Monday 26 November 2012

November Wine Club: Magnificent Reunion

Ever since our group lost one of the three founding couples in July – when they moved Kentucky to soak themselves in Bourbon – we haven’t met for our monthly wine club. Coincidentally, everyone who remained in Vancouver seemed to have taken on increasingly busy work and home lives in the meantime. As a result, the four of us haven’t had a chance to formally get together and decide on the club’s future. In all honesty there was probably a little bit of denial involved: if we don’t replace them then they aren’t really gone. Fortunately for us, our long-lost friends and their newly walking one-year-old came up here to visit last week, and we leapt at the chance for a club reunion dinner! This being a very special occasion – with multiple birthdays and other belated celebrations for which to account – it clearly demanded that we pull out all the stops and crack open some extra special bottles of BC wine.

Impressive Magnums

Last Christmas the six of us jointly purchased a magnum of Painted Rock 2007 Red Icon (the first vintage of this marvellous wine), with the goal being to hold it until a worthy occasion in the coming future. Having somehow managed to avoid breaching the cork this summer, a reunion seemed like the ideal occasion to finally share our investment. The decision was thus made to embark on a magnum dinner! Having upped the ante bottle-wise it seemed only reasonable to  add some additional people to the mix as well, and we invited another couple to join us and bring a mystery fourth course and wine pairing.

Giant Ravioli

Our Kentuckian chefs jumped at the chance to whip up the always popular appetizer course, where creativity gets the chance to shine particularly brightly. Before moving away, they’d left behind in my care a magnum of legendary Blue Mountain 2008 Reserve Pinot Noir purchased during our visit to the winery in June – the perfect bottle for our newly themed dinner. The wine inspired very impressive giant mushroom ravioli with sage brown butter sauce and shaved gruyere. Already excited to dig in we soon discovered hiding inside each ravioli a charming quail egg surprise; the rich liquid yolk served to further amplify the delicious flavours of ricotta and mixed wild mushrooms. The wine proved a superb pairing, with aromas of cranberries and mushrooms, and bright berry flavours carried by a surprisingly smooth texture given the relative youthfulness of the bottle.

With eight thirsty diners at the table it didn’t take long to empty the hefty magnum. While our hosts worked on getting the entrée course in the oven, they provided a highly welcome intermission bottle of Laughing Stock 2007 Blind Trust Red. The Naramata winery produces a different version of this red blend every year, and keeps the precise components hidden under the capsule for consumers to reveal when desired. The Blind Trust is generally intended for earlier consumption than the winery’s larger icon blend “Portfolio” so it came as no surprise that the five-year-old wine had taken on some savoury characteristics over time. Although it was likely more fruit forward a couple of years ago, we enjoyed the smokiness and hints of soy sauce, while one guest surmised a generous proportion of Cabernet Franc was included based on some green pepper flavours. Spoiler Alert: the blend was ultimately revealed as containing approximately 50% Merlot and a split of Cabernets, both Sauvignon and Franc, for the remainder.

Lentil Shepherd's Pie

After having let it breathe happily in the decanter for a while, the time finally came to enjoy the Painted Rock Red Icon with our beautiful entrées of individual Lentil Shepherd’s Pie. We were told this particular recipe came from John Bishop’s cookbook “Fresh”, but the braised kale alongside it was all original, with a touch of brandy and delicious raspberry-Merlot black pepper jam. With the shepherd’s pies steaming fresh from the oven, we spent some time sipping at the Red Icon and waxing poetic about this Lieutenant Governor’s Award-winning wine (2007 and 2009 in fact). Interestingly enough, the 2007 Red Icon is led by 33% Cabernet Franc in the blend, followed next by 20% Petit Verdot, and then on to 16% Cabernet Sauvignon & Merlot, and finally 15% Malbec. Proprietor John Skinner and his winemaking consultants have been fully willing to dramatically change the blend every year since 2007, even to the point of adding or removing entire varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah – all in the name of producing the best wine possible.

The non-traditional gamble for the blend in 2007 was clearly successful. After more than three years in bottle following 18 months in French oak, this first vintage of Red Icon was sublimely tasty, delightfully silky, and certainly seemed at its peak. However, it could likely continue to age and improve as time goes by; luckily I have another 750ml bottle to try next year with which to investigate further. The savoury, smoky aromas with hints of tea and olives led into deep, dark flavours of blackberries, cassis, and licorice – we thanked our lucky stars we had a full size magnum to share, otherwise things could have gotten ugly. Still it had to come to an end eventually, and we finished our glasses with wistful expressions while mopping up creamy potatoes and earthy lentils amid compliments to the Chef.

Mascarpone Crepes

The mystery course from our charming guests came next, in the form of a pre-dessert (or perhaps just a first dessert) of freshly made rolled crêpes. Two bottles of Kettle Valley 2011 Pinot Gris served as a magnum of sorts, which suited us just fine. Like a very small handful of other Okanagan wineries (e.g., Nichol Vineyard), Kettle Valley clearly leaves their Pinot Gris to soak on the skins for longer than usual, hence the stunning pink colour. The delicate cotton candy flavours and steely minerals in the wine proved to be a superb foil for the creamy crêpes, stuffed with mascarpone, sour cream, lemon zest, and vanilla sugar. The wine finished with a clean grapefruit flavour, leaving us refreshed and ready for our second dessert!

Perfect Black Forest Cake

I was certainly looking forward to finally revealing my efforts – courtesy of an inspired idea from my wife – at producing an entirely homemade, traditional Black Forest Cake. It seemed like an ideal pairing for our cherished bottle of Blasted Church Amen Port-de-Merlot, purchased way back in 2009 during a winery visit. Since most dessert wines come in 375mL bottles, we reasoned that a 750mL bottles like ours should count as a magnum, and hence continue the theme. The particular Amen we were about to consume came from the 2006 and 2007 vintages, but newer releases do incorporate more vintages using a Solera style. Going forward the wine is anticipated to possess additional complexity and richness as the average age increases.

As the recipe details, the cake was carefully assembled from three layers of chocolate génoise and a full litre of whipping cream, plus canned sour cherries (not Maraschino cherries). It was a true labour of love that consumed my afternoon. Tasting it and hearing everyone’s enjoyment – and relief that it wasn’t sickly sweet – made it all worthwhile though. Alongside the relatively subtle cake the Amen was a good match, as it was surprisingly dry and restrained, not the “Porty” flavour profile we were expecting given the name and image. The wine’s flavour profile, dominated by cocoa, tied the whole course together, and left us enjoying a wonderful and less cloying conclusion to the meal than may have been feared by some given the title of the dessert!

Signing the Bottle

By the end of the meal we were all contentedly stuffed, and revelling in memories of so many good times gone by. We all signed the Red Icon bottle for perpetuity, and vowed this would not be our last adventure together. It’s possible that next time we’ll be dining in Kentucky, so I may need to find out how large a bottle is allowed through customs!

Friday 16 November 2012

Vigorous New Reds from SpierHead

SpierHead Winery in south-east Kelowna has been carefully and methodically entering the market since last summer, with a focused portfolio of reds and whites specially tailored to the local terroir. Chardonnay and a particularly good Riesling cover the white domain, while the winery’s first vintage of (great value) Pinot Noir – from estate grapes – reportedly won a prestigious gold medal at the 2012 Canadian Wine Awards. The winery also scored a major coup at the Okanagan Wine Festival this fall when it was named best new winery at the BC Wine Awards (following in the footsteps of respected peers Painted Rock, Cassini Cellars, and then Volcanic Hills last year).

Although the winery opened with a series of varietal red wines, they are currently focused on just two red blends: the flagship blend “Vanguard” has been with the winery since day one, while the the newer entry-level “Pursuit” is the second level wine. Compared to some flagship reds however, both wines are reasonably priced, with even the Vanguard coming in at only $30. I recently received a sample of each of the new 2010 vintages of these reds, and shared them with a few friends to get a wider opinion.

SpierHead Red Wines

Pursuit ($22) is the more immediately approachable wine, comprised of a majority of Merlot, along with 28% Cabernet Sauvignon and 16% Cabernet Franc. Smartly, the winery has opted to source Black Sage Road fruit from the southern Okanagan for their big reds, realizing the Kelowna terroir is much better suited to lighter Pinot Noir and white varieties. The wine was barrel aged for 18 months in 44% new French oak, and only 375 cases were produced for this first release.

The 2010 growing season was late starting, and cooler than average, especially compared to the blazing 2009 heat, so one doesn’t expect to find big ripe reds, but SpierHead has worked well with what nature provided. The Pursuit showed some green aromas as well as fiery notes, but on the palate we tasted plenty of juicy berries thanks to bright acidity: blueberries and red currants were suggested, and hints of licorice emerged when paired with food. By the next day more chocolate notes were apparent when we sampled what remained in the bottle after sealing it overnight. I would be remiss if I didn’t publish the poetic ode to Pursuit composed on the spot – by a published writer with a doctorate in English Literature no less:

Warm wool mittens

By the fire

Sink in

The Vanguard retains the tart acidity of the Pursuit and adds even more tannins thanks to nearly equal proportions of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot along with 4% Cabernet Franc. Although the residual sugar remains nearly identical to that of the Pursuit (2.8 g/L), it tastes drier, with darker fruit flavours and a profile that reminded some of raspberry balsamic vinaigrette. Hints of molasses, cinnamon, and anise were mentioned as well, although in general it is the more savoury of the two reds. The wine also saw 18 months in French oak, of which a larger percentage (55%) was new oak.

Both of these wines are still quite young and definitely demand food pairings at present to tame their acidity and tannins, but those features also bode well for the long haul. The wines should do well in the cellar for a while as they mature, giving time for the Vanguard in particular to more fairly compete with other 2010 flagship blends, of which few have yet to be released (many competitors are still in the midst of their 2008 and 2009 releases). Combined, the two reds yield only 640 cases, showing that SpierHead is once again proceeding intelligently and patiently as their vineyards, technique, and brand mature. Having yet to visit many of the Kelowna-area wineries I look forward to seeing what consultant Tom Di Bello called “the most meticulous vineyard I had ever seen” in person in the near future, plus enjoying what I’m sure will be even more well-crafted wines.