Volcanic Hills I: Molten Whites

9 10 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

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

It’s days like today when I truly value my connection with wine, fermented grape juice yet so very much more. You know, the sort of day where everything hits the skids, and wine is there at the end of it to provide an affirmation of the pleasurable things, to stimulate intellectual curiosity, and to infuse existence with a certain beauty that works to counterbalance any ugliness that cannot help but seep in around the edges of even the best-curated life. White wine is where it all started for me. At its best it is sharp and crystalline yet hedonistically fruity, linear yet complex, tart yet comforting. My first wine that I actually cared to attend to – you know, I am drinking wine and I’m actually going to notice that it’s wine! – was a Canadian Gewürztraminer. I won’t say which one. It was delicious back at that juncture, but at this point leaves me wanting on those rare occasions when I loop back to it. Nevertheless, I still seek out all things Gewürztraminer in this country, and am rewarded every so often with beacons of surprising revelation. It just so happens that the Volcanic Hills Estate Winery has made something of a specialty of this perfumed grape, offering an entry-level multi-vineyard blend, a single vineyard offering, a late harvest dessert wine, and even a sparkling Gewürz. They also offer two takes on Viognier, another notoriously perfumed fruit bomb currently making a name for itself in the Okanagan. I may be just the Canadian wine writer to guide our loyal readers through this particular romp.

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The Volcanic Hills Estate Winery is operated by Sarwan Gidda and his son Bobby, and is now into its 11th year of operations. Sarwan, born in India, founded the Mt. Boucherie Estate Winery in 2000 with his two brothers. According to Noel Gallagher, “Everyone knows that if you’ve got a brother, you’re going to fight.” Sure enough, Sarwan departed the partnership to start Volnanic Hills in 2008, with Bobby designing the layout of the geothermally heated and cooled winery. The winery itself is situated on the southeastern slope of Mt. Boucherie, which most agree is a 60 million year-old dormant volcano. The Okanagan’s Mt. Etna? I’m not sure, but according to the Giddas, the 70 or so acres of estate vineyards benefit from this rich volcanic heritage. Many swear that you can taste such soils in the finished wines. My own experience with certain Old World whites does corroborate this, even if the mechanisms involved remain poorly understood. The Giddas trust winemaker Daniel Bontorin, who trained locally in the Okanagan, to create complex yet affordable wines from estate grown grapes as well as the produce of various contract growers. Let’s check in on the whites.

2016 Volcanic Hills Viognier / 2016 Volcanic Hills Reserve Viognier (~$22/$27 cellar door)

We begin with two Viogniers, in what should make for a fun side-by-side tasting. Although they hail from different regions and have rather distinct specific aromas, Viognier and Gewürztraminer share a number of features, including a propensity for yielding highly aromatic wines relatively low in acid yet high in alcohol.  They tend to be lush, soft, assertive on the palate, and generally a pleasure to drink if the grower and winemaker can keep a watchful eye on balancing the aromas with the wine’s structural characteristics. Given their successful history with Gewürztraminer, it is not surprising that Volcanic Hills has made Viognier the most recent addition to its wine roster. Described on the winery website generically as being “very pretty and very tasty”, the entry-level Viognier enjoyed a rather cool 16 degrees C fermentation in 100% stainless steel tanks, with 100% Viognier grapes sourced from two 9 year old vineyards in Oliver and Osoyoos whose soils ranged from stony gravel to sandy loam. The Reserve, interestingly enough, is 5% Chardonnay, with the 95% Viognier component sourced from the same two sites as the non-reserve. 25% of the wine was fermented in stainless steel while 75% was fermented in medium toast new French oak barrels for three months.

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On the nose the stainless-only offering is all orange Creamsicle, apricot gummy candy, honeysuckle, mango fruit leather, gardenia and orange blossom… a stroll through a mountain meadow of wildflowers and onward into a peach orchard that grades into climes more tropical, all with a lemon-lime soda in hand. The lemon and lime pith continue to echo on the palate, which is built up with juicy Bartlett pears, pineapple chunks, and cantaloupe followed by a deep dive into Del Monte. On the whole, the aromas trend cool-climate Viognier (navel orange, apricot) while the palate flashes warmer (mango, papaya, pineapple). Carefree and fresh but carrying a little weight around the mid-section, the total package ultimately swings towards the flashy and buoyant rather than the cloying and oily, to the wine’s strong benefit — I particularly appreciate the above-average acidity. Viognier isn’t always easy to calibrate, but this effortlessly walks that tightrope.

89 points

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No discernable colour difference!

I move over to the Reserve and receive an immediate greeting of vanilla bean, struck match, creosote, and silicon carbide sandpaper. I blind my partner on these two wines and she picks out the oaked one without effort. That’s not the volcanic earth you are smelling, I assure you. This is sturdier than its counterpart, the wood serving to round out and bulk up the tropical fruits. Is smoky limeade a thing? It is now. I also get a hefty dose of burnt almonds, and white pepper with a pat of brown butter, laced with a few incongruently delicate notes of chamomile and starfruit. That noteworthy acidity from this lot of Viognier grapes surges away underneath. This is a top-heavy muscular white, not entirely sure-footed, somehow feeling like it could topple over if it bends the wrong way. In contrast to a rather neutral “blank canvas” of a grape like Chardonnay, barrel fermentation can do violence to some of Viognier’s perkier aromas. Although not overbearing, here the oak does cast a bit of a dark shroud over the flamboyant exuberance.

87+ points

2017 Volcanic Hills Magma White (~$17 cellar door)

Every Okanagan winery needs a general purpose white blend, or so it seems. The 2017 edition of the “Magma White” is 48% Pinot Gris, 23% Viognier, 21% Gewürztraminer, and 8% Chardonnay, a whimsical attempt to capture the best of both white winemaking worlds: aroma and body.

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Is that a whiff of burnt straw? Maybe. More clear is a Granny Smith apple bite that runs front to back, not precisely what this blend leads me to expect. Then again, Pinot Gris in the Okanagan does not always display a consistent personality, with many takes landing somewhere harrowingly close to “tutti frutti” in character. This is admirably too stern to merit that label. The Gewürztraminer seems to be trying to poke its ahead above torrents of lemon pith, green almonds, underripe kiwi, guava, and apple spice Greek yogurt, the Viognier reduced from boisterous peach to buttoned-up nectarine, although this latter note does flash gorgeously pure in the finish. This wine is like a vinous Swiss army knife: useful in myriad situations if specialized for none.

88- points    

2018 Volcanic Hills Gewürztraminer (~$18 cellar door)

Time for the show. When I drink a Gewürztraminer, any Gewürztraminer, right away I feel like that parent who loves his kid but is always going to find something in his or her performance that could be better. Unlike with the Viogniers, the Volcanic website says little about how this wine was made. I am going to assume that it followed the tried-and-true aromatic white wine formula of avoiding exposure to oxygen as much as possible at all steps of the winemaking process. I endeavour to unhook from my biases, anchor my attention on the present moment and plunge on in…

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The nose is subdued, almost muted at first. Too cold? I wait…and am rewarded by a miraculous blossoming of the classic lychee and Turkish delight aromas, although the flowers skew more yellow acacia than red rose per se, followed by a cavalcade of nutmeg, true cinnamon, dried orange peel, and ginger root. Lovely. This too is “very pretty and very tasty”. Spritely, deft, elegant, crystalline: these are not adjectives I frequently attach to this varietal. The palate translates as a smooth sorbet of lychee, lemon, golden kiwi, and cantaloupe, with more than a few sabre slashes of bright acidity (!) right before the mid-palate billows out into yellow peach/apricot and a neat sequence of lemon-orange-tangerine popsicle layers, all dusted with rock salt. I briefly think of those old timey wax bottle candies. The finish resonates with green and yellow apples, as if to provide one last caustic reminder that this doesn’t have one ounce of flab despite its genetics. Kinetic AF. Maybe could benefit from just a tad more body? Damn, see! This grape can never truly win with me in this country. But this has got to be close enough.

89+ points

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Stelvin Rating: 7/10 (Elegant look, nice use of space.)


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