Thursday 30 June 2016

Collectibles: June 2016

I must be living in the past, because I still do a double take when I see 2014 red wines on the shelf. It doesn’t seem possible to purchase these youngsters already, but 18 months have elapsed since conclusion of the lovely 2014 harvest, leaving plenty of time for fermentation and barrel aging of most red wines. Of course, bottle aging adds additional time, hence the ongoing release of 2013 vintage wines as well. The earliest crack at fresh new bottles often goes to wine club members, hence my pleasure at receiving Laughing Stock’s latest this month, and my first shipment from the newly joined Stag’s Hollow Wine Club.

June 2016 BC wine collectibles

Laughing Stock 2014 Pinot Noir: It was only last year that Laughing Stock got back into Pinot Noir, after having purchased a second Naramata Bench vineyard, planted with the Burgundian variety. The “Small Caps” category that saw a couple of releases in the last decade was revived with 124 cases of 2013, and now 149 cases of the 2014 vintage are available, after 16 months in French oak (one third new). One would hope for further quantity increases down the road, as the newest winery exclusive release is likely already sold out given the fervent Preferred Share Club plus broad appreciation for the skills of Winemaker David Enns. I can’t help but be charmed by Laughing Stock’s poetic description: “Imagine chewing cherry fruit leather while walking through a forest after a rain.” Winery Direct $33

Blue Mountain 2013 Reserve Pinot Noir: The icon wine from Blue Mountain, and widely considered a benchmark in the local industry, is the Reserve Pinot Noir. I managed to obtain a small allotment thanks to my inceptive participation in the winery’s Priority Group, which I collected in person at this month’s pick-up party in Vancouver. The introduction of native yeast several years ago reached its pinnacle in the 2011 vintage, and since then the Pinot Noir has enjoyed full native fermentation, which is typically followed by 10 months in French oak and 18 months of bottle aging before release. Despite enthusiastically praising the wine’s intensity and purity at present the team of reviewers at WineAlign suggest further benefits to come from additional time in the cellar, advice in which I’m happy to oblige. Winery Direct $40

Stag’s Hollow 2014 Malbec: Seeking the lesser known and lesser seen wines of BC has led me to many a local winery’s club, and Stag’s Hollow is my latest wisely chosen membership. I was joyfully initiated with receipt of the winery’s first varietal Malbec, a club exclusive production of 106 cases. (Should any remain at summer’s end it will enjoy a public release in September.) The Plut Vineyard on the East Bench of Osoyoos yielded small lots of hand sorted fruit that included 2% Petit Verdot, aged for 15 months in 60% new French oak before being bottled this April. The winery suggests a “bloody rare grilled cut of beef” to complement the floral, earthy, ripe fruit and tannins, with development potential until at least 2020. Mine will remain in the cellar until then, one of a select few BC Malbec, and from a cherished producer at that. Winery Direct $35

Lariana 2013 Carménère: For some time reports have swirled that an ultra-rare (at least in BC) Carménère would join the petite portfolio at this small Osoyoos winery: only Black Hills and Moon Curser are known to produce single varietal versions. As John Schreiner detailed, mortality in the young vineyard’s Syrah vines lead to replacement with Carménère, and with Consulting Winemaker (and Black Hills founder) Senka Tennant on the case this rarity was inevitable. Now the acclaimed young winery has increased their range of wines by 50%, adding to spectacular Viognier and their rich red blend. Despite suggestions the Carménère, all 120 cases of it, would be released this fall, I was pleasantly surprised to spot it on select store shelves this month – before the winery itself had even published notice! Senka describes deep, dark fruits with licorice, pepper, and earth, while John’s recent 92-point review praised this “swaggering example.” Sutton Place Wine Merchant (& VQA Stores) $45

Stag’s Hollow 2013 Syrah: The Hearle Vineyard on the Osoyoos East Bench yielded Syrah (and 7.5% co-fermented Viognier) for a well-priced winner originally released last October. It was only recently the wine was named Best of Category at the All Canadian Wine Championships, and fortuitously included in my first club shipment from the winery. Four hundred and twelve cases saw 18 months of sur lie aging in 80% new French oak before bottling nearly a year ago. For some wineries this would be considered a small lot but Stag’s Hollow produces many more quasi-experimental wines in much smaller quantities (e.g., Dolcetto). A wine to sip will awaiting the first reserve-tier Renaissance Syrah from 2014, or age up to several years as the winery suggests. Winery Direct (& VQA Stores) $29

Daydreamer 2014 Marcus Ansems Shiraz: Last year Proprietor and Winemaker (and newly minted Master of Wine) Marcus Ansems released his first wines in the Signature Range bearing his family crest – 2013 Chardonnay and Shiraz. The “Shiraz” (the locally uncommon nomenclature honouring his Australian birth and background) went on to win a prestigious Gold medal at the 2015 National Wine Awards, and another one this year would not be unexpected. The new 2014 vintage comes from a Golden Mile Bench vineyard that yielded a mere 115 cases, after the wine spent a year in French oak. John Schreiner received the opportunity to taste back in November when Marcus earned his MW, and felt a strong 92-point score befitting the concentrated texture and bold flavours. Legacy Liquor Store $45

Laughing Stock 2014 Syrah: David & Cynthia Enns’ Osoyoos vineyard includes nearly 3 acres of Syrah that has impressed consumers and critics around the world since inception in the 2008 vintage (e.g., the 2011 was awarded a Decanter Regional Trophy). Compared to 2,500 cases of the better known “Portfolio” blend the several hundred cases of Syrah are a little harder to come by, but it always falls within my top local favourites. Hosting a six-year vertical from 2008-2013 last December was one of the highlights of my year. A touch of Viognier (3% in 2014) is typically added in a Northern Rhone style, while aging for this vintage found it spending 16 months in (45% new) French oak. I’m relieved to have locked up a couple bottles from my recent Preferred Share Club shipment – it has proven to be a trustworthy addition to one’s cellar. Winery Direct (& VQA Stores) $39

Sunday 26 June 2016

Lighting Up Lunessence

Coinciding with the release of young Lunessence Winery’s first dessert wines came a very fortunate bit of good news this month: a prestigious Lieutenant Governor’s Award for the 2014 Riesling Icewine. This highly publicized award must be particularly exciting and valuable for such a new venture – as the Summerland winery only opened for business last summer. Still, given the number of new wineries opening throughout the province Lunessence is already far from the most youthful. The initial release of a few 2013 reds means the winery is technically approaching its fourth vintage, despite being founded in 2014. With this year’s release of an expanded portfolio Lunessence is continuing to put down roots in the speedily solidifying Bottleneck Drive wine trail.

Giving the corks some air

Author John Schreiner provided a detailed history of the Summerland property on his blog late last year, including its origins as Sonoran Winery, recent purchase by a Vancouver environmental consultant, and hiring of General Manager Michal Mosny. Upon release of the new vintages I was contacted by Michal seeking comment on the wines: seeing as he also manages the vineyard with his wife Martina, and makes the wine as well, Michal has quite a bit riding on the winery’s success. I was grateful to receive samples of several new table wines from white to red, with no conditions apart from honest opinion. I assembled several oenophilically inclined friends for a weekend tasting panel eager to explore a winery new to us all, and we dove in with thoughtful gusto.

The newest 2015 white wines include a pair of creative blends made with several varieties from the Naramata Bench (much of the Summerland estate production is used for dessert wines). The “Sauvignon Blanc-Muscat” is quite a handful that includes Viognier, Chardonnay, and Semillon as well, but struck me as most reminiscent of the quality local Sauvignon-Semillon such as that celebrated at Howling Bluff. Grapefruit, honey, and spices on the nose led into passionfruit flavours and a slightly short apple-citrus finish. The light but creamy palate benefits from four months on the lees, and makes for a charming summer sipper in particular. A second blend adds some late harvest Pinot Blanc to acidic Oraniensteiner, a German-engineered child of Riesling and Sylvaner. The clean, fresh nose shows citrus and stone-fruit with enjoyable candied pineapple on the palate. Twenty-three grams of residual sugar are well integrated, and thoroughly chilled make for another dangerously drinkable patio partner (with only 12.5% alcohol).

Lunessence Winery whites

A third new 2015 wine came in the form of a voluptuous Rosé combining 70% Cabernet Franc from Osoyoos with 30% Pinot Noir from Naramata. On the nose it’s all rich strawberry watermelon, and the 22 grams of sugar are surprisingly decently balanced by a long, tart strawberry finish with a cran-apple juice reminder. Several summer suggestions come to mind in the vein of pub patio food: nachos, fried chicken, or a rich and complex salad. I’ve since learned of another 2015 aromatic blend of Riesling, Viognier, Gewurztraminer, and Muscat but did not get a chance to taste what appears to be the new flagship (800 cases almost surpass the total of the other two whites plus the Rosé combined).

From the 2014 vintage Lunessence produced small lots of varietal Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Chardonnay, and I received the opportunity to sample the former a year in to its life. The Sauvignon Blanc was harvested from a southern Okanagan vineyard at the beginning of October, kept on the skins for 24 hours, and partly wild fermented. Thirty percent was aged in new oak barrels for five months to yield what was the most well liked white in the bunch. The tropical aromas were far from grassy green, with the sweet citrus of Mandarin oranges to boot. The dry palate brought out more Mandarin within excellent balance and a deliciously clean texture and faintly floral finish. At $28 (and only 80 cases produced) it’s not a wine for careless quaffing, but nevertheless would be sublimely refreshing on a hot summer day.

Lunessence Winery reds

The Summerland vineyard reportedly includes both Merlot and Syrah, but so far the two red table wines come from the Golden Mile Bench. (An estate Late Harvest Syrah from 2014 was recently released in small quantities, with 95 g/L of sugar thanks to a mid-December harvest.) Two hundred cases of 2014 Merlot came from fully ripened fruit at 27.5 Brix (shockingly, picked October 6) and aged for six months in new Slovakian, Hungarian, and French oak and then six in steel. Michal appears to favour Slovakian oak having been born and raised there, fortuitously putting him on the cutting edge of winemakers increasingly experimenting with Eastern European wood. A hefty 14.5% alcohol was apparent on the nose, mixed with the typical blueberry aromas of the variety. The palate was surprisingly thin given the stated full malolactic fermentation, very ripe with earthy dark berries and toasty leather. However, some bitter tannins left us wondering how it could show better with more time in bottle.

Given the oft-stated challenges in properly ripening Cabernet Sauvignon in much of BC we approached the young 2014 single varietal with some trepidation. Similar to the Merlot, fermentation and aging included Slovakian and French barrels, one third of it neutral, within the same six and six combination of oak and steel (yielding 330 cases). Given my wife’s green pepper sensitivity she was eager to report not a hint in the Cabernet, and we joyously celebrated the rich black currant nose accessorized by molasses and vanilla custard. A few bitter tannins like the Merlot were easily surpassed by the rich Black Forest cake profile and cracked black pepper on the finish – in perfect parallel to what we later found in Michal’s own tasting notes. With a reasonable 13.5% alcohol the “fireplace-friendly” Cabernet received universal acclaim within our group, and the approachable price of $27 came as a further pleasant surprise.

I haven’t had a chance to sample the award-winning Icewine, or the Syrah and an additional Pinot Blanc Late Harvest – all from the 2014 vintage. Given the previous owners’ emphasis on dessert wines (at Sonoran) Lunessence certainly comes by the style honestly, and I would expect to be further impressed given my experience thus far. I look forward to visiting the winery in the near future and exploring the appealing eco-friendly biodynamic vineyard and restored wetlands. In the meantime I’m pleased to learn many of the wines we enjoyed are showing up in VQA stores already, and the winery publishes a diverse list of additional locations beyond the newly renovated tasting room (with expansive patio) and wine club. The Summerland scene seems well served by the care and creativity shown at Lunessence.

Sunday 19 June 2016

A Grand Decade: La Frenz Vertical Tasting

The BC Wine Appreciation Society has carefully tended a cellar of vertical collections from top BC wineries over the past decade. In recent years members have finally had the chance to explore and enjoy these iconic wines. The Society’s latest vertical tasting opened up ten years of the “Grand Total” red blend from Naramata Bench champion La Frenz Winery. Visiting Vancouver to join this rare tasting were proprietors Jeff and Niva Martin, with the upcoming 2013 vintage in hand to round out the Society’s well-rested reserves.

Jeff and Niva Martin join a vertical tasting rare even for them!

This year will mark a landmark – now one of many – for Jeff Martin: he’ll mark turning 60 years old by working his 46th crush. More than twenty of those vintages have taken place here in British Columbia since the Martin family moved from Australia, where Jeff had established a notable wine industry career. Jeff and Niva’s success in the Okanagan has been just as enviable, having established and grown their highly respected Naramata Bench winery following Jeff’s initial tenure at Quails’ Gate in the mid-1990s. Despite aiming for a manageable 5,000 case production, the Martins’ expansive portfolio now peaks at 12,000 cases annually, from a range of vineyards that include four estate properties making up 80% of production.

Recognizing that it was in fact June, and diving into ten glasses of Bordeaux-styled red might seem daunting on a summer night, the Martins also brought along some whites wines to whet the assembled palates. At least nine varietal whites and blends are produced at La Frenz, from Riesling to Viognier, while eschewing some common local grapes like Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer. Although varietal Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon are produced, Jeff was happy to share his 2014 “Ensemble” that blends the two varieties, with 70% and 30% respectively. Raised in neutral oak and capable of cellar aging it is said to receive inspiration from the whites of Graves in Bordeaux. The simply gorgeous floral and tropical aromas immediately impressed, with sweet citrus fruit and a hint of mint on the richly-layered palate.

Alluring aromas filled the room in short order

When not challenging the prestige of Bordeaux Jeff finds time to give Burgundy a run for its money with two different Chardonnay. The “peaches and cream” of partially-oaked current vintage wine is always accompanied by an older sibling from an exclusively barreled background. Guests received the opportunity to taste this 2014 Reserve Chardonnay, recently bottled after 15 months on the lees in new and one-year-old French barrels. The supremely well integrated oak was only one of the wine’s exceptional qualities, followed by a lively palate and opulent texture. Flavours of juicy green apple and butterscotch caramel provided thoughtful comparisons to flavourful desserts, making for much conversation before the evening’s main event had even begun!

The vertical tasting began with 2004, from a time when the Grand Total was labelled simply “Reserve”, and originated in old vines from the Black Sage Bench. It wasn’t until 2005 that Jeff and Niva acquired their own southern Okanagan vineyard, the ten acre Rockyfeller property on the Golden Mile. The early vintages followed a Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant profile, comprising nearly two thirds of the blend before Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Brick-brown in colour, the 2004 presented an expressive stewed fruit nose, with a similar palate that included chocolate, tobacco, and even soy sauce. Despite the growing age of subsequent wines, 2004 was the only vintage Jeff felt in need of current consumption.

Starting with 2004 - the straightforward "Reserve"

Only one year junior, 2005 was substantially different, with a fresher nose and noticeably less russet colouring. Nicely aged, with fruit still prominent, it provided fruit leather flavours and pleasurable cleanliness on the palate. A similar form for 2006 came next, with slightly greater tannin and a fuller, richer body, but reduced acidity. Even at the ten-year-plus mark, these wines were proving unique and pleasantly differentiated. By 2007 some of the Rockyfeller fruit was available, providing additional varieties such as Malbec and Petit Verdot to round out the Bordeaux profile. The increased tannins were noticeable, but integration of the blend and a tasty chocolate vein provided popular preference.

A cooler vintage in 2008 offered cherry tartness and dialed the tannins back down a bit. Inky, toasty aromas were accompanied by very nice dark fruit of blue and blackberry, yielding thoughtful consideration as to the components, precise figures not on hand. Big heat in 2009 presented plums and Black Forest Cake with cherries and chocolate alongside ripe tannins and lower acidity. Like those before it, this vintage could keep comfortably while developing more spices and leather. The young 2010 surprised many by leaping to clear favourite status, with youthful strawberry rhubarb aromas before mild tannins and black cherry vanilla flavours on the cool, fresh palate.

By the century’s second decade the Martins had added a fourth vineyard to the pool; their third Naramata Bench purchase became the amusingly named “Freedom 75”. The new property marked a growing emphasis across the vineyards on natural farming that maintains biodiversity and fittingly requires minimal intervention. Letting the vines maintain themselves, and even struggle at times without irrigation or fertilizers, has provided for smaller, concentrated berries in the red varieties. Vineyard management is now primarily in the area of canopy control and strict cropping, obtaining a mere one bunch per shoot in recent vintages.

The newest 2013 vintage rounds out the decade

The concentrated wines of late have also experienced a change in components, as Merlot has surpassed Cabernet Sauvignon. In 2011 the blend included 45% Merlot atop 31% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Malbec, and 11% Cabernet Franc. The structured palate of this youngster was evident, with oak influence still present upon the nose of prune and leather. Fresh purple fruit and spiced licorice marked the palate, with years of elegance still to come. By 2012 Merlot had reached 60%, with Cabernet Franc edging Sauvignon at 27% to 13%. Fresh mixed berries led the fruit forward profile, drinking quite engagingly at present but well-built for the long haul. The brand new 2013 is to be released this summer, and found great favour in the crowd thanks to soft, ripe tannins and rich primary fruit. The daunting 15.5% alcohol was carried extremely well in the blend of 58% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 17% Cabernet Franc, and will certainly preserve it for a comfortable decade in bottle should self-control be at hand.

Given the impressive stature of the highly enjoyable 2013 it was even more striking to hear Jeff declare his 2014 Grand Total to be the “best ever” in his opinion. That next star in the series is not expected until well into next year however, with the 2013 only just beginning its ascension to prominence. Looking ahead to the upcoming harvest Jeff further predicted 2016 could be the best ever vintage overall, continuing a string of prosperous harvests in recent years. Whatever the future may hold, relishing the rewards of the past has made it clear La Frenz is well equipped to thrive in the years to come.

Sunday 12 June 2016

Collectibles: A Quartet of Quality Cabernet

In the course of amassing a small collection of cellar-worthy wines last month I found myself with more than could be detailed in just one summary. Surveying the favourites both new and old I realized the often under-rated variety of Cabernet Franc played a leading role. The cooler climate superstar is broadly acknowledged to be worthy of single varietal status increasingly frequently in BC. That being said, despite toping signature variety Syrah in acreage as the fourth-most grown red grape, varietal versions are most often small-lot productions. Persistence must accompany one’s taste for Franc in order to obtain the most sought-after bottles.

A selection of BC's exciting small lot Cabernet Franc

Kitten Swish 2014 Target Practice Cabernet Franc: Every so often an unknown and unexpected wine takes me by complete surprise, as did this ultra-small lot from Sommelier Brad Royale’s quirky Kitten Swish lineup. This “micro-négociant” project has primarily sourced California grapes since inception in 2011, but finally found the perfect Canadian opportunity in the hands of Laughing Stock’s David Enns and a young Osoyoos vineyard. Reading Anthony Gismondi’s glowing 90-point review out of the blue piqued my curiosity and started my search, handily concluded when Laughing Stock was able to ship several bottles my way. Considering only a single puncheon was produced (50 cases worth) it won’t be around for long, but it makes for an exciting collectible rarity to examine over time. Given the full body and bright acidity I’m eager to see how this youngster fares in a few years. Winery Direct $38

Upper Bench 2013 Cabernet Franc: This spring witnessed the limited release of the first varietal Franc from Penticton’s Upper Bench. Proprietor and Winemaker Gavin Miller waited until November 5 to harvest at a full 27.5 Brix, leaving him with 3.6g/L of sugar even after 14.8% alcohol – rich and ripe to say the least! Gavin’s extensive experience with Bordeaux reds on the Naramata and Skaha Benches (at Poplar Grove and Painted Rock, before opening his own winery in 2011) has prompted natural growth from Upper Bench’s celebrated Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Only a wee 167 cases were made to start, but one hopes it might increase in the future should Gavin retain this gem as a single varietal wine. The nose of fig and smoked meat he describes leads into what sounds more like Sauvignon territory with a palate of cassis and cherry cola – worthy of his wife Shana’s sumptuous blue cheeses. Legacy Liquor Store $39

Orofino 2013 Collector’s Club Cabernet Franc: To reward Club members owners John & Virginia Weber like to make something special each year, and had the perfect idea when finding one special barrel from the 2013 vintage. For the first time, Orofino has produced a Cabernet Franc, and from their home vineyard at that – where it is normally destined for the flagship Beleza blend. That single (used) barrel was opened after two years and specially bottled just for us lucky loyal fans! The mouth-watering description suggests “robust structure with savoury notes of dried herbs and Bing cherries with dusty tannins.” I’ll cellar a bottle until decade’s end to investigate the recommended healthy life of five years – keep watching for when it’s opened. Winery Direct $32

Tinhorn Creek 2013 Oldfield Series Cabernet Franc: The upcoming Oldfield reserve reds are from the final hands-on harvest of winery President Sandra Oldfield, who handed the reins over to Andrew Windsor in 2014 in order to assume a greater leadership role. Andrew would have supervised the Black Sage Bench fruit’s 18 month aging and then bottling last May, to produce 520 cases that complement the popular $25 varietal tier of 4,000+ cases. Since the reserve tier Cabernet Franc joined the Oldfield Series of wines in 2010 only three vintages have made the cut, with 2011 failing to yield an appropriate selection; but the beautiful summer and long autumn in 2013 provided “perfect growing conditions” for harvest in late October. Like those of years before, the rare Oldfield Cabernet Franc should express the variety’s typical red berry and herb profile, but possessing additional polish and elegance above the varietal tier. Winery Direct $35