; I know I’ll be ordering some before it’s all gone!

Following up the mouth-watering whites we moved on to Le Vieux Pin’s inaugural Syrahs, from the 2008 vintage – also sold out, as the 2009 release is imminent. Trying the “regular” 2008 Syrah against the exclusive Equinoxe Syrah was a very valuable opportunity, given that only 70 cases of the single-vineyard Equinoxe were produced. Each wine includes a small amount of Viognier which not only lifts the aromatics but also darkens the colour as well. While both wines show peppery, leathery, toasty aromas the Equinoxe version makes you work harder to reveal its intricacies, such a liquorice and lavender. Le Vieux Pin makes their Equinoxe wines in a more Old World style – they are intended to be more than simply Reserve wines, and to express a unique flavour profile in their own right.

A final treat from Le Vieux Pin was another advance tasting, this time to provide a chance for us to enjoy the upcoming 2009 Syrah. Once again we were greeted by a savoury nose and dark fruit flavours, along with subtle floral elements due to the co-fermented Viognier grapes – a year younger (and fresher) in this case. Seeing how much my wife (and I) enjoyed this bright and youthful wine I was very pleased to hear that nearly 1000 cases have been readied for release next month; although once the inevitable glowing reviews come out they likely won’t last too long! As an aside, Rasoul was clearly proud to report that the 2009 Syrah is currently selling for €35 Euros per glass as the exclusive pairing for the signature dish (a coffee-encrusted beef entree) of a three Michelin Star restaurant in Germany, a very impressive feat for a small Canadian winery!

Three red wines from LaStella awaited us as we finished the Le Vieux Pin Syrahs, and Rasoul was happy to explain how LaStella approaches winemaking slightly differently from Le Vieux Pin. The Italian-inspired approach is evident in the first wine we tried, a Sangiovese-inclusive red blend the winery calls Fortissimo. The 2009 Fortissimo (to be released later this year) is dominated by Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, with smaller percentages of Cabernet Franc and Sangiovese Grosso. This wine follows the Super Tuscan formula, described by Rasoul as one that uses a less intense ferment, complemented by longer pre- and post-fermentation stages. This technique was pioneered because fans of French grape varieties were tired of waiting decades to open their tannin-heavy wines. The outcome is more approachable wines that don’t need to spend so long in the cellar, although it can’t hurt (Rasoul suggested that the Fortissimo may be the longest lived wine in LaStella’s portfolio, with the potential to improve for the next decade). As a brand new release the 2009 Fortissimo still showed plenty of tannin, but also included minty, green pepper characteristics that I myself found refreshing and clean (although others tend to shy away from such a flavour profile).

The final two reds were LaStella’s small-lot, big flavour Merlots: Allegretto and Maestoso, both from the 2008 vintage. Allegretto is the “regular” wine to Maestoso’s flagship status as LaStella’s crown jewel, but by itself has something very unique to offer: this is one of the small number of wines in the world that are grown on their own rootstock – that is, the vines have not been grafted onto Phylloxera-resistant roots from a resistant species. LaStella suggests that as a result “there is a trueness and transparency in the flavour that has not been seen elsewhere.” I myself can report cool and smoky eucalyptus and blackberry aromas, followed by a complex but youthful palate that will no doubt smooth out with time (I recently enjoyed a 2006 Allegretto that I absolutely adored). Maestoso, at $90 a bottle, is no doubt one of the priciest wines served at BCWAS tasting, and represented a great opportunity to sample a hard-to-come by wine (only 150 cases were made). It is a wine that John Schreiner describes as “big, hedonistic, dramatic, and hugely rich;” quite a lot to live up to! I noticed plenty of smoky characteristics that actually reminded me a bit of popcorn, as well as coffee and savoury meats. Rasoul describes Maestoso as “an iron-fist in a velvet glove” in that it is powerful yet delicate and nuanced: it will likely hold in one’s cellar for a long time but no one at the winery is quite sure how long – earlier vintages have remained unchanged in the bottle for years!

As guests finished up their Merlot we were treated to a extra special bonus of sold out LaStella 2010 Moscato D’Osoyoos, the winery’s tribute to Piedmont’s Moscato d’Asti. This effervescent aromatic wine is a wonderful accompaniment for many foods and occasions, and exhibited beautiful fruit salad aromas and flavours. Although the expected effervescence was not as full as expected – due to carbonation equipment problems during bottling – the tropical and tree fruit characteristics and bright acidity are guaranteed to provide refreshment from brunch to dessert. The 2011 Moscato should be equally tasty, and even better if the proper carbonation can be assured, but given that only 366 cases were produced in 2010 fans shouldn’t expect the new vintage of this unique wine to last very long!

Altogether it was a very illuminating tasting showing the complex flavours that are possible when merging Old and New World approaches to wine on one dimension, and French and Italian inspiration on another. Thanks to Rasoul Salehi and the owners of Le Vieux Pin and LaStella for sharing their passion, their inspiration, and their wonderful wines – past, present, and future – with the members of the BC Wine Appreciation Society!

Tuesday 14 February 2012

Artisan Collection hears the Siren’s Call

Last night I had the pleasure of attending the release party for a new BC wine collection called Siren’s Call, produced by Mark Simpson’s Artisan Group. Mark is a consulting brewer and winemaker, and a partner in the Alto Wine Group, a boutique custom crush facility located in Okanagan Falls. After many years of work in the field of fermentation both internationally and here in BC Mark decided recently he needed his own “liquid business card” in the form of his very own wine. Drawing on Greek mythology Mark heard the Siren’s call, and began purchasing grapes from some of the finest vineyards in the province and crafting his own portfolio of wines, and The Artisan Collection was born.

Siren's Call Portfolio

Siren’s Call so far consists of five red wines from the 2010 vintage, but Mark is not beholden to a particular portfolio: depending on the year and what grapes are available and ideal, various varietals and blends are likely to come and go. I asked him about a Cabernet Franc in particular, and he enthusiastically agreed about the excellent potential of that grape here in BC, and the likelihood it would join his portfolio soon. The current release includes Pinot Noir, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and a traditional five-grape Bordeaux blend called “Harmonious”. I can do little better than John Schreiner in describing the wines as he did earlier this month, but in general I found them all to be surprisingly approachable for ones so young. (Mark wisely held them back for nearly six months after bottling last August, a period which I can only imagine was tremendously anxiety-provoking!) John has a great many positive things to say about the wines in his own blog post, and scored them all at 88 points or higher, most in the nineties.

All five wines were available for tasting alongside delicious food prepared by talented local caterers 2 Chefs and a table. Each wine was paired with a special dish, with appreciably equal opportunities for vegetarians and carnivores alike. The Pinot Noir – dark in colour and rich in cherry flavours – was the pairing for Lamb Lollipops with mango and curry reduction. The easy-drinking Merlot came together with Short Rid sliders, and the Malbec – my favourite – was suggested as the pairing for delicious Wild mushroom Risotto cakes, each topped with a dab of basil aioli. I enjoyed the elegant nose and delicate floral characteristics of the Malbec, which follows through with pepper and juicy fruit in a smooth palate with balanced acidity. The Petit Verdot was particularly exciting in that one sees so few varietal Verdots in BC – I know of a handful from Blasted Church, Inniskillin, and Sandhill – it’s always fun to taste this “blending grape” on its own. Mark’s take on it is surprisingly bright and fruity; one doesn’t really notice the 14.9% alcohol with such a smooth body, so watch out when quaffing this one! Chocolate Pot de Crème Spoons with fresh raspberries were delightful alongside the Petit Verdot, and disappeared quite readily from the serving trays. With the exception of the Pinot Noir – which came Summerland vines – all the grapes were sourced from vineyards near Osoyoos: Mark lists the precise vineyard sources to enlighten drinkers and show he has nothing to hide.

After trying the four varietal wines it came time to see how they merged together in the Harmonious blend (nearly 50% Merlot with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec). Mark has yet to release varietal Cabernets, preventing fans from holding their own blending experiments at home, so the mix is left in his capable hands. I found that the wine  showed off a slightly more austere nose with hints of leather but still plenty of fruit on the palate. Harmonious showed the most tannin and acidity of the bunch, boding well for its future age-worthiness, but it remained very approachable at present nonetheless, and no doubt an ideal match for the Croque Monsieur – Oka cheese and smoked ham in a guiltily-greasy griddled baguette.

Overall the Siren’s Call wines represent a set of approachable and engaging wines to enjoy in a variety of settings. They all come bottled in easy-to-open screwcaps, keeping the bright, fresh flavours preserved, and the beautiful bottle art and reasonable prices below $30 make them ideal for sharing with friends. Mark has begun making the rounds of local restaurants and private liquor stores so you should see Siren’s Call showing up in places like Firefly, Legacy, and Liberty soon. Plus, he’s already adding additional wine collections from both himself and other Alto winemakers to the Artisan Collection, enabling customers to purchase mixed cases from different portfolios via the straight-forward online store. His line of Include() Wine features Twitter tweets and Facebook comments from fans right on the bottle labels: website users are encouraged to contribute to upcoming labels through their favoured social media platform. It certainly is an exciting time to be a winemaker, let alone a wine drinker!

Sunday 5 February 2012

Recent Acquisitions: January

The schedule of new release wines usually slows down a bit in January, giving collectors a chance to catch their breath after the busy Fall and Christmas season – when many tempting sales and specials are in abundance. Last month I took the chance to fill in a few holes in my collection, as well as snap up some of the few recent releases while I had the chance to concentrate on them: the Spring Wine Festival and reams of new wines will be upon us before we know it!


Nichol Vineyards 2007 Cabernet Syrah: A number of excellent wines are produced by this Naramata winery, in particular a well-respected Syrah and some great work with Pinot Noir. I was surprised to see that this unique blend of estate-grown Cabernet Franc and Syrah from the 2007 vintage was still available, considering the relatively low production quantity of 578 cases. The spiced fruit and chocolate profile sounded quite appealing, so I filled one of the last remaining spots in my 2007 compilation with a bottle from Firefly.

Jackson-Triggs 2007 Proprietor’s Grand Reserve Shiraz: This bottle represents one of the last available wines with Jackson-Triggs’ old labelling and nomenclature. The Proprietor’s Grand Reserve tier no longer exists, having been merged for the most part with the Sunrock tier into the new Gold Series wines. Considering this wine went through only 12-months in barrel, it’s surprisingly still available more than four years after harvest, and still active on the awards circuit as well: Jackson-Triggs brought home a gold medal from the BC Wine Awards at the Fall Wine Festival, and a silver from the 2011 Canadian Wine Awards. I took advantage of a post-Christmas 15% off sale from Vincor to buy this already economical wine at a superb price as part of a mixed case.

Peller 2009 Private Reserve Syrah: A surprise gold medal winner at the Canadian Wine Awards, this $20 Syrah faced stiff competition from the likes of Church & State, Painted Rock, Laughing Stock, and other big names. Not that Peller Estates is a small winery by any stretch, but it’s rare to see a winner this economical when the competition sells for up to twice as much. I filled out my collection of gold medal Syrah when I found a bottle at Village VQA wines. Most VQA stores should carry this vintage now, but only 889 cases were made so this potent Syrah won’t last too long at such an approachable price point.

Orofino 2009 Beleza: The new release of this Similkameen winery’s signature blend took place recently, and fans would be wise to grab a bottle like I did at Firefly, which has reliably carried the full range of Orofino’s relatively small lot wines for some time. The blend for 2009 is primarily Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, with a surprisingly high 20% contribution from Petit Verdot; that bold blend combined with 20 months in barrel should yield a powerful and ageable wine similar to the well-received 2008 version. Collectors could also consider an aggressively-priced magnum direct from the winery: Orofino garners a great deal of respect from me for not inflating their magnum price beyond the cost of two bottles.

Sandhill 2009 Small Lots Two: As is common for Sandhill’s Small Lot wines this Cabernet Sauvignon-heavy red blend appeared in BC Liquor Stores recently with little fanfare. Having missed the entire 2008 vintage of the Small Lots “One”, “Two”, and “Three” blends I didn’t dawdle in getting a bottle, despite little available information or reviews. Seeing as the 2008 wines never even made it to stores – and barely showed up on Sandhill’s website – I felt lucky to obtain this bottle, considering only 525 cases were produced.

Inniskillin 2009 Discovery Series Malbec: Another bottle from the mixed case I ordered via Great Estates of the Okanagan, I’d been looking for this wine since hearing about the gold medal it received at the BC Wine Awards last Fall. Seeing as there are so few varietal Malbecs produced in BC I’m always pleased to acquire particularly good ones. I actually had the chance the try this wine recently at a friend’s, and was impressed with the fresh, bright fruit and spicy finish. Other local Malbecs can often be had (when they aren’t sold out) from Cassini, CedarCreek, Desert Hills, Kettle Valley, La Frenz, Red Rooster, and Sandhill.

Burrowing Owl 2009 Meritage & Cabernet Sauvignon: Burrowing Owl has a habit of releasing their wines one at a time – presumably when they are ready – which makes purchasing a bit of a challenge, so a mixed case I ordered last Fall didn’t include the new Meritage, or the Cabernet Sauvignon. Fortunately the winery ships in smaller increments (as few as two bottles), so I recently piggybacked on a friend’s small order with a couple bottles of my own. So far little information is available about these new releases but they do have good pedigree: the 2008 vintages each received a silver medal at the 2011 Canadian Wine Awards. The winery appears to have commissioned Rhys Pender to write detailed tasting notes, and his comments certainly inspire confidence.

Road 13 2010 Rockpile: Just recently released and showing up in most public and private stores (4,000 cases were made), this wine represents the third year of Road 13’s new red blend. The Syrah component has increased markedly this year, going up from 45% last year (with 45% Merlot) to 82% for 2010. It’s actually quite a lot of fun seeing how this blend changes from year to year: Rockpile shows Road 13’s realistic and flexible approach to winemaking – as each vintage differs so too does the blend. Although this wine is produced in a style that is approachable in its youth, I’ve nonetheless cellared some each year to see how it ages, something about which I imagine Road 13 is equally curious!

Wednesday 1 February 2012

BCWAS: Howling Bluff Vertical Tasting

The BC Wine Appreciation Society hosted another sold-out event last month when Luke Smith, the owner of Howling Bluff Estate Winery joined us to lead two vertical tastings of his red wines. Luke is an outspoken advocate for the potential of the Naramata Bench to produce world-class wines, if only winery owners and winemakers would focus on the strengths he feels are being neglected throughout the Okanagan Valley: focused, targeted plantings of limited grape varieties that are climate appropriate. Howling Bluff has garnered an enviable series of major awards since their first vintage in 2006, and Luke is certain that by focusing on one varietal in particular – Pinot Noir – he can achieve continued critical success on a national and international stage.

Howling Bluff's label changes over the years

While introducing himself and his winery Luke suggested that late ripening red varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon (and the Bordeaux-style blends they rely upon) will never be truly suited to much of the Okanagan climate. When Howling Bluff’s vineyards were first being planned, Luke – then a big Bordeaux collector – followed the trend by planting the typical Bordeaux varietals, but it was his Pinot Noir that soon impressed him and critics alike: his first three vintages (respectively) won the Lt. Governor’s Award, the Okanagan Wine Festival People’s Choice Award, and the Canadian Wine Awards Red Wine of the Year (the first Pinot Noir to ever win). While demand for his Pinot soared, his Bordeaux blend Sin Cera – a very decent wine in itself – simply couldn’t follow suit, leading to substantial soul-searching and an eventual about-face for the winery. Despite widespread consumer expectations of “big reds” (leading to what may be inappropriate plantings of Cabernet and the like – that sell nonetheless), Luke told the assembled guests that he is currently ripping out or grafting all his other red vines over to Pinot Noir. He will retain his Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc plantings, however.

Knowing that the 2011 Sin Cera – currently in barrel – will be the last red blend from Howling Bluff, ensured that attendees at the tasting appreciated the four-year vertical that Luke had brought with him. Alongside the 2006-2009 Sin Cera was the star of Howling Bluff, the Summa Quies Vineyard Pinot Noir, of which we had five vintages from 2006-2010 before us. After his passionate and convincing introduction Luke got around to discussing the wines we were to taste, starting with their origin in his small estate vineyard on Three Mile Road just above Okanagan Lake. The vineyard slopes down towards the lake, ensuring that air continues moving across the grape vines, but making it treacherous to farm at times when the tractor tips precariously!

Fortunately physical safety is paramount at Howling Bluff, but financial concerns have shown Luke why Pinot Noir is called the “heartbreak grape”: he pointed out that because Pinot Noir over-crops “like crazy” the labour costs to properly crop the vines can be prohibitive! Yields of several tons per acre can be common, but won’t produce concentrated, high-quality wine, so most of the fruit has to be cut down early in the season. Watching potential income rotting away on the ground can be a very hard thing to do when you are a new winery owner trying to make a living! Fortunately Luke’s hard choices have paid off over time as his wine has gathered a strong following.

Left to Right: PN '06-'10 & SC '06-'09

We were fortunate that he was able to share some of the few remaining bottles of his initial vintages with us at the tasting. Howling Bluff’s first vintage in 2006 yielded only 120 cases of Pinot Noir, all produced from brand new oak as the winery had no used barrels yet! Winning a Lt. Governor’s Award – the most prestigious prize in BC wines – was a huge coup, and few wineries have replicated such a feat in their first year (Painted Rock having done so twice for the 2007 vintage!). After five years aging the wine was very smooth, with sufficient acidity to suggest it could continue to age in bottle. The 2006 Sin Cera was equally smooth, and we were surprised to hear that it was in fact 100% Merlot rather than the blend most had assumed. A few guests bemoaned the upcoming demise of the Merlot vines at Howling Bluff if this delicious wine demonstrates what they can yield, however Luke was unfazed in his plans!

The following year was “monstrously hot” as Luke put it, resulting in the first major – and painful – crop thinning required on the Pinot Noir. The 2007 – a People’s Choice Award Winner – was a favourite at our table, with the smooth texture of the 2006 replicated but just a touch less acidity to ensure excellent balance. As more of the Bordeaux varieties came online in 2007 the Sin Cera became the blend Luke had imagined; we noticed it taking on more tannin and acid but it was still smooth and quite well liked by many in the room.

The 2008 wines were sources of much drama, in particular because of the amazing results from the Pinot Noir at the 2010 Canadian Wine Awards. Looking back Luke recollected that upon tasting random samples from the bottling line he was devastated at what he thought was a very unimpressive wine! Fortunately many wines can turn around in bottle, as Wine Access declared it to be “a joy in the glass…that wowed and beguiled the judges” in declaring it the first Pinot Noir to win the CWA Red Wine of the Year. I found it to have a smoky nose and pure clean fruit flavours, with higher acidity than 2007 (comparisons coming naturally as we progressed through the vintages). With 2008 being a cooler vintage, the 2008 Sin Cera demonstrated significant tannin, even after the time it has spent in bottle. Luke had no qualms calling this wine a “tannin bomb” that needs many more years in the cellar, and/or a big steak to accompany it.

Fortunately nature cooperated in the summer of 2009, but not before an intense freeze that winter killed and stunted reams of vines throughout the region, leaving Howling Bluff with only one quarter the crop size expected by harvest. The Sin Cera ended up a very different wine after the warm summer, significantly smoother and approachable, despite having been just released recently. The Pinot Noir vines – damaged as they were – continued to produce award-winning fruit, as Luke took home his second Lt. Governor’s Award for the 2009 vintage. So little wine remained on the market by the time he received the award he had to buy it back from local stores to build up his own cellar! In the glasses on our table the Pinot Noir was noticeably lighter in colour than other vintages (including the 2010 that followed it), yet very fruit forward on the nose with elegant qualities that many guests appreciated.

For 2009 Howling Bluff also went through a major label change, switching the “critter” labels featuring a stylized howling dog for clean and concise text on cream-coloured paper that is much more restaurant-friendly. Apparently industry buyers had provided feedback that customers were shying away from the bottle out of concern it might be a low-end wine judging by its “kooky” label! The new labels also feature vineyard designations to reflect the Estate Summa Quies vineyard as alternative Pinot Noirs from surrounding vineyards begin appearing in Howling Bluff’s portfolio.

By 2010 the grafting program was in full swing at Howling Bluff, and an additional 20% more new Pinot Noir vines were yielding fruit measuring up to Luke’s high standards. We were treated to an advance tasting of the 2010 Summa Quies Pinot Noir and were quite pleased at its approachability given its youth. Fruity and quite juicy on the nose, it is smoother than one would expect, and Luke delighted in pointing out how drinkable he and his family and friends have found it to be over the past few months. Fortunately despite the Smith family’s efforts about 300 cases are still available and should soon be for sale via the winery and select private and VQA wine stores.

As the tasting wound down Luke informed us that he is aiming for 2000 cases each year for the whole winery, including his white Semillon/Sauvignon blend and two or more Pinot Noirs, based on the five different clones he has planted and planned. If fans are lucky we may even see a little bit of Port-style wine as well! And finally, as more Pinot Noir vines mature he is also pondering a Reserve Pinot Noir above and beyond the regular Estate wine – an entirely free run wine from select vineyard blocks aged in 100% new oak: the Lieutenant Governor should be prepared!