Burrowing Owl Fall Release Set

12 11 2016

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

Burrowing Owl Fall Release Week is quickly becoming one of the highlights of the Pop & Pour blogging calendar.  The winery is highly engaged with consumers and media alike and  is ahead of the game in terms of finding new ways to get its wines into the collective consciousness, and its renown is expanding well beyond its home province of BC as a result.  When the season’s current releases arrive in Calgary around harvest time, I’m ready to do my small part to spread the word.  Bring on the new vintages!

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A glorious Pop & Pour fall tradition.

Burrowing Owl is an Okanagan Valley stalwart, and it’s become such a ubiquitous part of the region that it’s easy to forget the winery is less than 20 years old.  The story started in 1993, when founder Jim Wyse replanted a series of vineyards between Oliver and Osoyoos in the extreme southern Okanagan.  There were no immediate plans to build a winery, but Wyse’s vision expanded once he saw the quality of the new grapes.  Burrowing Owl’s first vintage was 1997, and construction on the gravity-flow winery and massive underground cellar on the property was completed in 1998.

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 Initially focused on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris planted on a single 130-acre site, Burrowing Owl is now up to 14 different planted varietals on 170 acres of estate vineyards in three different sites. It is no accident that the winery is named after the rare underground-nesting owl that was declared extinct in British Columbia in 1980 but is now back on the upswing due to the dedicated conservation efforts of a small group of individuals:  Wyse is one of those individuals, having contributed significant amounts of both time and money to the burrowing owl’s preservation.

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Stelvin Rating: 8/10 (Love the colour, love the side pattern and smoothness; not a huge fan of the top embossing.)

 This year I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to try a sextet of different bottles from the Burrowing Owl 2013 and 2014 vintages, including return engagements with a couple of wines I had in last year’s releases, the Cabernet Sauvignon and the particularly eye-opening Syrah.  Let’s see how the fall 2016 lineup compared, starting with my introduction to one of Burrowing Owl’s founding whites:  Chardonnay.

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2014 Burrowing Owl Chardonnay ($31 AB Retail)

This is a wine story told in percentages.  Ready?  The 2014 Chardonnay was fermented 40% in stainless steel tanks (to retain freshness, brightness and fruit) and 60% in barrels with lees stirring (to introduce additional secondary flavour and add roundness).  Only 60% of the batch was then put through malolactic fermentation (which converts harsher malic acid into smoother, softer lactic acid), and then 80% of it was matured in French oak barrels, of which only 30% were new.  Put that all together and what do you yet, aside from an array of fractions?  A conscious and careful effort to marry the best features of oaked and unoaked Chardonnay:  richness and complexity from the former and purity and focus from the latter.

A long growing season and warm vintage in 2014 produced highly ripe grapes that trend towards the tropical in the glass, a friendly mix of papaya, guava and lemon curd laced with vanilla and toasted coconut.  The fruit predominates on the nose, but the oak hits first on the palate, evident on the creamy, butterscotch-y full body and silky mouthfeel.  Pineapple and kiwi peek through the caramelized barrel flavours, and slicing acidity retains much needed freshness, but the acid feels a touch disconnected, as if the various components of the wine are not yet fully integrated.  The finish is slightly drying, making the first half of the drinking experience shine a bit brighter than the second.

87 points

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2014 Burrowing Owl Pinot Noir ($39)

For a winery focused largely on Bordeaux varietals in their red lineup and based in a roasting hot and arid part of the Okanagan, Pinot Noir might seem like a throwaway, a nod to what people would expect a Canadian winery to produce as opposed to a core part of the portfolio.  I thought that up until I smelled this wine for the first time.  This might have the best nose I’ve ever come across on a Canadian Pinot:  picture-perfect and true to the grape, melding crushed flowers, strawberry, watermelon, rock dust and potpourri and just spilling out of the glass.  It’s probably also the first Pinot Noir I’ve seen that’s been aged in FOUR different nationalities of oak barrels:  85% French, 10% American, 3% Russian (!) and 2% Hungarian (!!).  Again it tails off slightly on the back end, hitting the tongue much earthier and less forward than its buoyant aromatic foreshadowing, highlighting flint, topsoil, fall leaves, pepper and anise over its raspberry and blueberry fruit and finishing just a touch bitter, as if its flavours don’t quite hold on all the way through.  It’s still an impressive effort, and the restraint on the palate may even be admirable given the hotter growing conditions, but when I first sniffed I was thinking I might be looking at a national all-timer.  Something is working here with this grape.

87+ points

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2013 Burrowing Owl Cabernet Franc ($42)

2013 was also a warm, strong vintage in the Okanagan, although a cooler autumn would arguably make its wines a bit less opulent than 2014.  You certainly couldn’t tell that on this wine, which is an absolute beast of a Cab Franc.  I’m a big fan of this grape, which can be made in a leaner, racier, more herbal fashion in cooler climates and as a fruit-laden near Cab Sauv doppelgänger in warmer ones.  This particular expression emphatically leans the latter way, which is apparent as soon as the wine hits the glass; its deep thick purple-ruby colour is immediately noticeable.  My first sensory impression was that this smelled like a ginger snap, all molasses and clove and nutmeg, but huge grapey fruit and the sweet/savoury combo of maple and meat encircled the spice as I kept smelling.  Blueberry, cherry and vanilla joined the chorus on the ripe, full palate, Cab Franc’s vegetal notes blasted out by the richness of flavour apparent throughout.  However, the wine thankfully doesn’t sacrifice structure in the quest for ripeness, hammering down with sandy tannin to keep the cacophony in line.  The finish is dusty, chocolatey and lingering, an impressive end to an utterly delicious wine.

91 points

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2014 Burrowing Owl Syrah ($42)

Burrowing Owl’s surprising Syrah was the main hit at last year’s release tasting, with its foot on the flavour gas pedal and complexity and structure to spare.  This year’s rendition, like the Pinot Noir above, sees time in oak from four different countries (72% French, 22% American, 4% Hungarian, 4% Russian; 20% new, 20% one year old, 60% neutral.  This is one highly specific oak program.) and is extremely well put together, although also beefed up even further by the hotter 2014 vintage.  It is an absolutely impenetrable purple colour, with wild aromas ranging from fruity (blackberry, huckleberry, grape) to floral (violets) to meaty (pork belly) to downright grimy (burnt rubber/car tires).

Massive, rich and dense on the palate, its flavour just keeps coming in waves, unrelenting: burnt caramel, stewed currant and fig, black liquorice, charcoal, meatloaf, tar.  It is dark on dark on dark, supremely structured thanks to subtle yet mouth-coating tannin, clearly capable of aging for many more years but already trending away from freshness thanks to the extreme ripeness of its grapes.  I am now a wholehearted believer in Okanagan Syrah (which makes sense given how much geographic and geological similarity there is between the southern Okanagan and eastern Washington, my favourite Syrah spot on the planet).  This one stops just short of being overwhelming given how much is crammed into a condensed package; in a cool vintage the Syrah from these vineyards would be utterly monumental.  Elite potential here.  But I have to know, Burrowing Owl:  why is this Syrah in a Bordeaux bottle?

89+ points

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2014 Burrowing Owl Athene ($43)

Possibly the only proprietary blend that Burrowing Owl produces, the Athene is very nearly a 50/50 mix, with a touch over 50% Syrah and a touch under 50% Cabernet Sauvignon.  (As an aside, I wish more people made Cab/Syrah blends.  Everyone scrambles to make Bordeaux blends despite not being in Bordeaux, and Syrah can add a wildness and savouriness and excitement to the regal fruit of Cab that Merlot and Petit Verdot and the rest can’t hope to match.)  The two varietals are co-fermented as opposed to being vinified separately and then blended, which ties them seamlessly together and lends the resulting blend a lifted, elegant, aromatic touch it would not otherwise have.

Co-fermentation also assists with depth of colour, and this wine, which is basically a purple-black abyss, is a clear testament to that.  All of the Burrowing Owl tech sheets make efforts to emphasize a “dusty sage” aromatic character that they believe is common to many Okanagan reds, and this is the bottle in which that really comes out, as (before reading the winery’s own tasting notes) I smelled and wrote “dusty and herby, sage and rosemary and pepper”.  You win this round, Burrowing Owl taster.  These aromas are elevated by brilliant blackberry and blackcurrant and a beam of cardamom and cola that takes everything to the next level.  The dank, grimy, savoury flavours noted in the Syrah were nowhere to be found in this Syrah-based co-ferm, which is pretty and floral on the palate, by far the freshest and purest 2014 on offer, bursting with energy and bright blue and black fruit.  To test the power of co-fermentation, my tasting partner and I made a 50/50 mix of the Syrah above and the Cab below and tasted it side by side with the Athene; it did not remotely compare.  This is a revelation.

91+ points

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2013 Burrowing Owl Cabernet Sauvignon ($48)

The hardest test that a red-focused Okanagan winery usually has to face is varietal Cabernet Sauvignon.  This isn’t to say that wineries in the region should have to pump out Cab by rote; there are certainly many other red grapes that take more easily to the area.  I can count the number of credible 100% Cabs from the Okanagan that I’ve had on one hand — it’s a challenge so many try to face (presumably because most visitors to their tasting rooms look for that grape on the shelf) and so few conquer.  I am therefore both impressed and relieved to end this piece on a positive paragraph.

This is a legit Cab.  Aged for 22 months in 76% French / 24% Hungarian oak (note to Burrowing Owl:  I expect at least one other country’s barrels brought on line for next year), this still retains a fruit-laden core, pulsating with blackcurrant and black cherry interlaced with Cab hallmarks tobacco and eucalyptus and an intriguing salty/briny black olive note that made me sit up and take notice.  Smooth and rich on the palate, it delivered ripeness and consistent flavour throughout, mixing grape and currant fruit with pipe smoke, violets and dark chocolate oak in seamless fashion.  The price tag in Alberta is eye-catching, but the quality in the bottle does its best to live up to it.

90 points

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Cork Rating: 3/10 (With a winery name/symbol like this, you can do more graphically with your corks – stylized owl wing maybe?)

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