Archive for August, 2010

Summer 2010 at Township 7 – Whites remain strong but is the style of the reds changing?

August 25, 2010

Township 7 is always the first stop on any trip to Naramata — it is the first major winery you see coming up the hill from Penticton — and that was no different during my recent trip.  What I did find, however, was that things may be changing at this winery from a style perspective.

I was disappointed first to see that the 2009 Rose was not yet available; it has been our favourite Rose for a number of summers (until it was recently dethroned by the one from La Frenz). A bit surprising, since, in my view, Rose is best drunk in the summer, ice cold!

I tried whites next and they generally remain strong. The 2008 Viognier is holding up well, with classic floral and peach aromas, peach/citrus flavours and medium body.  It was  little lighter in fruit than in past vintages, but still good value at $19.99

The 2008 Chardonnay continues to be their best wine.  Medium gold in colour, it literally explodes from the glass with a mix of vanilla, butterscotch and fresh citrus fruit flavours. Very ripe, with a luscious mouth feel from the oak, it is a classic California style Chardonnay for drinking over the next year or so.  At $20, it remains an amazing value; only the recently discovered Chardonnay from Quinta Ferreira is as good in that price range!

Unfortunately, the 2007 Reserve Chardonnay wasn’t as nearly as good for about $5 more. In the past, this has been a wine that my wife thought tasted like the Beringer Private Reserve Chardonnay; high praise indeed! But this vintage was light on all fronts — colour, aroma, and fruit. I still have the 2006 and it is a much nicer wine.

I didn’t taste the Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Gewurztraminer or 7 Blanc, but have certainly enjoyed them in the past. The Semillon, in particular, is a copycat for French white Graves and the 7 Blanc an intriguing and slightly sweet treat. All are recommended.

Then on to the reds, and that was where things seem to be changing up a bit. I have previously held Township 7 up as one of the bastions of fruit-forward wines; indeed, their Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah have been on my perennial “best in B.C.” lists. But from my tasting, they seem to be going more in the direction of a Bordeaux style of wine, with more herbs, wood and chocolate flavours.

The 2007 Cabernet/Merlot was the first example of this trend. Usually this is a bit of a cassis/black currant fruit bomb — not complex, but not meant to be, and at under $20 a good deal. But this latest version is light on the fruit and heavier on the wood.

Even more disappointing was the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon.  I have picked this wine as the best Cabernet in B.C. for a number of years, challenged only by La Frenz. Well, no more. It is dry, herbal and fairly tannic; hard to find the usual ripe black currant here. At $25.99, I would expect more flavour. 

The 2006 Dunfield Collection is a bigger version of the previous wine.  It is their Meritage, and very Bordeaux-like and quite tannic. It may come around, but I am not sure.  It is certainly not my style.

Neither the 2007 Merlot or 2007 Syrah were ready and/or available to taste (although both are now listed on the website).  Those may well prove to be the litmus test of whether a change in style is at hand with the reds. I hope not — the Syrah, in particular, has been right up there with Nichol’s (and now Marichel’s) as the best in B.C.  I tasted the 2006 while I was there and it is still in gorgeous shape, a real French style Syrah with black cherries, pepper and a touch of gaminess to it.

So my recommendations are keep buying the whites, but be careful with the reds if you like a more fruit-forward style of wine. I will report back on the remaining 2007’s when they are released.


Howling Bluff a new Naramata Force to Be Reckoned with

August 23, 2010

Howling Bluff is another up and coming winery on the Naramata Bench– or should I say it’s already arrived, with two years of standout wines under its belt! 

They only make three wines here, but do at least two of them very, very well.  The 2009 Sauvignon Blanc was almost as good as last year’s wine, which was outstanding.  It contains a small amount of Semillon as well for complexity, which adds fresh, grassy notes to the herbal, citrus aromas and flavours. Light yellow, it has surprisingly big body for  white wine, no obvious oak and a juicy finish.  It is good value at $19 for drinking over the next year or so.

The standout wine of the tasting — and one of the surprise wines of the entire visit — was the 2008 Pinot Noir. My notes show just how surprised I was when tasting this wine; it was a classic Burgundy style, with a beautiful mix of ripe cherries and earth, medium body and soft, tannins providing some surprising structure.  After tasting many Pinots that were either too jammy or too light to support the tannins, this wine was a real treat.  The last couple of vintages of this wine won a whole bunch of awards, and this one may too. At $29.90 it isn’t cheap, but it is approaching Kettle Valley/Blue Mountain territory in terms of quality. I am going to keep it for a few years and if it evolves like the wines from those other wineries, we may have another Pinot Noir contender!

Howling Bluff’s final wine is the 2008 Sine Cera, a Meritage made with the classic Bordeaux blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petite Verdot. It is also made in Bordeaux style, with more emphasis on herbs, wood and tannin (at least now, although the rep said there is lots of fruit underneath). While much better balanced than other “big reds” from the Okanagan, this one is still pretty tannic and will take both patience and trust that it will evolve and mellow out over time.  At $29.90, I am not going to take the chance right now.

But as the song says, ‘2 out of 3 ain’t bad’, especially when the two in question offer this kind of quality. Well done, Howling Bluff!


Marichel Winery – the next King of Syrah in B.C.?

August 16, 2010

Dropped in on Marichel Winery as part of wine tour a couple of weeks ago and was once again very impressed by the wines being produced by Richard and Elisabeth Roskell.  It is a relatively new, small winery on the Naramata bench overlooking the lake, but some combination of vines, soil, sun exposure and — of course! — winemaking is quickly showing that this is one to watch closely.

Marichel has gone from just two wines last year to four this year, and all are very impressive (but made in tiny amounts). The 2009 Wild Thing Viognier gets it name from the fact that is fermented with wild yeast.  A tricky and potentially risky proposition (the outcomes range from unique aroma and flavour profiles to fermentation that simply “stops” if the yeast doesn’t work that well), it has worked out very well for this wine.  Light yellow, with lots of floral aromas so characteristic of this white grape from the Rhone Valley, it is medium body, citrusy and bone dry. At $15, it is a killer deal, but there were only 97 cases made.  It’s a “drink over the next 6 months” kind of wine.

Their regular 2009 Splitrock Viognier is like the “papa version” of the previous wine. Darker yellow, even more floral on the nose and quite full-bodied, almost like a red wine in complexity and concentration.  Richard thinks this wine has aging ability, which goes against the current trend of drinking even expensive Condrieus from the Rhone in their first few years of life (but, he says, going back to a more ancient tradition of aging them).  It is gorgeous now, so not sure how many people will try to keep it.  At $30 it isn’t cheap, but there is good quality here. Again, only 99 cases made.

The first red I tried is, alas, already sold out (I think my wine club bought the last couple of cases, thank goodness!). Made for the first time, the 2009 Shiraz-Viognier is a riper and fruitier take on the blend used for Cote-Rotie in the northern Rhone. And what a charmer this wine is! Deep purple — almost looks like a barrel sample — it is explosively fruity on the nose and in the mouth, absolutely incredibly ripe without any sweetness; like eating a mouthful of blackberries! And little or no oak or jamminess either; kind of like an Aussie Shiraz without the jam.  A stunning value at $25…but gone. Oh well, look for it, hopefully, next year.

The granddaddy of Marichel’s wines is their Syrah.  I first tried it last year — the 2006 — and was blown away by the ripeness and concentration of the peppery, blackberry fruit.  The 2007 Syrah is slightly less fruity now, but may have more structure underneath. Even with 16 months in new French oak I cannot taste the wood — a real testament to the quality of the fruit and winemaking — and the tannins that lurk underneath are soft and ripe.

The only potential controversies about this wine are its aging potential and price. Richard thinks — like the 2006 — it is a 10 – 15 year wine. A lot of BC wineries say that, but few if any have been around long enough to have examples to back it up.  What has been the best Syrah in B.C. — from Nichol, a bit further up the road — has often developed nicely in the bottle for 10 years, actually getting more “Rhone-like” with time.  So it is possible; certainly, there is enough fruit to get it there.

The other potential issue is the price — $40.  Richard and I had a long chat about that last year, and again a couple of weeks ago.  Readers know I get pretty twitchy when B.C.wines approach the $40 mark; in fact, I don’t think I have recommended any of them (with Kettle Valley’s Reserve and Hayman Pinots, Blue Mountain’s Reserve Pinot and Nichol’s Syrah Reserve still staying below that mark).

But he convinced me once again that his was worth it. It is a beautiful wine, no doubt about it. But for me, it is only worth $40 if it will age and develop; and we will have to watch it and see. But in the mean time, if you want to fool a wine dweeb — particularly one who drinks a lot of $50+ California wines — pour this one blind for him.  I guarantee he will think it is from his state and is a new “trophy” wine.

Way to go Marichel; outstanding, ripe and well balanced wines!


Summer 2010 at La Frenz Vineyards in Naramata

August 10, 2010

I actually visited Naramata last during my recent trip to the Okanagan, but will review its wineries first given the quality and familiarity I have with many of them.

Leading the way is what, in my opinion, is the best overall winery in B.C. (and maybe in Canada).  I have been following their wines for almost ten years and La Frenz continues to go from strength to strength each year, almost regardless of the vintage.  This visit, I chose to taste a selection of red wines (as well as the Rose), as I have already purchased many of the white wines. I won’t review those in this blog, but for the record the 2009 versions of the Viognier, Semillon, Small Lots Riesling and Small Lots Sauvignon Blanc (ranging in price from $19 – $22) are once again outstanding. All could easily sell for $10 more a bottle! My personal favourites are the Riesling (which finishes just off dry) and the Semillon, both of which have ageability (although are so delicious I haven’t been able to keep them that long!).

Interestingly, all the still wines have single vineyard designations this year, something that was done without any “across the board” price increases. The 2009 Rose Rattlesnake Vineyard ($18) was my first choice to taste. My wife and I fell in love with last year’s wine, which was made from Syrah.  This year’s is a combination of Merlot and Pinot Noir — a strange mix — but is almost as good as last year! Deep pink (almost red) in colour, it is explosively fruity with ripe strawberries and little or no oak. Medium bodied, full of ripe strawberry and cherry fruit and bone dry, it is the perfect wine to drink in the summer out on the deck. And at that price, it is very competitive with other Roses from B.C.. I expect to go through half a case by the end of the summer (which is as long as anyone should drink rose).

Now on to the reds. First up, the 2008 Tempranillo Zeller Vineyard ($22) is a rarity for the Okanagan; I think only one or two other wineries make wine from this Spanish grape, which I enjoy most in Alexandro Fernandez’s Pesquera. La Frenz’s version is lighter (probably from younger vines) but the fruit is completely ripe with no greenness.  The oak is supple, supplying a light overtone of vanilla to the earthy, peppery black currant fruit.  It has a little tannin in the background, so it will be interesting to see what develops over the next few years.

Next up was the 2008 Merlot Rattlesnake Vineyard ($25) and I have to admit I was a little apprehensive before tasting it.  The winemaker’s notes had talked about caramel and chocolate notes in the wine, which is a style of Merlot I don’t really like; I wondered if the less than optimal 2008 weather might have had an impact on the ripeness of the fruit.  But once I tried it, any concerns melted away!  A deep reddish/purple colour, there is a nice vanilla/ cherry /plummy nose, followed by a fully ripe mouthful of black plums wrapped up in a lush blanket of vanilla (and maybe a touch of chocolate).  The oak presence is supportive, not overwhelming, letting the fruit come through. While not as big a wine as  a few from the past, it is still beautiful and will drink well over the next 3 – 4 years. And at that price, it may be the best Merlot in B.C., certainly as good or better than wines selling for $30 and above elsewhere.

My final tasting choice was La Frenz’s flagship wine the 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoran Vineyard ($28). Again, the tasting note has mentioned chocolate and coffee, so I wondered…but once again no need to worry! A dark purple wine, it has a lovely nose of vanilla, black cherries and black currants.  It is very smooth and rich in the mouth, with hint of mint adding complexity to the black currants and soft vanilla.  Sometimes the oak can dominate this wine when it is young, but not this baby…she is a beauty now and will be that way for up to five years. Again, this may be the best Cabernet Sauvignon from B.C. that is made in the California style i.e. emphasizing fruit over wood and herbs and tannin.  It also avoids that “big red wine” problem so  many in the Okanagan seem to have, as the tannins are well-integrated here and support — rather than overwhelm — the fruit.

I didn’t have a chance to taste the Montage, Reserve Pinot Noir, Shiraz, Grand Reserve, Malbec or the sweet wines.  However, I have had all of them (except the Grand Reserve and Malbec) in the past and have been impressed.  All are worth a try if you get the opportunity.

So once again, La Frenz shows why it is still “king of the hill”, not just in Naramata but across B.C.!


Summer 2010 Okanagan Wine Update

August 6, 2010

Last week, I spent four delightful days in the Okanagan Valley (forest fire free!) that included an opportunity to visit wineries from Lake Country all the way down to Osoyoos and Oliver.  I will report out on the results of those tastings — region by region and winery by winery — but thought I would share a few general thoughts as an introduction.

1. Naramata still rules the quality roost

With the exception of Blue Mountain winery in Okanagan Falls, the Naramata Bench overlooking the Lake continues to produce the highest number of great wines.  Whether it is sloping vineyards, age of the vines, soil or winemaking, a number of the wineries are continuing to turn outstanding, completely ripe and well-balanced wines — red and white — that can compete with any around the world (both in terms of price and quality).  La Frenz, Kettle Valley and Nichol remain “on top of the heap”, while newcomers Howling Bluff and Marichel are also making a name for themselves.  The only source of concern was at Township 7, where there appears to be a change in style (among other things) in the red wines.  More about Naramata in a future blog.

2. The Up and Coming Similkameen Valley

There are only seven or eight wineries right now, but the next “big thing” in B.C. wine may come from the Similkameen Valley.  Certainly from a price/value point of view, a number of these wineries are making a serious statement, with lots of wines in the $18 – $22 range.  Eau Vivre, Cerelia and Robin Ridge were the most impressive wineries during this drive through; I also tasted Clos du Soleil in a restaurant and was very impressed. More on them and their wines in the future.

3. The “Big Red Wine” Phenomenon Isnt’ Working

I was struck — particularly in the Oliver and Osoyoos area — with something I will call the “big red wine” phenomenon.  By that I mean the seeming need for winemakers to try and produce huge red wines with searing tannins that can age for years and cost $40 – $50 (and more; one winery was selling wines in the $70 range).

Now, I don’t have a problem with big, ageworthy wines (I have lots of Chateauneuf du Papes and Barolos in my cellar).  And I don’t mind paying for quality (relatively speaking, of course).  But the problem with too many of the big reds I tasted last week was simple — there was nowhere near enough fruit in most of them to give me any comfort that the aging process will do anything except result in a tired mouthful of  “trees and shrubs” i.e. oak and herbs.  I got so frustrated that I asked — politely — one winemaker what the track record was for his wines i.e. did he know that in 7, 10, 15 years, the tannins would resolve and the fruit would still be there?  He kind of looked sideways and said “not with these wines, but my past experience says they will”. 

Well, that is a pretty risky investment if you ask me; shell out $50+ and hope it will taste great over time?  And the bottom line is, if you can’t taste the fruit now, it isn’t going to get any better, because you are stuck with what you have in the bottle. More details on some specific wineries showing this problem in the future.

4. The Ongoing Battle of the Price Point

Last, but certainly not least, there is mixed news on the price problem for B.C. wines.  The good news is wineries with some very good wines held the line on price this year (i.e. either stayed the same or increased prices by a dollar).  But others didn’t (the most recent Nota Bene is $53 at the winery!) and far too many wines are way overpriced. I have talked to a number of people about this — including winemakers and restauranteurs — and there seem to be a number of reasons.  Stay tuned for more on this contentious topic in a future blog.

Overall, a fabulous trip with a number of new discoveries.  I look forward to sharing more details in future blogs.