Calgary Wine Life: Checkmate Chardonnay Global Challenge @ Sub Rosa

6 06 2017
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Anthony Gismondi.

Checkmate Artisanal Winery has no shortage of vision or ambition.  It is both a newcomer to the Okanagan wine scene and the oldest of old hands, founded by Mission Hill proprietor Anthony von Mandl after his purchase of a pre-existing winery (Antelope Ridge, just west of Oliver) and some of its vineyards back in 2012.  Thanks in part to von Mandl’s existing land holdings, Checkmate began its life with elite sources of fruit from five top-tier vineyard parcels, the youngest of which is just shy of 20 years old and the oldest of which are some of the most senior in the country.  The vineyards scatter across the southern Okanagan:  there are two near the winery on the Okanagan’s first-ever formal sub-appellation, the Golden Mile Bench, two across the highway to the east on the neighbouring Black Sage Bench, and one literally 30 feet from the Canada/US border southeast of Osoyoos.  The fruit they produce is reflective of Checkmate’s quality vision and laser focus:  the winery makes SIX different Chardonnays and FOUR separate Merlots, and nothing else.  Their price is reflective of von Mandl’s burning ambition to elevate Canadian wine:  the Chardonnays range from $80 to $125 a bottle and the Merlots all clock in at $85.  It is probably safe to say that this country hasn’t yet seen a winery like this.

At the controls of this super-premium venture is winemaker and general manager Phil McGahan, who began his working life as a lawyer (I knew I liked him when I met him for some reason) and then switched gears and did winemaking stints in Australia’s Hunter Valley and for Sonoma cult Pinot and Chardonnay producer Williams Selyem before being lured north by Checkmate’s potential and master plan.  If your first reaction to the idea of a winemaker leaving California for Canada is surprise (or disbelief), McGahan went to great lengths to point to the Okanagan’s location vis-a-vis southern California as a selling feature:  with world temperatures rising in past decades, he saw Canada as being well-placed as a grape-growing region going forward, perhaps even better than existing warmer-climate regions that may soon find themselves outside of the ideal range for viticulture.  The Okanagan’s combination of (very) long summer days, extensive sunlight and substantial diurnal temperature shifts are proving increasingly attractive to grapes now tended with more careful farming practices, all of which makes up for the area’s shorter growing season.

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The Checkmate wines are created with a quality focus from start to finish, consistent with the raison d’être of the winery.  The Chardonnay grapes are handpicked starting at 3:00 a.m., when it’s cooler, and the fruit is then stored in a cool room at 4 degrees Celsius for 24 hours before being hand-sorted and gently whole-bunch pressed.  Long and slow ferments ensue, mostly with wild yeasts to tease out additional flavours, after which the wines spend 16 months in barrel for better oak integration, with lees stirring towards the end before the Chardonnay is bottled unfined and unfiltered.  All six Chardonnays are made in the same fashion, leaving any distinctions or divergences in their flavour profile to be explained by the story of their site.

So how do you convince the buying public that not just one but SIX Okanagan Chardonnays are worth $80 or more a bottle, and that what is coming out of British Columbia currently can suit up with the best in the world?  You line them up with the world, don’t tell anyone which is which, and let the public see for itself.  That’s what happened this week in the James Bond villain subterranean lair that is Sub Rosa, the quasi-secret underground speakeasy beneath The Guild restaurant on Stephen Avenue, where Canadian wine luminary Anthony Gismondi and winemaker Phil McGahan led a curious crowd through a Judgment-of-Paris style blind tasting of ten Chardonnays, all at similar price points, six of which were Checkmate’s new 2014 releases and four of which were various international heavy hitters.  We had 30 panicky minutes to taste through the full set of wines and rank our favourites, after which each wine’s identity was revealed.  What did this experiment say about the present and future of cult, super-premium, site-specific Canadian Chardonnay?  Read on.

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Wine #1

Each of these tasting notes was scribbled in the three minutes per wine that we had to fully assess, evaluate and rank them, so if they come across as scattered, they definitely are.  The introduction to this grand tasting competition immediately caught my attention with a gorgeous rich nose of butterscotch, burnt sugar, white peach, golden pear and cedar, the epitome of oaked Chardonnay.  Extraordinarily lush and spicy on the attack, it was then almost immediately set upon by lashings of acid and scrubby oak tannin.  There is remarkable depth here, but it’s still so young, the wood currently fairly prominent but the promise evident in the extremely long finish.  Great wine, but needs time.

92-93 points (Rank:  4th out of 10)

THE REVEAL:  2014 Checkmate Capture Chardonnay ($90) – This wine is 100% sourced from the Border Vista Vineyard, ten steps from the United States.  Despite an alcohol level of 14.5%, its pH remains 3.20.  Welcome to Canada.

Wine #2

To say this wine was less overtly pleasant than the first would be an understatement.  Green herb, oatmeal and pistachios joined an almost sherried briny salinity on a questionable nose; hard toffee Hallowe’en candy, sweat, tart fruit and rubber bands joined the party on the palate.  Significantly less varietal typicity, and suffering from the effects of oxidation.  It seemed like there had been something there, once.

85-86- points (Rank:  10th out of 10)

THE REVEAL:  2013 Chateau de la Maltroye Chassagne-Montrachet “Clos du Chateau” 1er Cru ($112) – A classic from white Burgundy, unfortunately not showing properly.

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Wine #3

Brûlée, apricot, rock salt and hot rocks – not a bad start.  This is round and fleshed out, definitely New World in feel, with plenty of warm oak surrounding bountiful flavours of coconut, granite, banana, green herbs and spice.  It bounces merrily around the tastebuds and is held short of outright opulence by surprisingly potent acidity.  Friendly but not lighthearted, its approachability fronting serious depth.

91-92+ points (Rank:  5th out of 10)

THE REVEAL:  2014 Checkmate Queen Taken Chardonnay ($125) – The most expensive wine in the Checkmate portfolio, white or red, the Queen Taken is single-vineyard wine from the winery’s coolest site, the 40+ year-old Deklava Vineyard on the Golden Mile Bench.  Yum.

Wine #4

A different angle to Chardonnay, this starts flinty and smoky, with a bit of reductive funk initially, blowing off to reveal pristine lemon-lime and honeycomb aromas.  Agile and springy on the tongue, the wine seems to have boundless energy yet holds together effortlessly, a whirling mix of green (honeydew, kiwi, celery salt) circling a heart of tangerine.  A perfect marriage of fruit purity and oaky creaminess, with a texture to die for and a timeless finish.

93-94+ points (Rank:  1st out of 10)

THE REVEAL:  2014 Wayfarer “Wayfarer Vineyard” Chardonnay ($130) – From Fort Ross-Seaview in Sonoma County, this was the priciest wine in the tasting and was in fine form, with significantly more life and jump than most California Chardonnays.

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Wine #5

Another wine, another expression, this one delicate, sweet and floral, rosewater tinged with vanilla bean.  It comes across a bit shy and less intense in flavour (though perhaps only in comparison to the whirling dervish that came before); there’s a note of cautious reluctance at the moment to the cantaloupe, red apple and white flowers.  It has creamy heft but yet seems to float on the tongue, guided with a feather’s touch to a gentle finish.

89-90 points (Rank:  9th out of 10)

THE REVEAL:  2014 Checkmate Little Pawn Chardonnay ($110) – Another single-vineyard offering, this time from the Barn Vineyard on the Black Sage Bench.  Perhaps a classic example of how wines of delicate restraint don’t tend to leap to the forefront in a large comparative tasting, but still a beautiful wine.

Wine #6

A tale of two wines:  reticent and mineral in aromatic impression, broadening and warming on the palate thanks to a remarkable oily, hefty mouthfeel that just blankets the tongue, carrying with it peach, guava, popcorn, cinnamon sticks, rainwater and classically balanced vanilla oak.  This is a textural marvel.

90-91 points (Rank:  7th out of 10)

THE REVEAL:  2014 Checkmate Knight’s Challenge Chardonnay ($85) – This is the Little Pawn’s neighbour, planted right next door in the Black Sage Bench at the Sunset Vineyard.  100% wild ferment, and a wine that will be better next year than it is now.

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Phil McGahan, Checkmate winemaker.

Wine #7

Just ALIVE, and totally different from anything that came before, smelling of blackcurrant, Wine Gums and black jujubes along with smoke and char.  It does not once take its foot off the gas, attacking the palate with ripping acid, a pulsing essence of currant and anise backed by tight toasty oak that does not mute or muffle any of the other flavours.  A dominant showcase of a unique take on Chardonnay.

93-94 points (Rank:  2nd out of 10)

THE REVEAL:  2014 Tolpuddle Vineyard Chardonnay ($78) – Both the cheapest wine in the competition and from the most surprising location:  Tasmania!  I did not spend my 3 minutes per wine guessing which bottles were and were not from BC, but this instantly seemed like an outlier, which may be partly what I found so enjoyable about it.  A stone cold killer.

Wine #8

And we’re back to classically styled Chard, emitting layer after layer of soft-edged aromas, lemon curd and vanilla extract, toast and brioche, almond, lime and even chlorine.  This goes for complexity rather than overt pleasure on the palate, its parchment, pear, bitter orange and celery notes and singing acid making the tongue practically vibrate as you swallow, the extended finish only just enough time to let you contemplate what you just experienced.  Eye-opening.

90-91+ points (Rank:  6th out of 10)

THE REVEAL:  2014 Checkmate Fool’s Mate Chardonnay ($80) – I’m not sure I can call an $80 bottle Checkmate’s entry-level Chardonnay, but it is the least expensive of the lineup and a blend of all five estate vineyards.  Really impressive showing.

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Wine #9

This was a challenging wine to taste so late into a power tasting, all smoky and closed, charred and reductive, smelling of matchsticks and lemon zest and tasting of dill, copper, grapefruit and burnt toast.  The barrel time on this Chardonnay was evident, but it came across almost racy in spite of it, its spirited acid trying to inject some freshness into a tightly wound and woodsy mix.  Hard to peg right now.

89-90 points (Rank:  8th out of 10)

THE REVEAL:  2014 Domaine Latour-Giraud Meursault “Cuvee Charles Maxime” ($104) – A happily non-oxidized white Burgundy!  Meursaults can often be broad, powerful and friendly, but this one was not in that place this week.

Wine #10

The home stretch!  After the somewhat angry nature of the last wine, this one got things back in a pleasant groove, with less effusive but nicely focused aromas of green apple, Asian pear, clove and seawater lilting out of the glass.  It was another instant energy wine, charging onto the tastebuds immediately with an acid-driven attack of key lime, lemon meringue, burnt vanilla and brioche.  There is no break in the action — this wine just doesn’t let up at any point, powered by some inner drive.  After so many wines with so many similar flavour profiles, it’s the personality of this Chardonnay rather than its specific flavours that still make it stand out in my memory.  A stunner.

92-93+ points (Rank:  3rd out of 10)

THE REVEAL:  2014 Checkmate The Attack Chardonnay ($115) – What a wine.  This is a blend of grapes from the Barn (Black Sage) and Border Vista (almost in the US) Vineyards and is a racehorse in a glass.  

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Parting Thoughts

My top 4 wines in this tasting all scored within 2 points of each other; my top 5 wines were Sonoma/Tasmania/Checkmate/Checkmate/Checkmate.  To me the overall takeaway isn’t in the specific ranking, but in the fact that a group of Okanagan Chardonnays lined up blind with a variety of $80-$130 top-level Chardonnays from California, Burgundy and Australia and easily held their ground without batting an eye; there is no better justification for Checkmate Winery’s vision, and no better fuel for their ambition, than that.  Can a Canadian Chardonnay succeed at this price point?  It already has.

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