[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]
Another day, another foray into the once-nebulous-and-terrifying world of inexpensive Canadian wine. My connotations of this corner of the market harken back to my university days in Victoria a decade ago, when my roommate and I would stop by the nearest government-run liquor store to pick up a $17 magnum of something local and atrocious before having friends over for drinks. I have only recently started to get over the stigma that built up in my brain due to the bad-wine headaches that ensued from those bottles, and I remain a touch leery whenever I see a bottle from BC or Ontario that dips below the $20 mark. Thankfully for me, I recently received a vinous intervention in the form of a half-case sample of wines from the Okanagan’s Ganton & Larsen Prospect Winery, all of which clock in under the $20 threshold, and one of which particularly intrigued me: this bottle of 2009 Red Willow Shiraz.
The Prospect Winery is an affiliate of BC stalwart Mission Hill…sort of. It is one of many Okanagan brands owned by a holding company named Artisan Wine Co, which in turn is run by MH proprietor Anthony von Mandl (if you’re curious, other Artisan labels include Painted Turtle, Mission Ridge, Wild Horse Canyon and the ubiquitous Sonora [Desert] Ranch). While many of the Artisan brands are fully under the control of the Mission Hill production team, Prospect is somewhat autonomous, with its own winemaker since its inception in 2006, Wade Stark, and plans to create a stand-alone winery in Oliver. Prospect’s raison d’être is one of the industry’s most challenging: create a range of sub-$20 Okanagan wines from multiple different varietals that over-deliver on quality for price. I had read that the initial plan was to have the Prospect line of wines eventually replace Mission Hill’s base-level Five Vineyards lineup so as to make MH more of a premium brand, but given the rampant market success of the Five Vineyards wines, I don’t see this happening anytime soon, which means that Prospect Winery has to share the stage, and retail shelves, at its price point with its sister label.
Back to why this particular bottle intrigued me: because it was labelled as “Shiraz”. As you may know, Shiraz and Syrah are the same grape, and Syrah is both the original and the more common name given to the varietal on bottles around the world: in its homeland of France, as well as in the rest of Europe, the US, Chile, Argentina, and more. The two main countries who use the alternate spelling of Shiraz are Australia (of course) and South Africa. Syrah/Shiraz has been a relatively new focus for Canadian vintners, and Canada has used both renditions of the grape name on its labels, although I have more often seen local bottles labelled Syrah (which I prefer) instead of Shiraz (which now spawns immediate mental connections to the global Aussie Shiraz phenomenon of the 2000s). So why did Prospect decide on Shiraz for this bottle? Was it a stylistic indication of the wine inside? (As you’ll see below, my guess is “no”.) Was it a marketing decision aimed at piquing the interest of consumers who had previously been buying $15 bottles of Little Penguin? I’m not sure, but I would lobby for a switch to “Syrah” in future vintages, because Prospect’s Red Willow deserves better than the critter wine associations its current name inevitably attracts.
The Red Willow Shiraz is made from grapes grown in the desert climate of Oliver, in the extreme south of the Okanagan Valley. This is where many of the bigger Canadian reds come from, as the extended sunlight and warmth give the grapes their best chance of ripening fully before harvest. This wine was a deep purple colour in the glass, thinning out slightly at the rim. It was on the nose where I got the first hint that this might start erasing my memories of cheap Canadian wines past: it was a classic Syrah nose, impressively complex for its $17 price tag, full of juicy blackcurrant and (ironically rare for wines) grape fruit but also pulling in an array of supporting notes like dill, smoked meat, vanilla, bubble gum and copper. I admit that reading those last five things in a row and then trying to imagine something that smells like all of them probably generates some pretty disgusting results, but trust me, in combination in a wine they’re killer. On the palate, the Red Willow exhibited more restraint than the potent jamminess of its Shiraz brethren, keeping just under full-bodied, with medium levels of supporting acidity and layered levels of tannin that were alternatively grippy and soft as the wine was in my mouth. It pulled back on the levels of intrigue somewhat in the taste department, sticking to a more tried-and-true red wine recipe of black fruit, dark chocolate, coffee, smoke and savoury herbs, and it finished on a slightly bitter, peppery note, but all in all it was extremely solid throughout.
Much has recently been written about how the Syrah grape may have a bright future in the Okanagan, and if this is what that area is capable of producing for $17 a bottle, I’m certainly inclined to agree. This may be the first true Canadian value wine that I have stumbled across, one that can compete both qualitatively and economically with the cheaper New World bargains coming out of California, Argentina, Chile and Australia. I look forward to seeing if this achievement can be carried over across vintages…doesn’t “2010 Prospect Winery Red Willow Syrah” have a nice ring to it?
$15 to $20 CDN