Desert Hills Estate Six Pack

25 04 2016

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

One of the things I love seeing most in Canadian wine nowadays is a renewed sense of focus on locating, separating and promoting quality subregions within an overall wine area, those special geological or climatic zones that yield wines with a distinct character and personality.  Anyone reading this in Europe right now may be incredulous at any such modern quest for discrete sub-terroir, as this process took place in many Old World growing regions up to a millennium ago.  We have a bit of catching up to do, and now we’re doing it.

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This is critical for regions like British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, which currently sees almost all wines coming out of it released under that general appellation name.  If you’ve ever stood in the breeze by the lake in Kelowna in August, and then stood in raging parched inferno of the Osoyoos desert two hours later, you’ll understand why “Okanagan Valley” doesn’t exactly capture any of the nuance of those two highly individual experiences.  Last year saw big news on the BC subregion front, as the Golden Mile Bench, a stretch of slope just west of the highway running from Oliver south to Osoyoos, became the province’s first ever recognized sub-geographical indication, meaning you’ll start seeing that name on bottles released this year in place of (or in addition to) the broader Okanagan designation.

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If you walk east from the Golden Mile Bench and cross the highway, on the other side of the road you’ll find another slope, angled west, with extremely hot days and surprisingly cool nights, where vines grow on highly sandy soils that run hundreds of feet deep and require irrigation to retain hydration.  This is the Black Sage Bench, another obvious BC candidate for subregional distinction and home to some of Canada’s top wineries.  On the southern end of the Bench, nestled between Okanagan luminaries Black Hills and Burrowing Owl, is Desert Hills Estate Winery, a family-run producer founded by the three Toor brothers and focused largely on wines made from their aptly named estate vineyard, the Three Boys Vineyard, purchased in 1989.  The first released production from the vineyard was in 1996, and now, 20 years later, Desert Hills is solidly entrenched in the Okanagan wine world and making a renewed push into the Alberta market.

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Cork Review:  7/10 (I have a thing for trees on corks.  Classic yet graphic.)

I got a chance to taste through a sextet of recent Desert Hills releases and came away impressed at how far our industry has come in the past decade and where it’s positioning itself to go over the next few years.  The bottles below will be imminently available at Solo liquor stores across the province, as well as at many other boutiques.  The quoted bottle prices are estimated Alberta retail prices but should be accurate within a dollar or two.  Bring on the wine!

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2014 Desert Hills Gewurztraminer

I liked this Gewurz more with every single sip, something I have never before said about Gewürztraminer.  This highly identifiable Alsatian grape is not one for subtlety and usually packs an aromatic and alcoholic wallop, often making it fun for a glass but a drag for a whole bottle.  This one, partly from the higher-elevation Nighthawk Vineyard in Okanagan Falls, very consciously refrains from being overblown but remains unmistakably Gewurz throughout.  A textbook Gewürztraminer nose of lychee, rosewater, daffodils and salt spray leads into an array of tropical and spicy flavours, pineapple and kiwi mixed with ginger and cinnamon, and the varietal’s round, oily texture is tempered by controlled ripeness (12.4% abv) and just enough acidity to keep things fresh.  There is a LOT of Gewurz in the Okanagan Valley, but I would come back to this one, even at a shade over $25 Alberta retail.

88 points

$25 to $30 CDN

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2014 Desert Hills Viognier

I’m actually surprised I don’t see more Canadian Gewurz producers also give Viognier a shot, as this companion French white grape (from the Rhone Valley this time) also offers bold, exotic flavours and never suffers from shyness, yet can be more versatile than the blunt perfumed instrument that Gewürztraminer often turns into.  This one unfortunately did not succeed to the level of the Gewurz, although there may have been something up with the bottle, as there was a clear yeasty, mealy aroma emanating from the wine that I would not consider normal for Viognier.  The much milder nose on the wine also gave out notes of marshmallow, orange zest and Fruit Roll Up, and it tasted most like peach iced tea, with accents of cantaloupe, Bazooka Joe gum and caramel.  The beery/yeasty undertone continued throughout the palate, reinforcing my suspicions that something weird might be happening with the wine, so take the below with a grain of salt.

85- points

$25 to $30 CDN

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2014 Desert Hills Gamay

This is both the cheapest ($23ish AB retail) and largest production (2600 cases) wine in the set I received, but given both of these facts it was one of the most impressive.  Made entirely from estate Three Boys Vineyard fruit, this Gamay was a beautiful fully translucent ruby colour and came across as both polished and exuberant on the nose, a sleek study of black cherry, raspberry, black pepper and anise.  It was certainly bigger and fruitier than your standard Gamay from Beaujolais (at 14.2% abv, it may have been the ripest Gamay I’ve ever tried), but it remained fully within itself at all times, easily containing its alcohol and offering a round but not overinflated texture.  Sweet and tart at the same time, bouncing between cherry, blackberry and rhubarb fruit literally grounded by a note of pavement/asphalt, the wine’s low tannins makes for easy drinking and makes the bottle pleasantly responsive to chilling.  You could easily drink this before dinner every day – a very friendly face for Canadian Gamay.

89+ points

$20 to $25 CDN

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2011 Desert Hills Syrah

Yeah, you read that right:  2011.  This bad boy is five years old, barely even breaking a sweat and ready for another decade in the cellar if you want to wait that long.  I have heard a lot of people I respect talking about the potential for Syrah in the Okanagan, and I always remained kind of skeptical about that pronouncement.  Not anymore.  This is the best wine of the six and is an expression of Syrah that Canada could easily hold up to the world as our ticket to global recognition in the cultivation of my favourite red varietal.  It was a deep, thick, black-ruby colour, fully opaque, throwing off equal parts black fruit and spice, along with Dr. Pepper, coffee grounds, bakers’ chocolate and topsoil.  There was that pleasant dankness on the nose that is pure Syrah, along with that age-induced cola smell that I often see in upper-echelon wines like Brunellos and that remains one of my all-time favourite wine aromas.

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This isn’t a gamey, meaty Syrah like many from Washington State, just a few hours south; it almost seems aristocratic on the palate with its mix of blackberry, blueberry, hickory, spice and vanilla, its towering structure and its impeccable smoothness of flavour.  It also improved measurably with time in the glass, making me think it has a long life ahead of it.  The fact that it was 100% based on estate-grown Three Boys fruit makes it even sweeter.  If I could make any polite suggestion to Desert Hills, it would be this:  focus on this grape.  You have something special here.  Cultivate it.

91+ points

$35 to $40 CDN

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2012 Desert Hills Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve

First of all, it is an act of bravery to produce a single-varietal Cabernet Sauvignon as a Canadian producer, particularly at a non-egregious price point (this one costs about $33 AB retail).  The public demands its Cab, but the Canadian growing season doesn’t easily accommodate, so you need to do some serious gymnastics (leaf thinning, green harvesting, hand-picking and -sorting, etc.) to put something workable in the bottle.  Desert Hills has done so.  This one is surprisingly way more transparent in colour than the Syrah, a thinner ruby-purple, but it is recognizably Cab on the nose, with the grape’s trademark blackcurrant and eucalyptus aromas front and centre, flanked by dark chocolate, rocky, sanguine and herbaceous notes.  The black fruit and chocolate continue on the palate, as does a leafy sort of herbal quality, and the fruit is ripe, but it feels like it’s not fully fleshed out, with only medium levels of acid and softer tannin falling well short of the impeccable structure exhibited by the Syrah.  If you want a drinkable Canadian Cab for less than $35, you’ve found it, but I’m not sure this gets to the next level like the prior two reds did.

86+ points

$30 to $35 CDN

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2011 Desert Hills Mirage

This is Desert Hills’ icon bottling, another Cab expression, but one that seems more coloured in, perhaps due to the presence of the other four red grapes that help comprise the well-known Bordeaux Blend.  Mirage is 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 15% Malbec, 10% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot; production is a scant 300 cases annually. It was noticeably more opaque than the base Cab, thinning but not lightening at the rim.  The complex, rounded nose seamlessly balanced black fruit, blueberry compote, hot rocks, maple syrup and pencil erasers, but the real difference separating this bottle from the last one came on the palate, which immediately offered more substance and heft, particularly in the form of suave tannin and lively acidity.  Priced identically to the Syrah at just shy of $40 AB retail, it’s a strong effort as far as big Canadian reds go, but maybe misses that flash of magic that puts the Syrah over the top.  Well played, Desert Hills – I’m sure our market will see a lot of you going forward.

90 points

$35 to $40 CDN

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