Multi-Wine Review: Calliope/Burrowing Owl Octet

24 11 2015

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

No time to spare for a huge intro tonight, as we have a whole whack of impressive Canadian wines to assess in what is sure to be a super-sized review.  I was fortunate enough to get the chance to taste through a series of recent releases from Okanagan stalwart Burrowing Owl, which is based in the scorching deep south of the Valley, near the US border in Oliver, British Columbia.  The tasting pack included a quartet of bottles from the parent winery and a quartet from its new offspring, Burrowing Owl’s second label Calliope Wines.  In keeping with the main estate’s unusual-bird-based theme, Calliope is named after a tiny hummingbird (Canada’s smallest bird) found in southern BC (not to be confused with the Greek muse or the steam organ of the same name).  According to its website, Calliope “is a full line of easy sipping, fruit-forward wines, designed to pair with casual lunches on the patio, or with contemporary cuisine”.  According to the pictures on the website, the wines also appear to pair with unnaturally beautiful Photoshopped women and neck beards.  Polite suggestion to Calliope:  Your wines are solid.  Your website is trying too hard.  It needs to relax.

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I had often heard strong praise about the Burrowing Owl lineup from Wine People Who Know Things but hadn’t previously gotten around to experiencing it for myself, so getting to dive into a sizeable chunk of the portfolio all at once was an amazing way to get caught up on one of the brightest lights in Canadian wine.  Without further ado, here are eight mini wine reviews, starting with the second label and finishing with the main house (all prices based on Alberta retail).

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2014 Calliope Sauvignon Blanc

This is actually 98% Sauvignon Blanc and 2% Semillon and was matured (briefly) mostly in steel tanks but partly in neutral oak barrels.  It also went through malolactic fermentation, a process that softens the acids of the wine and mellows its texture, something that not all Sauv Blancs necessarily want to experience.  However, this one immediately identified as a Sauvignon Blanc with a powerful leafy, grassy, gooseberry and limeade nose that leapt out of the glass.  The roundness and softness derived from oak aging and malolactic showed up in the wine’s surprisingly full body, but it still remained bright, juicy, vibrant and not remotely shy on acid, full of verve and riding sweet fruit flavours of Fuzzy Peaches and melon to a clean finish.  Most impressively, this actually improved considerably with air as it stayed in the glass, an indication of quality behind the “easy patio drinking” marketing.  A highly pleasant surprise.

88- points

$15 to $20 CDN

The dual identity of the Calliope screwcap. Why are there two? Rocking caps though: Stelvin Rating 8/10 and 7/10 respectively.

The dual identity of the Calliope screwcap. Why are there two? Rocking caps though: Stelvin Rating 8/10 and 7/10 respectively.

2014 Calliope Viognier

Viognier can be dicey in bargain-priced iterations, but this one delivered what it was supposed to for its $17 price tag.  I noted some bubbles/spritz out of the bottle that faded with time and had to strain a bit on the shy nose to pull out rosewater, lychee, sage and bubble gum.  I happily wrote “tastes like Viognier!” about the round and lush palate that melded fruity flavours of white peach, mango, fruit leather and cantaloupe with confectionary notes of Runts candy and angel food cake, thoroughly drinkable but lacking slightly in acidity.  This didn’t shine quite like the Sauvignon Blanc, but working with a grape with a higher degree of difficulty in a value lineup, it still came through.

86+ points

$15 to $20 CDN

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2014 Calliope Figure 8 White

This is basically the Evolution or Conundrum of the Calliope lineup, a proprietary white blend with a kitchen sink’s worth of grapes and a hint of sweetness to promote accessibility.  This vintage of Figure 8 (I presume it will vary every year) was a blend of 35% Pinot Gris, 31% Chardonnay, 18% Gewürztraminer, 13% Viognier (see above) and 3% Sauvignon Blanc (see above again).  It was a clearly deeper, more golden, slightly pinkish hue (probably strongly due to its primary varietal component) and delivered a lush and fragrant nose of tropical fruit, banana, vanilla bean and potpourri, but it faded somewhat once it hit the tongue, not quite adding up to the sum of its parts.  The ripe fruit energy in the aromas dimmed to golden apple and honeydew on the palate, and the wine’s part-silky, part-oily texture fell into a papery finish.  Unfortunately, despite the blending work involved, the Figure 8 didn’t quite rise to the level of its single-varietal counterparts.

86 points

$20 to $25 CDN

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2013 Calliope Figure 8 Red

Inexpensive big red blends may be the Achilles heel of the Canadian wine industry.  It is exceedingly difficult to work with the fullest-bodied red grapes up north on a budget and come out with a winning product.  The front label of this one says that it’s “Cabernet Merlot”, but in fact it’s Merlot (58%), Cabernet Franc (30%), Malbec (8%) and Syrah (4%).  I had thought that if you were listing grape names from a multi-varietal blend on your label, the dominant grape in the blend had to be listed before the more junior partners in the mix; this may be a typo requiring adjustment in subsequent vintages.  I will give this bottle credit for smelling like a good Cab/Merlot, a luscious mix of blackberry, black cherry, ink, vanilla, clove and nutmeg, but as with its white counterpart, the palate on the Figure 8 red did not fully live up to its aromatic promise, coming across slightly bitter-tinged and herbaceous, with lighter red fruit and matchsticks and flinty, powdery tannins.  I’m not sure if a Cabernet/Merlot (or a Merlot/Cabernet Franc/et al) has a necessary place in a Canadian value label.  Thankfully, Calliope’s parent label could handle big reds much better, as will be seen below.

85 points

$20 to $25 CDN

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2014 Burrowing Owl Sauvignon Blanc

It’s always fun to compare when the same varietal is made by both the main label and the second label, and the Burrowing Owl Sauvignon Blanc offered up some clear points of contrast with its Calliope counterpart.  First, it carries the Similkameen Valley appellation name, repping the lesser-known but rising BC region found just south and west of the Okanagan (the Calliope SB has a general “British Columbia” appellation name).  Second, it has received more winemaking treatment:  58% of the batch was barrel-fermented and then aged in 40% new oak barrels (a mixture of French, American and, unbelievably, Russian oak), giving it a creamier, lusher texture and muting the sharper, grassier notes coming out of the grape.  What it gained in richness it lost in typicity, offering up tropical and banana fruit but becoming a bit fuzzy as to its identity, stuck between the straight-ahead fruit-focused rendition of Sauvignon Blanc and the more robust oak-influenced Cali style.  In this instance only, I actually preferred the Calliope, which seemed more true to what it was, but that didn’t stop this bottle from disappearing.

87 points

$25 to $30 CDN

Cork Rating: 3.5/10 (Pretty blah. The Cab cork is the longer one.)

Cork Rating: 3.5/10 (Pretty blah. The Cab cork is the longer one.)

2013 Burrowing Owl Syrah

Now things got fun.  One of the things that Burrowing Owl’s estate label proved it can handle is bigger reds, and none were more of a revelation to me than this Syrah, which was nothing short of spectacular.  Almost black in colour, it was fully opaque and blasted a full-volume set of New World aromas, from brown sugar and mesquite to raspberry and cherry Nibs to smoke, leather and brisket.  While beautifully (and phenolically) ripe, it was not the overdrive jam bomb you might have expected from the last sentence, bursting with all types of black fruit, bakers’ chocolate, wood smoke and baking spice but held together effortlessly by seamless yet powerful structure.  It too saw time in three different kinds of oak (French, American, and this time Hungarian…how many countries export oak to this winery??), but its maturation landed it in just the right spot.  I would highly recommend trying this, even at the $35 Alberta price tag.

91 points

$30 to $35 CDN

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2013 Burrowing Owl Malbec

At a glance, this started out almost as a redux of the Syrah, deep and dark and imposing.  Then I went in for further assessment and it smelled like…watermelon??  Cantaloupe?  Pomegranate, Crystal Light, banana bread?  I spent so much time smelling this wine, and for whatever reason (potentially bottle variation), it had an emphatically rose-style nose, which it followed up on the palate with a flavour profile that can best be described as:  Jolly Ranchers.  All of them.  Watermelon was again the flavour I couldn’t shake from my head when tasting this.  It was quite tasty, juicy, pleasant, with energetic acid and a silky mouthfeel, but I can’t say it was overly “Malbec”.  I can honestly say I haven’t had anything like it.

87 points

$30 to $35 CDN

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2012 Burrowing Owl Cabernet Sauvignon

Varietal Cabernet Sauvignon might as well be Mount Everest in British Columbia.  It’s one of the hardest things to do well, leaves very little room for error, and is fatal for those who slip up.  This bottle actually pulls it off fairly convincingly.  Unlike the last two reds, it was a controlled, almost pretty, ruby colour in the glass and not a black hole.  It delivered a number of classic Cab aromas, from blackberry and blueberry fruit to comfortingly familiar secondary notes of eucalyptus, cigar box and chocolate, rounded out by a savoury streak of tomato paste.  Unlike the standard sunny New World Cabernet, this one was not bombastic, but medium-bodied, with potent acid and surprisingly prominent sandy tannins framing elegant currant, grape, violet and mint flavours.  It seemed like the flavours were still developing in the bottle, so if you have one of these, I would hold it for another year or two.  Bravo, Owl – you have scaled Mount Cab.

89+ points

$45 to $50 CDN

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