The Prospect Winery White Showdown

5 11 2012

[The bottles below were provided as samples for review purposes.]

The competitors.

Over the past few weeks I have become quite a fan of BC’s Ganton & Larsen Prospect Winery.  I have long retained a lingering suspicion about any bottle of inexpensive Canadian wine, fearing that elements both natural (shortened and uneven growing seasons/smaller ripening windows) and economic (high land costs in winegrowing areas/little access to cheap labour) would inevitably combine to make it impossible for a homegrown bottle to compete for my $15 Tuesday Night Bottle attention with those bastions of cheap and cheerful wine:  Australia, Argentina, California, Chile, Spain.  While I am increasingly convinced that we’re in the midst of a quality revolution in Canadian wine, I saw little hope that it would trickle down to the entry-level bottles in any winery’s lineup.  Then I got sent a six-pack sampler from the folks behind the Prospect Winery, an Okanagan producer with ownership ties to the more famous Mission Hill and a focus on the budget-conscious end of the retail shelf.  First a remarkably complex Shiraz and then a substantial Merlot captured my attention as each were downed with surprise and admiration and made the subject of solo reviews.  Left in the sampler box were four whites from Prospect’s 2011 vintage:  Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Chardonnay.  Quicker than you could say “easy excuse for a tasting”, I knew what had to be done.  I rounded up my tasting panel from this summer’s Mission Hill Pinot Olympics and we went to work on a head-to-head-to-head-to-head showdown of Prospect Winery’s whites.

In order: PG, SB, Riesling, Chardonnay.

 

Just like last time, we opened all four bottles at once and tasted and judged each of them against the others, coming up with our own ranking orders from 1st to 4th.  I then added all of the placements for a given wine together to come up with a total point score (so if a wine was ranked 1st, 2nd and 4th respectively by the three tasters, its total score would be 1 + 2 + 4 = 7) — the lower the score, the better.  We tasted the wines from lightest to heaviest, so my notes below are in the same order.  Each of these four bottles retails in Alberta for less than $15, and any one of the four probably represents the best of its varietal that I’ve tasted from Canada at that price point.  So which of these great white hopes for the future of cheap Canadian wine came out on top?  Let’s find out!

2011 PROSPECT WINERY OGOPOGO’S LAIR PINOT GRIGIO

I was emotionally torn by this bottle.  With few exceptions, I hate Pinot Grigio with a fiery passion, generally considering it a bland waste of a fermentation tank.  But I love the Ogopogo, having spent a couple summers of my dinosaur-loving youth scouring the surface of Lake Okanagan for a glimpse of the beast that I was sure was in there somewhere.  Each of Prospect’s bottles is named after a place, plant or animal that’s a part of the history of the Okanagan Valley, and the Ogopogo’s Lair is an underwater cave on the east side of the Lake where the monster was said to live.  If any grape needs the Ogopogo to lend it some pizzazz, it’s this one, and the legendary name seemed to have the desired effect here, as this PG came blistering out of the bottle with way more verve than this varietal has given me the right to expect.  My tasting notes actually read:  “I don’t hate it!  Yay!”  A medium straw colour in the glass, the Pinot Grigio jumped out at us with a shockingly non-neutral set of tropical aromas, pineapple and mango notes so lush they were almost candied.  It stepped back a bit towards its normal conservative self on the palate, where it came across crisp, lean, tart and almost watery at first, although it opened up with a bit of time.  Bright acidity carried pear and mineral flavours into a slightly bitter aftertaste that reminded me a ton of apple peels.  The more I drank of it (and I drank a lot of it), the more I thought it would taste GREAT chilled right down and served outside…maybe not in November, but still.  Not astoundingly complex, but who expects that out of a Pinot Grigio?

2011 PROSPECT WINERY COUNCIL’S PUNCH BOWL SAUVIGNON BLANC

The name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but it refers to a lake in interior BC discovered by the Hudson’s Bay Company 166 years ago, so it carries some historical street cred.  I couldn’t believe the amount of petillance (bubbles) in every glass poured of this wine:  even after 15-20 minutes it was downright frothy.  The Pinot Grigio had some bubbles too, leading me to guess that these whites had been hit with a small dose of CO2 on bottling to preserve some freshness.  Unsurprisingly, the Sauvignon Blanc was the palest and most transparent of the white lineup, appearing almost water-white with a slight lemon-green tinge.  One whiff of it was enough to confirm its identity with certainty:  the huge aromatics of grapefruit and gooseberry could come from no other varieteal.  This smelled very similar to the now-ubiquitous Sauv Blancs coming out of New Zealand, but without the polarizing grassy, herbaceous tinge that creates both disciples and enemies of the grape.  Unlike the Grigio, the intensity of the SB didn’t waver on the palate, as it continued its flavour assault with potent notes of pink grapefruit, lemon custard, Sour Patch Kids and bath salts, all kept in line with whip-like acid.  This is exactly what inexpensive Sauvignon Blanc should be:  a faithful and enticing demo of the varietal, and a refreshing pleasure to drink.

2011 PROSPECT WINERY LARCH TREE HILL RIESLING

Yet another wine named after a geological formation, this Riesling is an homage to an elevated slope near Osoyoos that is now awesomely known as “Anarchist Mountain” (how a bump in the ground goes from “Larch Tree Hill” to “Anarchist Mountain” without someone building a super-villain castle on it is beyond me).  When predicting how these wines would fare before the Showdown, as well as being near-certain that the Ogopogo Pinot Grigio would be my least favourite bottle, I was equally sure that this Riesling would be my favourite.  My love affair for Riesling has been fairly well-documented on this blog, and a few BC Rieslings that I’ve tried recently (including Mission Hill’s own Martin’s Lane Riesling) have shown to me that this is a grape we’re supposed to be growing.  I don’t know if it was the weight of expectation or the wine gods showing me that things aren’t always so simple, but just as the PG left me pleasantly surprised, the Riesling left me a bit wanting.  It was not quite as aromatic or expressive as most examples of my #1 grape, with a rounded, muted nose featuring somewhat unusual aromas of white grape, apple-cinnamon, soap and banana.  It tastes a little more like your garden-variety Riesling, but a softer, gentler sort of Riesling — as my fellow tasting judge said, it’s “like Riesling on a pillow”, with quieter acid, an unobtrusive structure and a fair bit of residual sweetness.  It was still enjoyable, but I like my Rieslings with a bit more fire and architecture; to me, replacing a Riesling’s laser-like precision with gentle fuzziness almost strips it of its essence.  

2011 PROSPECT WINERY TOWNSEND JACK UNOAKED CHARDONNAY

Prospect Winery makes both an oaked and an unoaked Chardonnay each year.  I was provided with the unoaked version, which was the first wine of the night named after a living thing:  a rabbit, the White Tailed Jack Rabbit (also known as the Townsend Jack), which made its habitat in the Osoyoos desert until becoming extinct.  (So much for living things…let’s go back to caves and hills.)  This proved to be the most polarizing bottle of the night, delivering either an enjoyably consistent or a slightly monotonous set of flavours depending on who you asked.  A bright pale gold colour, it had an almost almond-y nose mixed with lemon drop and green apple fruit.  Notably fuller-bodied and smoother than the rest of the white lineup, it dished out fairly neutral fruit on the palate (primarily apple/Asian pear) to go with a slight rubber note and tight acidity.  It was balanced and not flabby or disjointed, but for me it was lacking that singular element that made me sit up and notice it.  On the other hand, one of my fellow tasters was all over it, admiring its purity and straightforward elegance.  It was certainly well made, so your reaction to it may well depend on how excited you get by oak-free Chard.

RESULTS

The notes are above, but how did the ultimate rankings shake out?  The results:

PINOT GRIGIO:  My Ranking = 2nd; Other Judges = 3rd, 4th; Total Score = 9

(T-3 OVERALL)

I’ve done two of these mass comparison tastings and ranked a Pinot Grigio the highest of everyone twice.  I’m starting to question my very existence.

SAUVIGNON BLANC:  My Ranking = 1st; Other Judges = 1st, 3rd; Total Score = 5

(1st OVERALL)

Two out of three top-of-the-podium votes — this SB rocked, even in spite of a single dissenting vote.

RIESLING:  My Ranking = 3rd; Other Judges = 2nd, 2nd; Total Score = 7

(2nd OVERALL)

As mentioned above, my Riesling oversensitivity probably hurt the Larch Tree Hill, but this was as close to a unanimous ranking as the tasting panel got.

CHARDONNAY:  My Ranking = 4th; Other Judges = 4th, 1st; Total Score = 9 

(T-3 OVERALL)

How’s that for diversity of opinion?  Who would have thought a wine so neutral could be so divisive?

SB petillance!

I should stress that even though I had a favourite and a least favourite in this contest, all 4 wines showed quite well for themselves and all were bunched fairly close together in terms of my overall impressions (if I was scoring these bottles, they would have all been within 3-4 points of each other).  As a lineup, I definitely preferred this set of wines from Prospect to the entry-level Five Vineyard wines of its big brother Mission Hill, which is a big compliment to this relatively new winery.  If you want to go local and are staring at the wall of $15 Canadian vino at Superstore wondering which of them won’t lead you astray, my money would be on this portfolio of consistent, impressive, varietally correct and downright tasty Okanagan wines.

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