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 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!