Thursday 31 December 2015

Collectibles: December 2015

The end of the calendar year is usually fairly slow in terms of wine releases, as those in the industry take well-deserved vacations, or at least bide their time awaiting the icewine harvest. That being said, I was quite happy to take delivery this month of my biannual wine club shipment from Painted Rock, and spend some time picking up a handful of other singular sips. Some bottles were expressly intended to continue growing vertical collections, while others represented lucky acquisitions of hard-to-come-by rarities. In amongst the joy of gift shopping for family and friends a few treats for my future self didn’t seem over the top.

December 2015 BC wine collectibles

Painted Rock 2013 Syrah: Ever since the first vintage in 2007 this has been one of my favourite BC Syrah. Proprietor John Skinner likes to recount his hesitation in planting the variety until he was strongly encouraged by legendary wine writer John Schreiner. The grape sings from Skinner’s sun-soaked Skaha Bench vineyard, and the latest release of 1,622 cases should easily continue the tradition of excellence. A steady decline in the use of new oak at Painted Rock has left only 30% in such barrels (for 18 months), 80% of them French. Early reviews have praised the perfumed aroma and white peppered, dark berry flavours: Anthony Gismondi recently remarked on the beneficial aromatics of “mid-valley” Syrah such as this one in his 90-point review. Winery Direct $40

Cassini 2012 Cabernet Franc: Receiving a Lieutenant Governor’s Award in June for this dynamic Cabernet Franc must have tempted Adrian Cassini with immediate sales potential, yet it only recently came on the market. Of course, a mere 222 cases have disappeared out the door with rapidity, but a select number of retail locations received small allotments. Technically the wine contains 5% Merlot as well, aged alongside the Franc for two full years in new oak (80% French). My own recent tasting experiences agree with the many exuberant reviews, including that from Lt. Governor’s Award Judge John Schreiner, who remarked on the exquisite aroma. Icon Wines’ Liam Carrier found it to be “truly gorgeous” upon tasting in late October; well worthy of 92+ points plus a long and prosperous life in the cellar. Swirl VQA Store $35

Painted Rock 2013 Merlot: Painted Rock only produces 5,000 cases of wine per year, with the varietal Merlot serving alongside Syrah as the winery’s workhorse – combined they comprise nearly two thirds of production. From the 2013 vintage a full 1,746 cases of Merlot are soon to be released, after the same oak aging regime as the Syrah (18 months, 30% new, 80% French). Past experience has shown the Merlot to be a dark horse, taking some time to mature before showing off highly memorable character – this one in particular is a superb cellar candidate. John Schreiner suggested “five or more years” until it will blossom, with enough confidence in the brooding, concentrated texture for 92 points at present. Winery Direct $40

Stag’s Hollow 2013 Cachet No. 04: After a two year hiatus the top-tier Cachet series is joined by a fourth wine with the recent, long-awaited release of No. 04, a creative blend of 57% Petit Verdot, 37% Merlot, and 6% Cabernet Sauvignon. Exclusively winery direct at present, the price somewhat reflects desire to slowly meter out limited stock – just 117 cases were produced. That’s not to say this continuation of the series isn’t worth every penny, comparable in the eyes of Winemaker Dwight Sick to other local icon reds in the same price range. The predecessor 2010 Cachet No. 03 brought the winery a Lieutenant Governor’s Award in 2013, and No. 04 received a Gold medal at this summer’s National Wine Awards. Bottles are still hand-numbered, with mine coming in at #1339 of 1405; let’s hope Dwight kept #1 for himself! Winery Direct $69

Van Westen 2012 V: Adding the newest bottle of Rob Van Westen’s Bordeaux blend gives me a four-year vertical since the first vintage in 2009. I may open that aged example late next year when the 2013 is released, but there is no hurry as Rob’s wines are notoriously long-lived (he was mentored by Bill Eggert after all). Unlike Rob’s long-running two thirds Merlot and one third Cabernet Franc blend “Voluptuous”, the V contains five Bordeaux varieties, in this case 45% Merlot, 26% Cabernet Franc, 17% Malbec, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 5% Petit Verdot. The small production model is maintained however, and only 346 cases were produced, despite the solid growing season. The high quality harvest that year has left the wine with heady aromas and density of flavour, sufficient for a Silver medal at the National Wine Awards. Winery Direct $35

Sandhill 2012 Small Lots One: The Small Lots series provides a playground for Winemaker Howard Soon to drill down even further into Sandhill’s single vineyard philosophy. The “One” typically comes from the 7-acre Black Sage Bench Phantom Creek Vineyard, from which Howard obtained twenty (new American oak) barrels of an eclectic blend of 66% Cabernet Sauvignon (three clones), 11% Malbec, 9% Petit Verdot, 9% Syrah, 3.5% Cabernet Franc, and 1.5% Merlot. The wine was originally released in February, but took longer to show up on store shelves outside the Kelowna tasting room; that being said it’s now sold out there while retail stock remains available. The “One” represents another rotating vertical collection for which I now have 2009-2012 awaiting future consumption. With four years to go until the 2016 bumps this vintage from the cellar I can provide it with sufficient time to “settle down” as Anthony Gismondi suggests. Swirl VQA Store $40

Osoyoos Larose 2011 Le Grand Vin: The newest icon red from the equally iconic Osoyoos Larose brand is the second last vintage in which original, long-serving Winemaker Pascal Madevon had a hand. After his departure (for Culmina) in January of 2013 new Winemaker Mathieu Mercer would have completed blending trials that summer to yield the final combination of 48% Merlot, 33% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Petit Verdot, 6% Cabernet Franc, and 3% Malbec. The winery indicates that Cabernet Sauvignon is more dominant than in previous vintages, a surprising choice given the notoriously cool vintage conditions in 2011. The typically heavy tannins of Le Grand Vin will require time, and aging until 2021-2023 is suggested by the winery. With pleasing harmony, 2021 is precisely when I hope to add the 2017 vintage to my cellar, necessitating consumption of the 2011. Swirl VQA Store $50

Tuesday 15 December 2015

December Wine Club: Return to Form

After a several-month intermission and a busy summer season of travel our wine club finally reconvened this month in what is hoped to be a more permanent fashion. Our hosts were pleased to finally accommodate us in their snug new home, with some inspired furniture reconfiguration to provide seating for seven. The upcoming holiday season and falling temperatures had inspired some cozy winter comfort foods with a pleasant burst of bright white wines to keep the mood upbeat as the longest day of the year approaches.

Osoyoos Larose 2007 Le Grand Vin & Mission Hill 2009 Martin's Lane Riesling with Pretzel Sticks & Golden Beet Dip

Having been assigned hors d’oeuvres duty my wife and I needed to bring something ready to go immediately, to assuage any hunger pangs and provide a solid base for the wines to come. Always striving for something new we elected on soft pretzels, having never before made them, and excited to do so when I came across a delicious recipe in BC Liquor Stores’ Taste Magazine. It was the Roasted Jalapeno & Beet Dip that caught my eye, and I was soon scouring my CellarTracker database for the appropriate wine pairings.

With our Smoked Salt Pretzel Sticks and Beet Dip we shared a pair of big name wines; starting with Mission Hill’s 2009 Martin’s Lane Riesling, the inaugural vintage of this limited edition series in honour of Proprietor Anthony Von Mandl’s father Martin. A few years in bottle provided us with potent petrol aromas that gave way to generous pineapple and citrus. The tropical flavours continued on the palate, where relatively low acidity and a viscous texture emphasized the wine’s Germanic roots, courtesy of consulting winemaker Fritz Hasselbach. With the spicy Jalapeno Dip plus salty blue cheese crumbled over top the off-dry Riesling made for an excellent introduction to the evening.

Another cellar selection came out to kick start the meal in the form of Osoyoos Larose 2007 Le Grand Vin, a Christmas gift from four years ago ready for its day in the sun. With the understanding some decanting would likely be necessary we deconstructed the savoury first impression. The nose provided hints of olives and dates, with some guests discerning almonds and Brandy cherries as well. The palate was certainly shedding some of the legendary Grand Vin tannins, but noticeable dusty indications remained as we tasted restrained red currants. Revisiting the bottle later in the meal showed how much it had opened up and softened, releasing more elegant textures and fruit flavour. Ultimately a touch dry to fully synchronize with the Pretzels & Dip, but the earthiness from the beets colluded nicely regardless.

Black Star (Ex Nihilo) 2014 Pinot Noir with Caramelized Onion & Emmental Tart

Seated at the table we soon tucked in to the appetizer course. The Caramelized Onion Tart was charmingly presented with a garnish of fresh microgreens atop the rich Emmental-infused base. Our most curious wine of the evening was on hand as we were presented with a 2014 Pinot Noir from the previously unknown Black Star Vineyards. The wine showed off classic aromas of raspberry, cherry, and earthy mushrooms wafting from the glass, with similarly predictable pale ruby colouring. The smooth texture was a surprise given the recent vintage, with a pleasing flavour profile reminiscent of raspberry lemonade with hints of cloves.

Descriptors aside, we spent more time discussing the wine’s provenance than anything! None at the table had ever heard of the winery/vineyard, and the label indicated only a Lake Country origin from north of Kelowna – no contact information, virtual or otherwise, was provided. Extensive web searching that evening and later turned up no clues either, until assistance from the BC Wine Institute finally revealed the work of Ex Nihilo. The charismatic winery – visited in person last fall – recently created the Black Star label as an exclusive for western Canada Liquor Depot stores. Many restaurants and resorts are sourcing their own custom-branded wines, and it now seems the retail industry is jumping aboard as well; wine shopping could soon become an even more complicated affair!

Blasted Church 2014 Mixed Blessings & Tantalus 2014 Riesling with Seitan Cutlets & Green Beans

Dining at the home of creative vegetarians ensured we would receive a delicious main course to satisfy any palate. A pair of beautiful white wines were partnered with homemade Seitan Cutlets over mashed potatoes and crisp green beans, topped with savoury Olive & Caper Picada. From Blasted Church, the newest 2014 Mixed Blessings provided aromatic intensity from 90% Viognier, 7% Ehrenfelser, and 3% Pinot Gris. There were suggestions of fresh laundry from the clean, citrus and orchard fruit nose, while the creamy palate provided additional fruit flavours accented by vanilla and even some intriguing hints of licorice.

Should the very enjoyable Viognier have not sufficed, a second bottle of intense 2014 Riesling was on hand from Kelowna’s quintessential Tantalus. Working with the tangy picada the Riesling provided substantial refreshment, wafting mouth-watering key lime pie aromas. The apple and lime palate was luscious thanks to 12 g/L of residual sugar, deftly balanced by a bracing 10 g/L of acidity. (The sought-after Old Vines version sweeps you off your feet with only half the sugar.) A mention of “limeade concentrate” was put forth as we savoured the tart finish and discussed the obvious differences from the earlier, aged Mission Hill example.

La Frenz Liqueur Muscat with Chocolate Bundt Cake & Strawberry Compote

Dessert came courtesy of a late-arriving member, coming straight from an earlier engagement with an easily acceptable penance of Chocolate Bundt Cake from the acclaimed Uprising Bakery. Homemade Strawberry-Honey compote provided a touch of colour and juicy fruit, and La Frenz’s sumptuous Liqueur Muscat pulled it all together. Sipping the Muscat – from a multi-year, neutral barrel solera – encouraged a bevy of beautiful captions such as tropical toffee and orange Amaretto. This wasn’t the first bottle we have enjoyed together, and will most certainly not be the last either, as it effortlessly concludes many a wonderful evening.

Sunday 6 December 2015

Laughing Stock Syrah Vertical

Naramata Bench winery Laughing Stock is best known for their iconic red blend “Portfiolio”. Since founding the winery in 2001 owners David & Cynthia Enns have produced thousands of cases of their flagship wine, and recently celebrated the tenth vintage upon release of the 2012. However, despite the seeming focus on Bordeaux-styled reds (including the well respected second wine “Blind Trust”) the winery has wisely diversified their holdings. The Enns have in fact spent the last several years crafting one of Canada’s best Syrah since acquiring an Osoyoos vineyard in 2007.

Getting it right the first time: beautiful, consistent label design over the years.

As a member of Laughing Stock’s Preferred Share Wine Club I have been privileged to receive each vintage of Syrah since the first release of 302 cases in 2008. Latter vintages have grown in size to the several hundred cases now produced annually, but still pale in comparison to the 2,000+ cases of Portfolio snapped up each year. Despite the worthy praise for Portfolio, the Syrah has received at least as many accolades, with annual admiration that has included national Platinum and Gold medals, plus a prestigious Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence in BC Wines. Having amassed six vintages from 2008 to 2013 I recently decided to share a vertical tasting of this spectacular Syrah with a small group of family and friends.

The Perfect Hedge Vineyard on the East Bench of Osoyoos Lake was planted in 2005, including nearly three acres of Syrah alongside Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Viognier, and Malbec. By 2008 the vineyard was ready to yield a blend of 92% Syrah and 8% Viognier, released to a growing fan base in the summer of 2010. For the first release the winery went with Stelvin-sealed bottles, which has benefited the wine by this point, as we found it lively and retaining generous fruit beyond some mature savoury olive aromas. Purple fruit flavours on the finish suggested there is still life ahead for those bottles that remain securely sealed and stashed away in the cellars of collectors.

The early years of production served to establish Winemaker David Enns’ preferred technique, with whole cluster/berry Syrah complemented by crushed Viognier (4-8%) to circulate within the steel tanks and oak puncheons used for fermentation. Fourteen to 16 months of aging have become the norm, with 40% new oak most common. In the second year of production the hot and short growing season of 2009 pumped up the alcohol to 14.8%, contributing to the plummy, Porty nose we encountered. Smooth and mature under cork the wine was in fact so rich as to be considered best for after-dinner purposes, with low acidity and sweet, chocolate-cherry flavours serving to raise eyebrows around the table. Even at a young age this wine launched the series of notable medals collected thus far, receiving Gold at the 2011 Canadian Wine Awards.

Another CWA Gold medal arrived the following year, awarded to the 2010 vintage; which also received the Lieutenant Governor’s Award that summer. The relatively cool growing season was overcome with deft viticulture and a late harvest during a timely October heat wave. Despite the necessary fruit thinning production increased to 620 cases, although 18 months of aging was felt necessary, the longest of all six vintages. After three-plus years in bottle we discovered a mouth-watering wine at its peak, with aromas of savoury leather and peppered meat, and a smooth, juicy blackberry palate – an easy favourite of the tasting.

If 2010 was thought to be cool then 2011 was an even ruder surprise – late from beginning to end. While 2010 was harvested October 7th the 2011 vintage of Syrah was harvested at month’s end. Still, 760 cases came of it (despite one block being bled for the winery’s occasional Rosé), and a traditional “cool climate red” was the eventual result. On the nose the expected leather notes were paired with blueberry and sweet oak. While not as silky in texture as some of the other wines in the vertical, the refreshing acidity and cool flavours lent a certain elegance along with age-worthy optimism. The wine continued its golden streak with a medal at the 2013 National Wine Awards, and then went on to receive an esteemed Decanter Regional Trophy.

The 2012 growing season launched what has become a four-year trend of warm, high-quality vintages. Although a large yield must have been tempting, only 643 cases were eventually produced, keeping the focus on quality over quantity. The careful crop management, flawless summer, and maturing vineyard combined to yield one of the fourteen Platinum medals awarded at the 2014 Nationals (including three for BC Syrah). We were struck by the intensity present upon tasting, with dark, luxurious flavours of cherries and licorice under the smoky, spicy nose. The serious character was deemed well worthy of further aging, with the expectation it will continue to improve over time.

Given the requisite 14+ months of aging, plus time to recover from bottling, Laughing Stock typically release their Syrah mid-year, putting us in the middle of the schedule at present. Stocks of the most recent 2013 may thus start to run low soon, despite a relatively bountiful 820 cases released earlier this year. A Gold medal (and great company) at the 2015 Nationals in late summer was practically expected at this point, and obviously well deserved. Sampled first, alongside a spread of flavourful food, it oozed charisma with bountiful aromas of fresh black cherry, licorice, pepper, and bacon. The lip-smacking palate was beautiful paired with dark chocolate, and a popular crowd favourite even by the end of the tasting.

Companion whites provide additional intrigue and enjoyment.

I would be remiss not to mention the ripe and luscious whites we also enjoyed both before and after. Laughing Stock’s Osoyoos vineyard yields generous Viognier as well, with the 2014 providing flavours that span the spectrum of citrus, orchard, and tropical fruit in this ideal Syrah companion. To mark the special occasion I even cracked open the winery’s rare (162 cases) 2014 Amphora Viognier Roussanne, an experimental “hands-off” wine made in tribute to ancient methods. The project saw whole berry Osoyoos Viognier and Black Sage Bench Roussanne naturally fermented together over two and a half months in a pair of Italian clay amphora. The result is intriguing and striking, with rich aromas of apple sauce and peach pie atop a salted caramel palate plus a touch of thought-provoking light oxidation and even mild tannin.

Reflecting on the entire flight of Syrah it was apparent that all had strengths, with near universal satisfaction. It was challenging to rank order all six vintages, but in the end some rose to the top a bit more readily, providing greater enjoyment at present:

First Place – 2010: perfectly aged and balanced, seemingly at peak, but no rapid decline expected.

Second Place – 2013: fresh and expressive, complex character with great future potential as well.

Third Place – 2008: pleasing maturity with ripe fruit, lively given age thanks to Stelvin cap.

Fourth Place – 2011: elegant and refreshing, will age for some time as a result of cool vintage acidity.

Fifth Place – 2012: luxurious intensity, brooding seriousness, but needs time for excellence to emerge.

Sixth Place – 2009: mature, very rich from a hot vintage, but almost too much so, sweet and hot.

My own stocks are now reduced to those vintages from 2011 onward, but that should serve to provide some delicious future opportunities given what was learned. With what should be sublime 2014 and 2015 vintages still in barrel at Laughing Stock, I look forward to much more enjoyment of what has fast become a benchmark Canadian Syrah.