PnP Panel Tasting: Weird Canada – BC Carmenere Supremacy (Plus Special Guests)

21 09 2019

By Peter Vetsch & Raymond Lamontagne

It all started with Carmenere.  It snowballed from there.

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Sometime last year we became aware that there was at least one winery growing and making Carmenere in the Okanagan.  (I am now aware that this has been the case since at least 2005, but allow me my joy of discovery nonetheless.)  Then we were told of another.  And then another.  Then we decided, emphatically though without particular reason, that we MUST gather and taste all of these Canadian Carmeneres, even though we had no real plan for achieving this goal — it will not surprise you to learn that these idiosyncratic bottles are small-production, not in the Alberta market and often produced for winery club members only.  Then one such winery club member, who I had never previously met, happened to be IN the Okanagan while chatting with us about this now-fanatical obsession and picked up a couple of the Carms for us, along with some of the other weird vinous glory you will see below.  Then another local benefactor, who I had also never met, traded us the final piece of our Carmenere puzzle from her cellar.  Thanks to the kindness of electronic friends, we now had ourselves a proper comparative tasting, an honest-to-goodness BC Carmenere showdown.  The first ever?  I can hardly believe it myself.

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The Carm contenders:  Black Hills Estate Winery, which normally plays it fairly strait-laced but which allowed itself a foray into the wacky with this Club-only offering; Moon Curser Vineyards, whose entire portfolio is dedicated to oddities like this which fall outside of the Canadian mainstream (stay tuned for a future Panel Tasting when we dive into their Touriga Nacional and Dolcetto, among others); and Lariana Cellars, which has made Carmenere its signature red and a focal point of its streamlined offerings.  In addition to the main event wines, we couldn’t help but test-drive some other intriguing bottles from these producers, as well as a…Canadian Brunello?  Frankly, if you start a tasting premise at “Canadian Carmenere”, why stop there?  Tyler, Ray and I were born for this.  Bring it on.

THE UNDERCARD:  WEIRD WHITES

As such endeavours tend to do, this tasting idea rapidly mutated from a Carm comparative to a hydra of vinous enthusiasm whose panoply of heads together sung the praises of “Weird Canada”. How many oddball varietals could we corral and tame? Presumably when you mentally conjure up the concept of “Canadian wine” (or even more specifically “BC wine”), you do not immediately think of Arneis…or Sangiovese…or Tannat?! Digging a little deeper, however, confirms that the Okanagan Valley is riddled with rarities, obscurities of mixed reputation retaining the tiniest toehold and that might otherwise go extinct (e.g. Siegfried), as well as venerable grapes that are well-entrenched in other regions but looking to find fame and fortune in a new land. We begin with Arneis.

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2017 Moon Curser Arneis (~$23 cellar door)

Moon Curser’s Chris Tolley celebrates the diverse array of varietals that flourish in the Okanagan. Although he did not wake up one morning and decide to be the glowing champion of this diversity, things have nevertheless played out that way. Chris is legitimately interested in discovering if the valley can do one of these varietals better than anywhere else in the world, and fortunately we get to taste the fruits of his labour.  Arneis itself is special to Chris, reflective of his northern Italian roots. The grape hails from Piedmont and the name means “little rascal”, which references a disease-prone constitution and poor irregular yields that are challenging to work with in the winery. Once merely a few rows of vines in the Langhe, you may not know that Arneis became the most popular dry white wine in Italy (!) in the 1980s. The fact that most of this was rather neutral everyday tipple obscured the fact that the high-sugar, relatively low-acid Arneis does respond to site. Even more crucial are picking times. Unlike the previous one, the 2017 vintage of Arneis in the Okanagan ripened quite late, in November, causing Chris to lament that if every varietal caused him this much trouble, he’d consider leaving the business.

It is almost as if Chris’ pain manifests in the wine, which translates as a tense powdery monolith run through with copper wiring and the odd craggy prominence of eroding jagged marble. There is far more structure than expected, with the palate starting to desiccate a little…hang on though. The nose tantalizes with floral aromas of apple blossom and gardenia, these waifs drifting over a more primal mix of chlorophyll gum, sweet pea pods, white pepper, Epsom salts, and sweaty sauna. These salty mineral notes never completely overtake the green ones, with the midpalate serving up a near-barren melange of Granny Smith apples (particularly the peels), lemon-lime Gatorade, and a dash or two of bitter almond extract. The combination of a paradoxical “fresh yet dank” nose and less than morish palate keep one sipping, although we are having trouble agreeing with the Moon Curser assessment that this is a “patio wine”. This hurts too good to be offered up for purely casual purposes.

Peter: 87 points        Raymond: 88+ points        Tyler: 88 points

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Stelvin Ratings:  8.5/10 & 7/10 (Solid graphics all around, but full chef’s kiss to the Moon Curser black-on-gold colour profile.)

2017 Lariana Viognier (~$26 cellar door)

Compared to the chimera that is Moon Curser, Lariana Cellars plays it pretty straight —  if you can call making Carmenere a winery-identifying varietal “straight”, that is. A garage-style winery coupled with a 5-acre vineyard, only three grapes live here, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Viognier rounding out the portfolio. It is probably no longer tenable to deem Viognier “Weird Canada”, given the recent proliferation of BC examples, but we had to try it alongside the Carmenere regardless.  At its best, Viognier is fat, plush, floral, and ultra-fruity, a tangerine dream for white wine drinkers of a hedonistic bent. We were curious about what this black grape specialist does with this Old World legend turned party animal. Lariana does 75% of its Viognier fermentation and aging in concrete, with the rest split between a single French oak barrel and stainless steel. The idea here is to yield something weighty yet not unduly rich or fat.

Mission accomplished. This has some heft but balances adroitly on a tightrope of perky acidity (for the notoriously low-acid Viognier, this is noteworthy) and lukewarm alcohol. The nose pops with varietally correct navel oranges and tangerines, yellow peaches, honeysuckle, and calamine lotion, with all these disparate fingers closing together to form a velvety fist of key lime pie and orange creamsicle encrusted with coriander seeds. A reasonably lingering finish flashes a little vitamin tablet minerality. Canadian Condrieu? Not quite, and such a thing will never exist… but there’s a subtle nod or two in that direction, and who doesn’t like a party with a little depth?

Peter: 89+ points        Raymond: 89+ points        Tyler: 89 points

THE MAIN EVENT:  CANADIAN CARMENERE CHAMPIONSHIP

Carmenere is the sixth red grape of Bordeaux, but is not generally so known because it barely exists in its ancestral homeland anymore – when the louse phylloxera ravaged the vineyards of Bordeaux in the 19th century, Carmenere was hit particularly hard and was thought by many to be wiped out entirely.  Instead, it emerged many years later…in Chile, where it had mistakenly been brought over as vine cuttings by settlers who thought it was Merlot.  (Spoiler: it’s not.)  Given Chile’s drier climate (and, of course, the absence of vine-eating insect plagues), Carmenere flourished there to the point where it is now basically the country’s national grape, the one through whom its viticultural identity most runs.  It is found in very few other places in the world, at least not in numbers…and yet it exists in at least three different spots in the Okanagan, enough to headline an epic battle for survival.  Let’s begin with the pioneer.

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2014 Black Hills Carmenere (~$50 cellar door)

Believe it or not, this is the TENTH anniversary edition of Black Hills’ foray into the vinous wilderness with Carmenere.  As of its inaugural 2005 vintage, Black Hills was proclaiming that it was “the only winery in Canada producing this varietal on its own”.  I can believe it.  Weirdly, while the BH website is a treasure trove of information about all of its past-vintage Carmeneres, there is a strange 2014-shaped hole where this bottle should be.  Based on the info from all other vintages, however, some clear patterns emerge:  Black Hills prefers its Carmenere to be fairly low alcohol (normally 13% ABV or less, which seems like a wildly dangerous idea for a grape best known as having a green flavour profile to begin with), aged in barrels (1/3 new) for less than a year, and unabashedly itself in flavour.  Sourced from estate vineyards in Oliver, it has known heat while ripening, but at 12.9% has obviously been picked before things could get out of hand.

This is a visual black hole, a yawning dark abyss of a colour profile, where redness goes to die.  It is emphatically Carmenere from the first intake of breath, with creeping aromas of roasted green pepper, black plums, matchsticks, tar and black Jujubes.  Additional investigation pulls out charcoal, Swiss chard, beef stew and cardamom.  I have to remind myself to stop smelling and actually drink.  The fleshy rounded palate embraces the tongue, the softer acid ensuring a velvety smooth mouthfeel, the limited tannin causing this pillowy softness to extend through a finish that starts to threaten with flatness before all is said and done.  How something under 13% alcohol could have such a broad, powerful presence is utterly beyond me.  It embraces its varietal characteristics wholesale, more than its Carmenere competitors, ending off with a flourish of seaweed, Coke Classic and silver jawbreakers.  I am confused and delighted.  The panel’s collective victor, and my personal winner as well.

Peter: 91 points        Raymond: 89+ points        Tyler: 89+ points

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Cork/Stelvin Ratings, L to R:  5/10, 8.5/10, 3/10 (Black Hills cork impressively hefty but seeping hard; Lariana needs some length and visuals to compete.)

2016 Moon Curser Carmenere (~$40 cellar door)

Moon Curser has been making Carmenere since 2011 and has been championing lesser-known grapes since well before that (though presumably the Arneis writeup above has already confirmed that concept!).  The 2016 clocks in at nearly a full point higher in ABV than the Black Hills, a still-measured 13.8% given its Osoyoos roots, and pairs this with a Rocks District-like pH of nearly 4.0 — is this a Carmenere thing?  I am expecting another pyrazene-tinged Barry White sultry adventure before I even pour, but can’t help but notice that I can actually spot SOME light through this dark, ragingly purple liquid in the glass, perhaps suggestive of a lighter-density approach to this moody, concentrated grape.

And this (relative) lightness shines through immediately, as the Moon Curser appears fresher, brighter, redder-fruited and riper than its more experienced compatriot, pink peppercorns streaking through a halo of pure raspberry and cherry on the nose.  Despite a plush presence it is deft and agile on its feet, and it feels more alive than the other Carm contestants due to the presence of somehow-vivid acidity, but this liveliness and fruity primacy also makes it the least Carmenere-identifiable of the three wines, at least until the grape’s characteristic greenness tentatively emerges on the back end of the palate, dusty oregano and sage and bitter leaves after you swallow.  A well-made and enjoyable wine, but if you’re going to the trouble of planting and making Carmenere, you might as well go whole hog.

Peter: 88+ points        Raymond: 89- points        Tyler: 90 points

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2015 Lariana Carmenere (~$50 cellar door)

Three different Canadian Carmeneres, all bought at the same time — but three different vintages.  Slotting between the 2014 Black Hills and the 2016 Moon Curser is the 2015 Lariana Cellars Carmenere, whose predilection towards the grape may be partly explained by past history.  Lariana is the last of the three entrants to join the Okanagan Carmenere arms race (I believe their first vintage of Carm released was the 2013), but its inspiration may have come from the initiator of the trend:  Lariana’s consulting winemaker is Senka Tennant, more recently known as the owner and winemaker at Terravista Vineyards, but the original owner of…Black Hills, along with her husband Bob.  Carmenere stays with you, obviously.  Lariana is based about as close as you can get to the US border without being Washingtonian, and it sources its Carmenere from 100% estate fruit that sees 18 months in 35% new, mostly French oak before bottling.

In many ways, the Lariana Carm comes across as a hybrid of the prior two, its colour wholly opaque but still powerfully purple instead of black, its flavours primal and fruity (black fruits this time, sweet blackberry compote along with dried fig and date) but slowly yet inexorably pervaded by that black bean/bay leaf Essence of Carmenere that makes the grape what it is.  Molasses, Folgers instant coffee, licorice pipes and pavement (black, black, black and black) are lightened by cardamom and step-on-the-gas primacy, but the full symphony of flavours is gone just as it is getting revved up, hinting at but not fully displaying the panoply of wacky wonder to come.  Lariana is going somewhere, and if this is its third-ever Carmenere it should keep up the fight, as I suspect future vintages will see it all the way through, but for now it cannot quite dethrone the champ.

Peter: 89+ points        Raymond: 89 points        Tyler: 88+ points

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THE AFTERCARD:  ROLODEX REDS

With the Canadian Carmenere Championship in the books and a clear winner crowned after a gritty contest, we looped back to a few additional reds to bookend our first “Weird Canada” foray (but assuredly not our last — if any of you out there have Weird Canada ideas, we’re all ears). We saved the most tannic for last.

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2014 Moon Curser Tannat (~$40 cellar door)

Is there a grape varietal that sounds less likely to grow well in Canada than Tannat?  This swarthy grape hails from the Basque-dominated regions in France near the Pyrenees, and it’s best known in Madiran, where it yields rustic, earthy reds notable for their high tannin content. Indeed, Tannat is one of the most tannic of all varietals (hence the name), and is also claimed to be the highest in health-enhancing antioxidant compounds (polyphenols, which give wine its colour). The grape is now most prominent in — believe it or not — Uruguay, where it is deemed the “national variety”, rather like Carmenere in Chile.  Chris Tolley at Moon Curser once again faced challenges with this grape, this time in the form of stuck fermentations. He persevered and now makes a varietal Tannat that is largely intended to satisfy the curiosity of tasting room visitors, as he uses most of his Tannat in Syrah-dominant blends. Afterthought or no, he unabashedly claims to make a varietal Tannat that is better than those of most places above that focus on the grape.

This wine is redolent with all kinds of things burnt and fruity, with these two elements yoked to a less prominent third dimension of curious medicinal minerality: beef roast ends, dark roast coffee, salted Dutch black liquorice, Sharpie marker, scorched raspberries, dried blueberries, Pepto Bismol/purple chalk, black plums just starting to prune, singed marshmallow, tree bark, and melted G.I. Joe figurines. This falls somewhere between debauchery by the campfire and an old patent medicine that was a bit too much to take even in 1910. The individual aromas aromas are certainly interesting and even compelling at times, but the bristly tannins almost work too hard to provide the structure and synergy needed to knit this together into something truly cohesive. An intriguing experiment, but still a work in progress.

Peter: 86+ points        Raymond: 88 points        Tyler: 87 points

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Cork/Stelvin Ratings:  5.5/10 & 8.5/10 (Somebody at La Stella needs to tell me what the code on the bottom of its cork means.  And add a star or two to the cork visuals.)

2014 La Stella Arioso Sangiovese Grosso (~$60 cellar door)

“Sangiovese Grosso” is historically associated with the clone of Sangiovese grape grown in Montalcino and made into the famed wines of Brunello.  However, it turns out that Grosso is in fact a family of clones, and the “Sangio Grosso” term itself is outdated as a specific classification of Brunello grapes, according to Italian viticultural guru Ian D’Agata.  That said, studies have revealed that MOST of the Sangiovese clones grown across the various prime regions of Montalcino, Tuscany, and Romagna are “Grosso” variants, with a much smaller group of clones forming another “Piccolo” cluster (also found in Montalcino!). La Stella, known for using Sangiovese in its blends, offers this varietal bottling as a Wine Club exclusive, claiming that the Sangiovese used here does indeed hail from a Brunello clone. This 2014 marks the second vintage of this release, and it was a year that helped Sangiovese feel quite at home in very warm daytime temperatures, although fortunately alcohol levels were held in check by a cooler September.

The nose of this polished sip does indeed deliver some varietal character, strawberry and raspberry fruit, and perhaps a little blueberry as well, drizzled with smoky pomegranate molasses. There are slight accents of lilac and rosemary. Really though, this is a tale of ripe Okanagan fruit, far more jammy than a proper Brunello would or could (or should?) be, with a vanilla note combining with said fruit to yield a pleasing creaminess best likened to strawberry astronaut ice cream or the pink layer of a Neapolitan taffy lollipop. The acidity does save this from some sort of home-canned-preserves oblivion, and the wine manages to yield a varietal rendition that winks just a wee bit of sun-dried tomato towards the finish, a fitting goodbye to what was a glorious exploration of the vast viticultural medley that our home and native land has to offer. Here’s to more Weird Canada.

Peter: 87+ points        Raymond: 87+ points        Tyler: 88 points

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