Saturday 31 March 2018

Collectibles: March 2018

A broad range of special wines made the grade for collectible status this month, centered around a pair of excellent Merlot that stood out in the recent BC Wine Appreciation Society Blind Tasting. A duo of Pinot Noir from the central Okanagan join the fun, as do a couple tasty red blends, all with great cellar potential. Most of these collectibles are generally available, but my own membership in the clubs at several wineries has greatly facilitated acquisition, particularly for the fully allocated production of Blue Mountain. Increasingly, the most interesting BC wines can be exclusively sourced direct.

March 2018 BC wine collectibles

Blue Mountain 2015 Reserve Pinot Noir: Practically the benchmark for Pinot Noir in BC (let alone at that price), the Blue Mountain Reserve has been going strong for decades, from Okanagan Falls vines up to 30+ years old. The Mavety family took everything 2015 threw at them and still produced a fine Pinot Noir from an unusually warm vintage. The grapes were harvested relatively early, in the first week of September, and the wine manages a moderate 12.5% alcohol after native yeast fermentation (and 16 months in French oak). David Lawrason praised the balanced presentation in his 93-point review on WineAlign, noting the complex profile and outstanding focus and length. Winery Direct $40

Meyer 2016 McLean Creek Road Pinot Noir: The McLean Pinot is the core of Meyer’s portfolio, coming as it does from the home vineyard in Okanagan Falls. Production quantities are the largest of Meyer’s four vineyard-specific Pinot Noir: 650 cases should ensure availability through the summer. The McLean Creek Road vineyard is a complex plot that includes three blocks of Pinot Noir planted to five French clones. Standard practice after several years is to age the wine for 11 months in one-quarter new French oak before bottling the following summer. Anthony Gismondi and Treve Ring both felt 90+ points worthy earlier this month, complimenting “another classic MFV wine” with up to five years further aging possible. Winery Direct $40

Corcelettes 2015 Merlot: I had a chance to taste an early sample of this finely valued Similkameen Merlot before release late last fall and was immediately hooked, particularly at this price point. It’s the first varietal Merlot from Corcelettes, and comes from rare own-rooted vines in the Keremeos Upper Bench home vineyard. The wine performed quite well recently against some strong and established competition in the BCWAS Blind Tasting, but only 322 cases were produced so it won’t last long; I made sure to get mine over the winter. John Schreiner got an early taste in September as well, and praised the powerful aromas and rich, concentrated texture in a 92-point review. Winery Direct $27

Burrowing Owl 2014 Merlot: This popular South Okanagan stalwart is probably Burrowing Owl’s cornerstone wine, yielding several thousand cases on an annual basis, distributed all across the country. By now, the mature vineyards and established winemaking practices ensure a consistent high quality, although some years stand out even further. The warm 2014 vintage brought the Wyse family a Gold medal at last summer’s National Wine Awards, alongside sterling accolades from the judging team: all four reviews on WineAlign allocate 91+ points. The wine’s long aging potential of up to a decade was emphasized, although it is “drinking very well right now,” after 18 months in barrel (French, American, Hungarian, and Russian). Early approachability is a characteristic that no doubt helped it place in the top three of the BCWAS Blind Tasting. Winery Direct $30

Poplar Grove 2014 CSM: Here’s a creative, alternative blend that differs from the more traditional Bordeaux stylings of the winery’s flagship Legacy red. Wine Club members typically get first crack at it, and I was more than happy to do so recently, although 1,200 cases should ensure sufficient availability in the tasting room for some time. The wine’s name comes from the combination of Cabernet, Syrah, and Malbec/Merlot, this year comprising 37% Cabernet Franc, 27% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Syrah, 11% Malbec, and 9% Merlot. Winemaking saw all five varieties fermented (naturally) and barrel aged for 21 months in French oak separately, before blending and another 20 months of bottle age. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed past vintages – in large part due to the Syrah component – and ensure CSM finds its way home with me every year. Winery Direct $35

Stag’s Hollow 2015 Renaissance Meritage: Stag’s Hollow usually formulates minor blends for their varietal reds (e.g., 95% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon), but hasn’t produced a designated reserve Meritage in many years. As Anthony Gismondi pointed out in his 90-point review, this is the first one since 2005 – and only 100 cases were produced! With sufficient quantity and quality of estate fruit (Cabernets in particular) on hand in 2015, Winemaker Dwight Sick was able to blend 76% Merlot, 13% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 11% Cabernet Franc from the winery’s home vineyard in Okanagan Falls. After fermentation in one third new French oak the wine spent an additional 18 months on the lees before being bottled unfined and unfiltered. The winery encourages further aging in bottle, and John Schreiner is in agreement: his 93-point review recommends cellaring until 2025. Winery Direct $50

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!