Archive for June, 2011

Blue Mountain Winery — My First Great BC Wine!

June 30, 2011

“First” experiences — regardless of what they are all about — always stick with you. And that is certainly the case with my first taste of a great BC wine. It came from Blue Mountain Winery in Okanagan Falls and, specifically, the 1996 Striped Label Pinot Noir.

Up until that time I knew little or nothing about BC wines. I had tried the odd white wine, which I wasn’t too impressed with. Any reds had been green, unripe and woody; in fact, I had more success with a couple of Ontario red wines that I did with the BC ones.

But all that changed when I had to help plan a work social event in Victoria, B.C. in the late 1990’s. The focus was to be on BC, if at all possible, and the food at the hotel where we were staying wasn’t a problem, as by then there was already lots to choose from. But wine? That was another story — or so I thought.

In looking at the wine list and talking to the Food and Beverage managers, I saw this winery I had never heard of before. For me, “Blue Mountain” had been a pool I swam in when I was a kid and living in Coquitlam. So what could this “Striped Label Pinot Noir” be all about. I asked to try a glass.

The rest, as they say, is history. I dimly remember shaking my head, looking at the bottle, and then at the glass, and then back again. Classic earthy red cherries, light oak, touch of mushroomy/barnyard you only find in Burgundy, and big, lush body — wow! All that, and in a BC wine?!!!!?

Needless to say I ordered it for the dinner and the results were equally impressive. A couple of my colleagues who were tried and true beer drinkers came up to me and asked where they could buy it — now that is a tribute!!!

Since then, I have been collecting, aging and drinking this fabulous wine. On par with the Kettle Valley Hayman vineyard in good vintages, it easily grows and develops for 5 – 8 years. The 1998 (from BC’s greatest red wine vintage to date) was drinking beautifully at age ten!

It also remains a bit of an exclusive wine. Only sold at the winery through their wine list, it sells out quickly. And you have to be far enough up on the mailing list to get any at all! At $36 it isn’t cheap, but boy is it worth it! I had the 2007 with a client from Napa last year and his eyes bulged when he tasted it — couldn’t believe it wasn’t from his State!

Their Striped Label Pinot is not the only great wine at Blue Mountain either. The regular Pinot Noir — though lighter — is a good deal at just over $20. And they make maybe the best Gamay in B.C. — fresh, fruity and ripe, the way Beaujolais used to taste!

On the white side, the Chardonnays and Pinot Gris’ — both the regular and Striped Label wines — are also very nice. And their sparkling wines — a Brut and Brut Rose — are outstanding values for $25, both made in a Spanish Cava style.

If you want to check out the winery, make sure you call ahead first — tours are by appointment only. And don’t expect all the wines to be available, as they sell out quickly. But you can find them in a number of the better restaurants in Vancouver.

So my kudos to the Mavety family for their continued commitment to great wine. It was my first experience, and led me into the developing world of BC wine.


Chile — Style over Substance?

June 23, 2011

I was invited to the Taste of Chile event last weekend at the Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel and thoroughly enjoyed both the venue and hospitality. But as I tasted my way through both white and red wines from a dozen or more producers, I was left wondering whether Chile had figured out yet what it wanted to be when it grew up from a wine perspective.

When I first started getting into wine over 20 years ago, the ones from Chile were my day to day “go to” wines. And not just because they were cheap — lots were under $10 — but because the reds, in particular, were really ripe and fruit forward. Not necessarily complex, but really good value.

Since that time, though, things seem to have changed. And whether it is a case of a style that isn’t for my taste buds, or a different philosophy in wine making, I walked away from that tasting disappointed.

For whites, Chile offers mostly Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays, with a vew Viogniers thrown in for good measure. With respect to the former — mostly 2010’s — I was a bit shocked by how lean, acidic and un-fruity most of them were. Now I know that Sauvignon Blanc isn’t supposed to be a wine with lots of obvious fruit, but my favourites (from Graves in Bordeaux, for example) have nice citrus fruit, a touch of vanilla (from oak barrels) and a crisp, clean finish. That certainly wasn’t what I tasted last week. A colleague of mine there — a sommelier at one of the better French restaurants in town — said they were trying to become the “appetizer wine” with shellfish. Even if that is the case, I would have a hard time getting through more than a glass.

The Chardonnays I tasted were better, with some made in the stainless steel Chablis style, and some more California/Burgundy-like (i.e. buttery from some oak). The standout was the ’08 from Concha y Toro — it was lush and creamy, medium bodied with ripe citrus fruit. A good value at under $20.

Red wines were a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah and the ubiquitous Carmenere. And, unfortunately, I wasn’t much more impressed with their style either.

Starting with the last varietal first, Carmenere has always been a bit of a mystery to me. Similar in a lot of ways to Cabernet Franc, it is almost always a bit green, vegetal and herbal. It can certainly make big, tannic wines, but where is the fruit? I couldn’t find it in most of them. The exception again came from Concha y Toro, whose 2008 Winemaker’s Lot was as ripe a Carmenere as I have ever tasted, and a great deal at $18.99.

A couple of the Pinot Noirs were also very good, although expensive. Specifically, the ’08 20 Barrels by Cono Sur and ’08 by Amayna were very tasty, but at close to or over $30, pretty steep in price.

For Syrahs, I was impressed with the Koyle wines, both the Reserva and Royale. Although tannic, they were really ripe and had classic peppery black fruit flavours. At $18 and $26 respectively, they were well worth the price.

That left the Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots and blends. Unfortunately, that was what i wanted to do — leave them! I didn’t find one with enough fruit in it for my tastes, as all were made in that herbaceous/woody, tannic style. To be fair, none of the big guns — like the Don Melchor — were there. But, still, I was expecting more.

So what’s my verdict? Well, it could simply be all about style — winemakers aiming for a demographic and market different from me and my taste buds. But with all the ripe, well priced offerings out there right now from Australia, Argentina, the U.S. and even B.C., you have to wonder how well these latest Chilean wines are going to sell even to those how like their style.


Kettle Valley Winery – Burgundy in the Okanagan Valley?

June 14, 2011

Next up in my series on the best BC wineries is Kettle Valley, another establishment on the Naramata Bench near Penticton. And while they make a range of good to very good wines, I think they stand out for two of them — the Hayman Vineyard and Reserve Pinot Noirs. Together with Blue Mountain Winery in Okanagan Falls (who I will profile in another blog for their Striped Label Pinot Noir), they make what I think is the best Pinot Noir in BC.

Kettle Valley has been making wine on their site for twenty years — they are celebrating that anniversary this year –and are named after the famous railway that used to run through Naramata from 1915 – 1961. With some of the oldest wines on the Bench, and great positioning right over the lake, Bob Fergusen and Tim Watts have been making great wine in very modest surroundings for years.

And nowhere is that better seen than in their Pinot Noirs. The Reserve Pinot Noir is a dead ringer for a great California Pinot, with wonderful colour, incredible ripeness in the earthy, cherry fruit, and great depth of flavour. But it is never “candied” like some Pinots down there; the ripeness and alcohol are perfectly integrated with the oak to produce a perfectly balanced wine. Enjoyable on release, it can also age for 5 – 7 years in a good year. At $35 (and going up) it isn’t cheap, but it is worth it for sure. Only a couple of hundred cases are made each year, but you can usually find it either at the winery or at private wine stores across BC.

But as good as it is, the most amazing wine is the Hayman Vineyard. Now I love good Burgundy when it is ripe — not the tannic, woody, earthy ones that you have to search for the fruit in — but the ones with this almost ethereal balance between cherries, earth and wood. And that is what the Hayman is. I swear you even get that whiff of “barnyard” only found in Burgundy, as well as lovely overtones of mushrooms on the finish. Even more incredible is how it ages — I kept the 1998 for ten years and it was unbelievable, with room still to grow. Also $35 and going up, the only downside is the quantity — less than one hundred cases a year, so it is one of the most sought after wines in BC. But boy, if you can get a hold of a couple of bottles…and then keep your hands off of them for few years!

I strongly recommend you go visit Kettle Vally on any trip to the Okanagan, or look for their wines in fine restaurants. You will find it hard to believe just how good these Pinot Noirs are!


La Frenz Winery – The Best of the Best in B.C.

June 9, 2011

With summer – at least according to the calendar — quickly coming, many wine lovers in BC and elsewhere will be making holiday plans for our wine country. So today I am starting a series of profiles of top BC wineries, and the wines you can look forward to taste in the months ahead.

There is no better place to start than at the top, and that means La Frenz, situated in Naramata. Owner/winemaker Jeff Martin and his wife Niva have been making wine in the Okanagan since they arrived from Australia almost twenty years ago, first at Quail’s Gate and then after starting La Frenz. And that experience — and expertise, which includes work in their native country — definitely shows in the wine they produce.

Put quite simply, there is no winery in BC — or Canada – that can touch them from an overall quality basis. With a dedication to making fruit-forward wines that reflect the nature of the grape and their surroundings, La Frenz can be relied upon year in, year out, to make wonderful wines. And, somehow, they provide amazing value as well. The vast quantity of their wines are under $40, which is my personal price ceiling for BC wines, with most of them in the $20 range.

So what should you try if you go there? Well, start with the whites for sure. My favourites are the Riesling, Semillon and Viognier — all of which are $20 – $22. In a blind taste test, I bet they would blow away not just Canadian competition, but that of wineries from the U.S. as well. Crisp, clean, full of fruit — the best in BC, for sure.

If you go in the summer, definitely taste the Rose as well. It is our favourite for patio sipping — a deep pink colour, with the perfect balance between super ripe fruit and a crisp, dry finish.

As for the reds, you will be amazed they can get such ripe fruit in the Okanagan. The Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are, once again, the best made in BC. No tannic, wood monsters here — instead, look for ripe, smooth fruit, lovingly covered with vanilla/oak, but in complete balance. Both are under $30…and they will age. I have had both at five years old and they were fabulous. For a longer — but more expensive — experience, try the Reserve, their Bordeaux blend. While it tops the $40 mark, it is gorgeous, like Bordeaux should taste like. I had the 2004 in a restaurant recently and at 7 years old it showed no signs of fading.

Finally, for a treat, you can taste their sweet wines. La Frenz makes a Muscat, Tawny Port and Vintage Port, all available for half bottles. Crafted in the Aussie style, they are a wonderful way to finish off a meal or dinner party.

So if you are planning a trip to BC wine country this summer, definitely put La Frenz on your list of destinations. I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed!