Saturday, 24 March 2018

BCWAS Merlot Blind Tasting

For the past several years the BC Wine Appreciation Society has hosted an annual double-blind varietal tasting, beginning with Syrah in 2013, and in latter years featuring Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, and Riesling. Having recently taken over as Society Cellarmaster I was given the task of organizing this year’s tasting, and settled on long-suffering Merlot. After taking a beating following the release of the film Sideways in 2004, unfairly maligned Merlot deserves to be championed more often, particularly given its standing as BC’s most-planted red grape. I looked forward to the challenge of showing off some top local examples.

BCWAS Merlot Blind Tasting wines

I was limited to only eight wines given the physical constraints of our venue, fewer than years past, so it was important to ensure variety and avoid overlap. I focused on regional distribution alongside important criteria such as quality and availability. Using what was on hand in the Society cellar allowed for a selection of vintages from 2012-2015, while geographic range from Naramata through Osoyoos and on to Keremeos yielded sufficient diversity. While I longed for some of the exclusive icons from LaStella or Checkmate, price was another consideration, and so the wines remained within the $27-$40 range. Cost doesn’t always predict quality however, so prominent award-winners were in the mix to see how they stacked up. The wines were all poured blind, and served blind in the following randomized order:

Painted Rock 2012: The tasting’s oldest wine, coming from professional storage in the BCWAS cellar, it’s long since sold out, as the 2014 is currently available at the winery. The Merlot block on the west-facing Skaha Bench estate vineyard was harvested October 23, and the grapes were later aged for 18 months in 50% new French oak before just over 1,000 cases were bottled.

Stag’s Hollow 2014 Renaissance: The winery’s reserve tier Merlot was harvested from the Okanagan Falls home vineyard on October 27, before aging in 50% new French oak for 15 months. This wine was one of two minor blends in the tasting, having incorporated 10% Cabernet Sauvignon for additional complexity, before bottling of just 225 cases. A Gold Medal at the 2017 All Canadian Wine Championships made it one to watch.

Cassini 2013 “Nobilus”: Bursting with accolades, Cassini’s example of Golden Mile Bench Merlot offered high expectations. The wine had returned a Double Gold (Best of Category) at the 2016 All Canadian Wine Championships, and a prestigious Lieutenant Governor’s Award last summer. Adrian Cassini entrusted his grapes to 100% new French oak for two years after harvest in the last week of October, releasing only 187 cases in the fall of 2017.

Corcelettes 2015: From the young winery’s relatively new home vineyard on the Keremeos Upper Bench, rare own-rooted vinifera vines were harvested early in September during this hot vintage. The grapes spent 16 months in a mix of French and American oak before 322 cases were released quite recently. At only $27 it was also the least expensive wine in the tasting.

Poplar Grove 2014: Just north of the winery location at the south end of the Naramata Bench are the pair of neighbouring vineyards that yielded a thousand cases of this local favourite. The wine is actually a four-grape blend, harvested over a month-long period starting in early October: 88% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Malbec. Grapes were aged in used French oak (second- to fourth-fill) for 21 months.

Burrowing Owl 2014: Anchoring the winery’s portfolio means 6,500 cases of this money-maker come from expansive southern Okanagan vineyards. The Black Sage Bench home vineyard and another on the Osoyoos East Bench contributed grapes harvested over two weeks mid-October. Burrowing Owl’s trademark varied elevage spread the grapes across 65% French, 18% American, 10% Hungarian, and 7% Russian oak, one quarter of it in new barrels.

Church & State 2013: Another Black Sage Bench example, but this time from lower in altitude closer to the valley floor. The Coyote Bowl and Rattlesnake Vineyards adjacent to the winery were harvested October 23, before 22 months of aging in one third new French oak. Just 275 cases came about, and it’s long since been supplanted by the present 2015 vintage for sale.

Van Westen 2014 “Vivre la Vie”: Rob Van Westen’s family vineyards can be found at the northern end of the Naramata Bench. The three small blocks that formed this wine were harvested from October 4-19, and spent 21 months in 25% new French oak before bottling of a mere 148 cases. The 2017 All Canadian Wine Championships awarded Double Gold to mark this bottle as category leader in the premium Merlot tier.

The fifty-plus participants at the sold-out tasting were all asked to rank order the eight wines on anonymous ballots, which I then tabulated using a Borda-count system (for all the voting-method geeks out there) to yield the overall crowd favourites. The clear champions emerged on top in short order, led by Cassini, Van Westen, and Burrowing Owl. The next level was dominated by Corcelettes, Painted Rock, and Poplar Grove, and demonstrating that vintage certainly was not a reliable predictor of appeal, given the full four-year range in that cluster.

Unfortunately, a couple of the wines seemed to have suffered from either faulty bottles or tainted stemware, as reports of off flavours harmed the chances of both Church & State and Stag’s Hollow, relegating them to the rear. My own servings seemed to have avoided any problematic bottles or glasses, as both Church & State and Stag’s Hollow found favour in my notes. Served second, Stag’s Hollow yielded a toasty, leathery nose with palate of blackberries and a pucker on the finish. Church & State, one of the older wines, offered a dusty nose before an aggressive palate of chewy tannins and tart fruit that finished long. It’s truly a shame some glitches may have prevented these two wines from achieving their potential.

Merlot Blind Tasting Champions

The third wine served, top-ranked Cassini, made a particular impression – my notes reference the rich, creamy texture and profile of baked fruit and vanilla. Van Westen showed the winery’s trademark age-worthy tannins, with smoky hints but a well-balanced acidity that brought juicy fruit to the forefront. Burrowing Owl offered significant caramelization on the nose and palate – easy to like – with an accessible texture and ripe southern Okanagan fruit. Corcelettes revealed the freshness of youth, with a range of berry fruit flavours and hints of menthol, pleasantly elegant given the price point. Painted Rock’s Merlot always takes longest of John Skinner’s reds to come around, and even with the benefit of age it was still tight, showing floral character on the nose in time, while ripe, dark berries emerged on the palate. Poplar Grove belied its relative youth, presenting a surprisingly smooth palate of quintessential blueberry, along with deceptive spices that had me guessing Similkameen.

The entire experience was enlightening in the way that blind tastings so often are, and guests seemed quite pleased with the wines and information on offer. I myself was grateful my selections went over so well, and look forward to assembling future tastings of new varieties (or even blends). Thank you to the members of the BC Wine Appreciation Society for so diligently tasting and rating these wines – I hope you had as much fun as I did!

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Collectibles: February 2018

In years past the month of the Vancouver International Wine Festival would be my shopping bonanza for both international and domestic bottles. Now, having significantly increased the frequency of my visits to tasting rooms in person, I no longer need to rely as heavily on the Festival store to fill my cellar with BC’s bounty. The Festival comes at an odd time of year, before most local wineries have bottled new vintages, so it can be a time to find the last reserves of some (saved for the Festival), or alternatively, advance access to those yet to be released. Festival purchases and a few recent winter treats make up this month’s collectibles.

February 2018 BC wine collectibles

Quails’ Gate 2016 Stewart Family Reserve Pinot Noir: I can often rely on the Stewart family to bring out the big guns for VIWF, and the fact they previewed this upcoming vintage of the winery’s flagship red speaks volumes. Not even mentioned yet online, the 2016 was being poured and purchased in the Festival tasting room, showing off a remarkably approachable profile at this young age. The highly expressive nose and rich palate were balanced and fresh, and will no doubt age well for many years, but made for easy enjoyment well before the official winery release. Winemaker Nikki Callaway brought in ideal West Kelowna fruit from an exceptional growing season to assemble 1,100 cases after ten months in French oak. The Stewart Family Reserve is a consistent benchmark for rich, New World Pinot Noir in BC. VIWF Store $60

Van Westen 2016 “VD” Pinot Noir: Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Rob Van Westen’s petite Pinot project offers a much less well known example, and mightily hard to find at that. Repeat customers get first notification before Rob spends a mid-winter week stocking store shelves and hand-delivering new releases while the vines slumber. The good news is this niche collaboration between Rob and veteran winemaker Tom DiBello has grown in quantity by 25% since last year, now reaching a grand total of 105 cases. The grapes come from the Granite Ridge vineyard on the Naramata Bench, planted to the meaty Pommard clone, and aged nine months in French oak. The generous vintage has yielded another obliging bottle, with softly textured, ripe tannins atop the underlying structure. It may be tempting to crack that screwtop in the short term but here’s another good cellar candidate for those with patience. Winery Direct $40

SpierHead 2016 Cuvée Pinot Noir: The East Kelowna winery on Spiers Road may be changing their name to Spearhead for the sake of convenience but the only change to the wine is it keeps getting better. Supervised by new General Manager Grant Stanley (via Quails’ Gate and 50th Parallel), the growing portfolio holds five Pinot Noir (six if counting the White Pinot) at present, with the Cuvée coming out on top. While Van Westen makes the exception for Pinot, Spearhead is all in on the variety, taking advantage of their ideal estate terroir and that of trusted partners. Cuvée 2016 is a 400 case blend of the best barrels from four clones (115, 667, 828, Pommard) following ten months in French oak. John Schreiner noted the boldness of intense, even jammy fruit flavours in January, while the GismondiOnWine team offered 90+ points (and recommended three years in the cellar) just last week. Winery Direct $44

LaStella 2014 Allegretto Merlot: A tiny “Pie Franco” logo on the label provides a hint of this wine’s special status. The single vineyard Merlot that sits just below the flagship Maestoso in LaStella’s portfolio is planted on its own rootstock in high drainage white silica sand. This “pie franco” accomplishment is rare in a global industry dominated by grafted vines seeking to escape the ravages of phylloxerae. The estate Stagg’s Vineyard on the west bench of south Osoyoos has just over four acres of Merlot (alongside four more of Syrah), and provided for 275 cases in 2014, resulting in a wine reserved exclusively for Club members. The winery claims a certain purity in flavour is obtained from these own-rooted vines, offering a taste of Merlot in its most authentic form. Winery Direct $69

Painted Rock 2015 Syrah: With their sole white wine (Chardonnay) sold out, the Painted Rock team placed particular emphasis on their several superb reds available at the VIWF. The Syrah from the Skinner family’s Skaha Bench estate vineyard south of Penticton has been a favourite in my household for many years. The effects of a warm vintage are apparent in what Anthony Gismondi describes as a “hedonistic nature” sure to find many fans despite a bit less complexity than normal. Liam Carrier’s 92-point review on IconScores offers an intriguing description of blood orange, mint, and vanilla in a “mind-blowingly intense” wine worthy of supplanting the winery’s premier Red Icon. Fortunately 1,700 cases were produced, after 18 months in 30% new French oak, giving many a chance to try it for themselves and be the judge. VIWF Store $46

Burrowing Owl 2014 Meritage: In an age where every winery has a flagship red with a proprietary name Burrowing Owl has stayed with good old fashioned Meritage – straightforward and descriptive. A bottle goes into my vertical collection each year, making for a nice exploration of the vintage at one of the South Okanagan’s most noteworthy wineries. The blend of 32% Merlot, 23% Cabernet Franc, 23% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Malbec, and 11% Petit Verdot was bottled in August 2016, after 21 months in oak (18 months varietally independent), three quarters French. A near endless stream of compliments have come from the WineAlign judging team, yet despite unanimous 90+ point scores the same team awarded a moderate Silver medal at the 2017 National Wine Awards – an ode, perhaps, to the uncertainties of competition. Winery Direct $50

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Collectibles: January 2018

The hectic holiday season is behind us but there are plenty of stellar gift-worthy wines still on hand – and a gift to oneself is perfectly legitimate. Even though the tasting rooms in wine country are closed for the season, online stores are open year-round, plus the many fine wine retailers around home are always happy to help the cause. In the case of one collectible, it’s exclusively available at retail, as Chris Carson is nearly too busy making wine to sell it! This month’s selection features several marvellous, under-the-radar examples that will find a comfortable home in my cellar, in many cases building on multi-year verticals as I find myself coming back for another vintage.

January 2018 BC wine collectibles

Carson 2015 Pinot Noir: For the past decade, the highly respected Pinot Noir of Meyer Family Vineyards has been ushered into bottle by the talented Chris Carson, who also produces his own “garagiste” wine with very little fanfare. A twenty-year-old 1.5 acre block of Clone 115 on the Naramata Bench yields a mere couple hundred cases that Carson vinifies at Meyer’s Okanagan Falls winery. The winemaking is described as “very traditional” and includes an indigenous yeast ferment followed by 11 months aging in one-third new French oak. Every year a sample bottle makes its way to Anthony Gismondi, who bestowed another 90+ score for the third year running in October: Carson’s “hedonistic” style serves up “juicy, red fruit with a savoury, spicy undercurrent.” Marquis Wine Cellars $50

Quails’ Gate 2015 Syrah “The Boswell”: Four years after introduction as a (one-time) special edition anniversary series wine, Syrah has grown to become a notable component of the Burgundian-focused portfolio at Quails’ Gate. The Northern-Rhone-styled wine represents a rarity in that it hails from estate vineyards in West Kelowna, in contrast to the extensive plantings of Syrah found in the South Okanagan. Outsider status notwithstanding, The Boswell continues to garner serious accolades every year: Anthony Gismondi and Treve Ring had nothing but praise in October and November, John Schreiner conveyed his approval with 93-points, and WineAlign’s David Lawrason was similarly impressed with the perfectly ripened fruit and impressive focus. After working through the last of the (equally good) 2014 the winery is finally ready to release the 580 cases bottled last June following 18 months in French oak. Winery Direct $63

Corcelettes 2015 Menhir: Named after marker stones found on the Baessler family’s original farm in Switzerland, the reasonably-priced flagship at Corcelettes eschews the typical Bordeaux blends for Cabernet-Syrah. The components hover around the same proportions annually, coming in at 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Syrah in 2015, mellowed for 16 months in French oak puncheons, to yield just 145 cases. Previous vintages were sourced from the winery’s original Middle Bench Vineyard in Keremeos, but since taking over the former Herder property on Upper Bench Road, the new home vineyard provides fruit from up against the sun-baked hills. John Schreiner had an advance taste in September and confirmed it remains a “round and generous wine” worthy of 93 points. Winery Direct $35

Painted Rock 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon: One could say that every vintage of John Skinner’s Cabernet since that first Lieutenant Governor’s Award-winning 2007 has been sold out upon bottling. Ironically the winery’s recently introduced varietal Cabernet Franc is arguably more noteworthy, but, Sauv still sells. That’s not to say the Sauvignon is unworthy of the attention - this is one of the region’s finest, must-have versions for collectors - it’s just hard to find outside the winery! Production only reached 328 cases in 2015, after 18 months in 30% new French oak, and while some additional rows were recently planted, those younger grapes are going into the exciting new Syrah-Cabernet. The red hot 2015 sunshine seasoned this vintage with “savoury, black cherry fruit and warm, brown spicing,” in the words of Anthony Gismondi: his 90-point review makes the case for patience however – if you can find a bottle hold on for even greater rewards in 2022. Winery Direct $40

LaStella 2014 La Sophia Cabernet Sauvignon: Painted Rock’s Cabernet is prevalent compared to the mere three barrels from LaStella in 2014. Just 75 cases are available from this excellent vintage, harvested from the famed U2 block of Inkameep Vineyard in the north end of the Black Sage Bench. Like the winery’s Maestoso Merlot, this super-premium bottle comes with a price to match, reflecting both the work that goes into it, and the wine’s status and prestige – at least the price slows down sales to give collectors a chance! Having tasted past vintages of La Sophia I’m willing to splurge for a bottle of this deliciously rich but focused wine; the winery suggests it “draws a comparison to the great Cabernets from Washington State rather than the plusher and fatter examples from Napa Valley.” Winery Direct $103

Blind Creek Collective 2014 Consensus: After just one year the Similkameen project of Road 13 and partners has already been forced to rebrand when their original name, “The Similkameen Collective” fell afoul of regulatory authorities (appellation names apparently can’t be part of wine names). The change makes the inaugural vintage of their Bordeaux blend a collectible aberration, but for 2014 the name serves to better reflects the site anyway. The 100-acre Blind Creek Vineyard in Cawston has contributed stellar grapes to many of Road 13’s award-winning wines (and those of other wineries across BC). Consensus brings together 148 cases of 36% Merlot, 33% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Cabernet Franc, 8% Petit Verdot, and 1% Malbec, recently bottled after 36-months in French oak. Seeing as BCC has next to no web presence and the premium-priced wines are currently sold on the side in the Road 13 tasting room, Consensus makes for the ultimate insider collectible. Winery Direct $60