Volcanic Hills II: Eruptive Reds

13 10 2019

By Peter Vetsch

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

The Volcanic Hills story is a charmingly Canadian one.  Founder Sarwan Gidda’s father Mehtab moved to the Okanagan Valley from East Punjab, India in 1958 with his wife and children, becoming the first Indo-Canadian family to settle in West Kelowna.  After a few years, Mehtab and family were some of the most prolific apple farmers in the valley, but from the late 1970s onward, slowly but surely, their agricultural vision began to drift to grapes.  Ray’s excellent introduction to Volcanic Hills Estate Winery outlined how Sarwan took the next step from grape farming to wine production in the 2000s, and how his children are now helping to carry on this burgeoning family legacy.

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Volcanic Hills is largely a grower-producer, making the bulk of its portfolio from its own 68 acres of estate vineyards in the West Kelowna area, carrying on the Gidda family’s initial farming mission.  Not only are all of VH’s Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Gamay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Zweigelt (yes, Zweigelt) and Marechal Foch (oh yes, Foch) wines made from 100% estate fruit, but all such grapes are own-rooted, planted on their own original rootstocks as opposed to being grafted onto disease- and pest-resistant rootstocks from non-vinifera species, as is the case with the bulk of wine grapes worldwide.  However, while the other two posts in this producer series will focus largely on what Volcanic Hills can do with its own fruit, the four reds below are exceptions to the VH rule and are instead sourced from warmer climes with longer growing seasons which can reliably ripen them.  The Giddas have contracts with other growers in Oliver and Osoyoos from which they obtain their Bordeaux reds and their Syrah, all of which are on offer at the winery for well under $30.  The price points of the entire Volcanic Hills library are such that John Schreiner was moved to name a recent article about them “Wines You Can Afford”.  But price is only one part of the equation; do they deliver for what they cost? Read the rest of this entry »

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Volcanic Hills I: Molten Whites

9 10 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

It’s days like today when I truly value my connection with wine, fermented grape juice yet so very much more. You know, the sort of day where everything hits the skids, and wine is there at the end of it to provide an affirmation of the pleasurable things, to stimulate intellectual curiosity, and to infuse existence with a certain beauty that works to counterbalance any ugliness that cannot help but seep in around the edges of even the best-curated life. White wine is where it all started for me. At its best it is sharp and crystalline yet hedonistically fruity, linear yet complex, tart yet comforting. My first wine that I actually cared to attend to – you know, I am drinking wine and I’m actually going to notice that it’s wine! – was a Canadian Gewürztraminer. I won’t say which one. It was delicious back at that juncture, but at this point leaves me wanting on those rare occasions when I loop back to it. Nevertheless, I still seek out all things Gewürztraminer in this country, and am rewarded every so often with beacons of surprising revelation. It just so happens that the Volcanic Hills Estate Winery has made something of a specialty of this perfumed grape, offering an entry-level multi-vineyard blend, a single vineyard offering, a late harvest dessert wine, and even a sparkling Gewürz. They also offer two takes on Viognier, another notoriously perfumed fruit bomb currently making a name for itself in the Okanagan. I may be just the Canadian wine writer to guide our loyal readers through this particular romp.

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The Volcanic Hills Estate Winery is operated by Sarwan Gidda and his son Bobby, and is now into its 11th year of operations. Sarwan, born in India, founded the Mt. Boucherie Estate Winery in 2000 with his two brothers. According to Noel Gallagher, “Everyone knows that if you’ve got a brother, you’re going to fight.” Sure enough, Sarwan departed the partnership to start Volnanic Hills in 2008, with Bobby designing the layout of the geothermally heated and cooled winery. The winery itself is situated on the southeastern slope of Mt. Boucherie, which most agree is a 60 million year-old dormant volcano. The Okanagan’s Mt. Etna? I’m not sure, but according to the Giddas, the 70 or so acres of estate vineyards benefit from this rich volcanic heritage. Many swear that you can taste such soils in the finished wines. My own experience with certain Old World whites does corroborate this, even if the mechanisms involved remain poorly understood. The Giddas trust winemaker Daniel Bontorin, who trained locally in the Okanagan, to create complex yet affordable wines from estate grown grapes as well as the produce of various contract growers. Let’s check in on the whites. Read the rest of this entry »





PnP Panel Tasting: Weird Canada – BC Carmenere Supremacy (Plus Special Guests)

21 09 2019

By Peter Vetsch & Raymond Lamontagne

It all started with Carmenere.  It snowballed from there.

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Sometime last year we became aware that there was at least one winery growing and making Carmenere in the Okanagan.  (I am now aware that this has been the case since at least 2005, but allow me my joy of discovery nonetheless.)  Then we were told of another.  And then another.  Then we decided, emphatically though without particular reason, that we MUST gather and taste all of these Canadian Carmeneres, even though we had no real plan for achieving this goal — it will not surprise you to learn that these idiosyncratic bottles are small-production, not in the Alberta market and often produced for winery club members only.  Then one such winery club member, who I had never previously met, happened to be IN the Okanagan while chatting with us about this now-fanatical obsession and picked up a couple of the Carms for us, along with some of the other weird vinous glory you will see below.  Then another local benefactor, who I had also never met, traded us the final piece of our Carmenere puzzle from her cellar.  Thanks to the kindness of electronic friends, we now had ourselves a proper comparative tasting, an honest-to-goodness BC Carmenere showdown.  The first ever?  I can hardly believe it myself.

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The Carm contenders:  Black Hills Estate Winery, which normally plays it fairly strait-laced but which allowed itself a foray into the wacky with this Club-only offering; Moon Curser Vineyards, whose entire portfolio is dedicated to oddities like this which fall outside of the Canadian mainstream (stay tuned for a future Panel Tasting when we dive into their Touriga Nacional and Dolcetto, among others); and Lariana Cellars, which has made Carmenere its signature red and a focal point of its streamlined offerings.  In addition to the main event wines, we couldn’t help but test-drive some other intriguing bottles from these producers, as well as a…Canadian Brunello?  Frankly, if you start a tasting premise at “Canadian Carmenere”, why stop there?  Tyler, Ray and I were born for this.  Bring it on. Read the rest of this entry »





Spain, Old and New, Part III: The Wines of Vina Real

9 09 2019

By Peter Vetsch

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

Nearly a year on from the start of this review set, through three different seasons of write-ups, I am closing in on the full story of the Cune wine lineup.  We started with the mothership itself, the Compania Vinicola del Norte de Espana (C.V.N.E.), the Riojan stalwart whose expressions cross four separate brands.  We then ascended to Imperial, the Cune adjunct focused on Reserva- and Gran Reserva-level wines from the top vineyards of Rioja Alta, the core of what most people know of Rioja as a wine region.  Tonight we move from the centre of the heartlands to Rioja’s outskirts, and from the centre of attention to a group of producers tired of being overlooked.  Cune’s Vina Real label is rooted in grapes sourced from the ever-ignored yet consistently impressive Rioja Alavesa.

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This least-known Riojan subregion lies in the north-central portion of Rioja, bordered by the Ebro River to the south and the Sierra de Cantabria mountain range to the north, which protects the vineyards from the cool coastal winds above.  It is both the smallest and the most elevated of Rioja’s three sub-zones, its hilly and terraced vineyards influenced by the nearby mountains, its 40 x 8 km surface area a relative pittance compared to its much more expansive siblings Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja.  Being the smallest and most neglected in the family also tends to make you the scrappiest:  Rioja Alavesa has recently, and ever more vocally, been seeking to carve out its own identity within Spain’s most prominent wine appellation.  There has been some talk of leaving Rioja altogether, which has not been all that well-received by the region’s governing body.  Rioja Alavesa is craving respect and recognition, and that is part of what Vina Real seeks to deliver.

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The winery is named for its vineyards’ proximity to the Camino Real, the “Royal Road”, a renowned traditional highway; its relation to the Camino de Santiago walking trail which crosses all of northern Spain is not immediately clear to me, though that pilgrimage road goes right through Logrono, the closest city to the winery.  Much of my discussion of the Cune-brand wines has alighted on that intersection between traditional and modern approaches that they seem to exemplify, but in none of Cune’s labels is this more clear than Vina Real.  The winery is part of Rioja Alavesa’s historical fabric, being among the first in the area to employ barrel aging for wines (which is now a hallmark of the whole Rioja region) and to make Crianza wines for earlier release.  But its present incarnation is unabashedly modern:  the magnificent new puck-shaped winery building, constructed out of cedar and inaugurated by the king of Spain himself in 2004, was designed as one of the first gravity-flow operations in the country and has bored out the surrounding hilltop to create state-of-the-art underground cellars.  Even this cutting-edge operation does not lose sight of its past, however:  the winery’s circular shape (as seen on Vina Real’s labels) is an homage to a traditional large Riojan fermenting vat, a physical representation of the old-meets-new dichotomy that defines this set of producers.  Do the wines follow suit? Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: Road 13’s Rhone-ish Reds

29 08 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

Welcome back to Road 13, with my red follow-up of Peter’s prior glowing praise for the white offerings from this Okanagan stalwart. I admit that some inevitable pangs of envy rose up when I heard about just how delicious Rousanne can be in the hands of this  particular producer. Nevertheless, I was pleased to have my opportunity with the reds, one another classic Rhone riff in the form of a GSM blend, the other a more unique joining of a classic stalwart from the same region (the “S” in the “GSM”) with Malbec, a Bordeaux grape that unexpectedly found its fortunes in the New World.

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Road 13’s labels, and indeed its very name, conjure up some pleasant associations for this country boy who has for some time now been irrevocably relocated to the big city. The name came about when the operation then known as Golden Mile Cellars was sold to Pam and Mick Luckhurst in 2003, with the new proprietors wishing to emphasize the more specific location of their winery and the three vineyard sites providing them fruit. A shift to terroir-driven wines occurred, buoyed by an earnest desire to celebrate the region’s rich agricultural history. A natural born gardener, Mick hated just sitting around and loves collecting farm equipment. Pam brought bookkeeping expertise and a natural aptitude as a wine taster. Both sought to learn viticulture, a process they readily admit continued throughout their stewardship of the winery, yet the result of this humbling journey has still been numerous winemaking awards. The last Road 13 red I had, a 2011 Syrah-Mourvedre opened in 2018,  positively dazzled. Hopefully these provide more of the same. Read the rest of this entry »





By The Glass: Domaine de Pellehaut’s Harmonie de Gascogne

18 08 2019

By Peter Vetsch

[These wines were provided as samples for review purposes.]

Back!!  I have returned from overseas, feeling as refreshed as one can after multiple weeks of intercontinental travel with two kids under 9, and ready once more to dive into the glass and find words to go with it.  This return post takes me somewhere I have not often gone in the world of wine, somewhere that does not usually immediately cross my mind as a source of bottle options:  that broader informal wine zone in southwest France aptly yet uninspiringly called “Southwest France”.  (Admittedly, if all regions were so named, learning about wine would be SO much easier.)  Within the Southwest, an area nestled roughly in between Bordeaux and Languedoc-Roussillon, lies IGP Cotes de Gascogne, a quality wine area best known by a wide margin for a spirit.  As it turns out, the borders of the region precisely mirror those of Armagnac, although its production rules are far more open-ended on the non-distilled side of the spectrum.

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If you don’t recognize the term “IGP”, you’re not alone:  it didn’t exist when I first started studying wine with any seriousness back in 2011.  Previously wines within this classification were known as “Vin de Pays”, or “country wine”, a step up from the lowly standards-free French table wine called “Vin de France”, displaying some regional quality and character but without quite the level of history or distinction befitting a full AOC (now AOP) classification.  “IGP” stands for “Indication Géographique Protégée” (Protected Geographical Indication), which, while much harder to remember than “Vin de Pays”, probably communicates its purpose a little bit better.  The AOP-lite rules surrounding the IGP designation allow for a little more freedom when it comes to grape selection and production methods, freedom that tonight’s producer uses to its full advantage, although the Rolodex of permitted IGP grapes for the Cotes de Gascogne (19 in all, 11 red and 8 white) already seems broad enough to permit significant latitude in what comes out of this area.  It is mostly a white hotbed, with well over 80% of vineyard area planted to white grapes, which is no surprise given that these are the focus of Armagnac as well.  Two of Armagnac’s four prominent standard-bearers, Ugni Blanc (aka Trebbiano) and Colombard, are protagonists below.

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Domaine de Pellehaut is one of those remarkable under-the-radar family-run European estates that has been passed down from generation to generation since the 1700s, is firmly rooted in carefully tended old-vine sites, produces remarkably honest and vivid wines, yet would have remained in complete obscurity from international audiences without amplification from a more recognized voice.  That voice in this case is Maison Sichel, owners of Bordeaux’s Chateau d’Angludet and part owners of Chateau Palmer, which in addition to its own wares markets the wines of other worthy partner estates, including this one, without ripping their owners’ names from the front label.  Brothers Mathieu and Martin Béraut tend the 300+ year-old Pellehaut sites and make the wine, which has gained critical attention yet suffers primarily from the fact that it doesn’t hail from one of the dozen or so major European wine regions that casual drinkers recognize.  These kinds of outsiders, it turns out, are where the bulk of the bargains can be found.  Domaine de Pellehaut’s “Harmonie de Gascogne” collection is a prime example. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: The Reds of Castoro de Oro

14 08 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

[These wines were provided as samples for review purposes.]

Welcome back for part 2 of my coverage of a cross-section of the current lineup of the Golden Mile’s Castoro de Oro, following on the heels of last week’s assessment of a trio of their whites. Those wines were fun, clean examples of how a savvy winemaker can produce something that is capable of appealing to a rather broad swath of the wine-drinking public. One can simply enjoy such wines in a purely casual fashion, equal parts pleasant taste and social lubricant, or one can, likely on a different occasion, plumb and probe for something deeper. Will the reds (and a rosé) paint a similar picture?

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Before I attempt to answer that question, a few words about the winery name (see my last post for more about the vineyard conditions). The name “Castoro de Oro” is a tribute to how Canada was founded and gives a nod to our majestic country’s national animal. Yes, the pictures on the label and your phrasebook Spanish do not deceive you: “Castoro de Oro” really does mean “golden beaver”, with a nod towards Canada’s roots in the fur trade.  Back in our colonial days, beaver pelts were deemed “soft gold” because they were in tremendous demand on the market. Additionally, it was none other than beavers who created the small lake that helps provide a key moderating influence on the climate at Castoro de Oro’s vineyards. The top hat seen on the winery mascot above embodies the fashion that was vaunted at the time of the soft gold rush. Truly, what fantastic branding. Ultimately, though, what matters to me is in the bottle. Read the rest of this entry »








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