Wine Review: Black Market Wine Co. – Contraband Portfolio Tasting

15 11 2017

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

What do you do if you’re a busy Calgary-based professional with a hectic day job, multiple kids, a swath of family responsibilities, yet an ever-increasing burning passion for wine?  If you’re me, you start a small local blog and struggle to publish one post a week.  (Last post:  13 days ago.  Sorry guys.)  If you’re Rob Hammersley and Michelle Shewchuk, on the other hand, you pick up the hustle, go about 20 light-years further and start your own garagiste winery in the Okanagan on the side, while still juggling full-time careers, volunteer activities and parenthood.

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Branding majesty.

This cunning Calgary cabal has managed to work around their weekday gigs (Rob is in corporate finance; Michelle is a flight attendant) and their location in another province, forge relationships with local growers, learn the ropes of the winemaking business and come up with maybe the single best suite of branding for a winery anywhere in Canada, creating a bit of a cult following along the way.  Add in an early embrace of online sales and the Black Market Wine Company is quickly accelerating from illicit side dream to successful reality.

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I first came across Black Market a couple of years ago and was instantly drawn in by the Illuminati-meets-Ponzi-scheme labelling, looking like the back of the US dollar in some horrific alternate Dan Brown universe.  The striking images on the front labels draw people into the intentional web of secrecy and intrigue expressed in snippy verse on the back of each bottle, piquing curiosity and pulling people further into the glass for answers.  By then, you’re in the winery’s hands, waiting to be led where they want to take you.  It certainly does not hurt that the juice within does not disappoint (and that its creators are from my hometown), and I have followed their progress ever since that initial encounter.  This is the first time I have had an opportunity to taste through the entire Black Market portfolio, but not the last time I will be cracking these wines and letting the mystery wash over me.

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2016 Black Market Secret Society ($22 Cellar Door)

This was the first ever Black Market wine that I ever tried and is probably the one that flies off the shelves most quickly, in spite of the winery purposefully withholding the annually shifting blend of the white varietals inside, stating only:  “Trust Us.”  (Hint:  there are 3 of them, one of which makes up over half the blend.)  Who doesn’t trust the headless businessmen in power suits on the back label?  The Secret Society is described only as “Crisp – Dry – Aromatic”, but it’s truly powered by the last of these three, coming across beautifully floral and energetic on the nose, swirls of daisies and coriander backed up by mandarin orange, banana leaf and angel food cake.  The back-label claim to dryness may be a touch overstated, but while there is a whisper of residual sweetness (8.3 g/L, so just on the verge of off-dry) it is capably balanced by a tightrope of acid.  The wine’s light, playful body still somehow retains a roundness of texture, and its generous flavours of white peach, sweet peas (the flower, not the vegetable), lychee and mountain streams give it a joyous, utterly crushable profile.  The bottle disappears quickly.

87+ points

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2016 Black Market Collusion ($24 Cellar Door)

Collusion seems to be increasingly in the news these days, so Black Market seems to have landed on a winning formula for their white Bordeaux blend (even without the help of a special prosecutor), which is roughly three-quarters Sauvignon Blanc and one-quarter Semillon.  This is the second iteration of this wine; the winery shifted to a more northerly source and an earlier pick date for its Sauv Blanc this time around in order to maintain acidity and pump up the contrast with the barrel-aged Semillon.  It worked.  I smell both the Sauvignon Blanc and the (no new barrel) oak from the Semillon at the same time:  smoked wood and green apple, lime, gooseberry and hints of brioche.  The same ping-pong match takes place on the tastebuds, as dolce de leche hits alongside crystallized pineapple, fresh leaves beside racquetballs, orange zest with Kraft caramels, a constantly flipping juxtaposition.  The acid ramps up as compared to the prior wine, and the finish shifts from crisp austerity to vanillin luxury in the blink of an eye.  I think white Bordeaux blends are officially a thing in the Okanagan.

88+ points

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2016 Black Market Unsanctioned Series Semillon ($26 Cellar Door)

Sorry, what?  Single-varietal Okanagan Semillon?  In!  This appears to have been a wine that was not initially planned, but when the 2016 wines were first made, before the Collusion blend was created, Rob and Michelle felt that the Semillon was so strong that at least a portion of it deserved to stand on its own as a special release.  Thus was born the Unsanctioned Series, a limited-production (50 cases!!), special-edition series of bottlings showcasing Black Market’s own black market for its rarest goods.  It actually is almost a true black market in Alberta:  there’s not enough of the wine for it to be sold retail or offered to restaurants, so if you want some, you can only find it here, on Black Market’s back alley/website.  And you should.

This is impressively expressive for a young Semillon, its vibrant lemon colour opening into attention-grabbing aromas of toasty grilled citrus, breath mints, Sultanas crackers (hopefully I’m not the only one who remembers these) and icicles.  Rich and round yet still linear, it is a sensory marvel that you feel more than taste.  The flavours of honeydew, vanilla bean, white grape and even steamed milk are there, but the story is the biting yet voluptuous powdery texture, aided by regular batonnage but no malolactic fermentation, at once prim but somewhat outrageous, riding electric currents of acidity into an extended finish.  I am formally sanctioning the Unsanctioned Series.

90 points

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2016 Black Market Omertà Rosé ($22 Cellar Door)

This is the inaugural pink wine from the Black Market Wine Company, made entirely from 100% Pinot Noir grapes that were treated with extreme delicacy after harvest, whose juice was allowed to sit in contact with its skins for exactly 7 hours before pressing.  It is named after the Mafia-based code of silence that forbids revealing any incriminating evidence on co-conspirators, as best summarized in the ever-dramatized warning:  “Don’t squeal”.  Perhaps out of fear of the implied threat that carries, but mostly because I’m a little tired of near-colourless bland rosé, I LOVE the colour on this wine, a deep wild salmon flecked with orange.  It carries the same level of boldness into a rich powerful body packed with a mix of the confectionary and the primary:  icing sugar, sweet tea and banana Runts, toned down by pure strawberry and cherry compote, relievingly edging towards bitter rhubarb on the finish.  The combination is tasty but could be well-served by a touch more restraint in future years.

87 points

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2015 Black Market Syrah ($30 Cellar Door)

I am on a remarkable run of Can-Con Syrah right now that I hope never ends — I have seen the light on the potential of this varietal in BC in multiple different expressions over the past half-year or so, and this continues the trend, in expansive form.  This is a BIG wine:  15.3% alcohol, massively powerful, yet held back from being over the top, in part due to the restraint in the use of new oak (down to about 35%, all larger barrels, this vintage).  There is 5% Viognier co-fermented into the mix, but its aromatic expression is all Syrah and largely savoury, with prominent funky notes of beef jerky, forest floor, short ribs, dried herbs, hot charcoal and blood enveloping a core of Dr. Pepper-laced dark fruit.  This still seems like it needs a bit more time to integrate, but I enjoy the taste contrast of the primacy of the bright red and blue fruit and the wicked savoury edge of burnt cedar, tar, olives, sandpaper and chocolate fudge.  You name an umami flavour and you can probably find it here.  The alcohol is noticeably well-contained for its potency, but the aromatic/textural Viognier effect may be washed out slightly by the level of ripeness.  Far too easy to keep coming back to the glass…

89 points

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2015 Black Market The Syndicate ($30 Cellar Door)

We end with what might be a bit of a scoop, as I’m reasonably sure this latest edition of Black Market’s flagship Bordeaux blend hasn’t yet been released — the 2014 vintage is in the process of selling out as we speak.  The ’15 is a relatively even split of 32% Merlot, 28% Cabernet Franc, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon and 16% Petit Verdot harvested from Oliver and Osoyoos vineyards and then vinified and matured separately, with an additional aging period after blending to help meld the finished product together.  Look for this bottle to go live before the holidays!  For me it was the class of this tasting, from the elegant deep purple-ruby colour to the layered notes of blackberry, dark chocolate, grape, pepper, pavement, tobacco and smoke.  The wine sits with deft yet impressive weight on the tongue, part rich dark fruit, part tannic grit, bringing a level of structure I was craving and suggesting a fairly long life ahead.  A fine effort from a young winery that I feel is just warming up.  Here’s to the growth of the local Black Market.

90+ points

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Stelvin/Cork Rating:  9/10 and 7/10 respectively (LOVE that all-seeing eye.

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