Volcanic Hills II: Eruptive Reds

13 10 2019

By Peter Vetsch

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

The Volcanic Hills story is a charmingly Canadian one.  Founder Sarwan Gidda’s father Mehtab moved to the Okanagan Valley from East Punjab, India in 1958 with his wife and children, becoming the first Indo-Canadian family to settle in West Kelowna.  After a few years, Mehtab and family were some of the most prolific apple farmers in the valley, but from the late 1970s onward, slowly but surely, their agricultural vision began to drift to grapes.  Ray’s excellent introduction to Volcanic Hills Estate Winery outlined how Sarwan took the next step from grape farming to wine production in the 2000s, and how his children are now helping to carry on this burgeoning family legacy.

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Volcanic Hills is largely a grower-producer, making the bulk of its portfolio from its own 68 acres of estate vineyards in the West Kelowna area, carrying on the Gidda family’s initial farming mission.  Not only are all of VH’s Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Gamay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Zweigelt (yes, Zweigelt) and Marechal Foch (oh yes, Foch) wines made from 100% estate fruit, but all such grapes are own-rooted, planted on their own original rootstocks as opposed to being grafted onto disease- and pest-resistant rootstocks from non-vinifera species, as is the case with the bulk of wine grapes worldwide.  However, while the other two posts in this producer series will focus largely on what Volcanic Hills can do with its own fruit, the four reds below are exceptions to the VH rule and are instead sourced from warmer climes with longer growing seasons which can reliably ripen them.  The Giddas have contracts with other growers in Oliver and Osoyoos from which they obtain their Bordeaux reds and their Syrah, all of which are on offer at the winery for well under $30.  The price points of the entire Volcanic Hills library are such that John Schreiner was moved to name a recent article about them “Wines You Can Afford”.  But price is only one part of the equation; do they deliver for what they cost?

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Cork/Stelvin Ratings:  4/10 & 5.5/10 (Corks a tad short and hard to read; I can’t quite get to Ray’s level of generosity on the screwcaps, though they are more elegant.)

2014 Volcanic Hills Syrah (~$27 cellar door)

Interestingly, all four of the bigger southern Okanagan reds featured in this post hail from the 2014 vintage, which is the current release for each of them half a decade on.  None of them see more than a year and a half in oak before bottling, which means Volcanic Hills must allow for considerable time in bottle before release, a significant drag on cashflow and a major investment for a winery whose second most expensive dry wine is this one at $26.99.  This Syrah hails from Osoyoos vineyards planted to younger vines and is rounded out by 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, a blend that can fit truly hand-in-glove when done well.  It spends 14 months in 60% French, 40% American oak barrels to round out its flavour profile.  According to the VH website, it is best enjoyed 3-6 years from vintage…which is less than ideal when the current year for sale is 5 years old already.  Drink fast!

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Bracing for a brawny Cab-blended Osoyoos Syrah, I was mildly but pleasantly surprised when the wine emerged a measured, largely transparent ruby-purple colour, featuring the varietal’s signature deeper hue without excessive heft or extraction.  The somewhat subdued aromas are a mixture of pepper, char and coffee grounds from oak contact, dried flowers and bitter herbals (Jaegermeister?), dusty red cranberry fruit and orange juice, fleetingly trying to mesh together with only partial success.  Fine raspberry and red plum flavours are surrounded by tomato leaf and lime skin herbaceousness and biting accents of chalk and stone that gouge into this more introverted wine’s quieter personality in an emphatic but slightly discordant way.  The ingredients of complexity are there, but this currently a still-loading version of what it might be in future vintages; for now, this varietal is still a work in progress.

86 points

2014 Cabernet Franc (~$22 cellar door)

From Osoyoos we head to neighbouring Oliver, where this svelte 13.5% ABV Cabernet Franc was grown in rocky soils and boosted with a hearty splash of Merlot (13% of the overall blend).  As of this vintage, Cab Franc was the 7th most planted grape varietal in British Columbia; Merlot was 1st (!!!), though I wonder whether that has changed in the 5 years since.  In fact, all four of the red grapes featured in this post crack the BC top 8, for better or for worse.  This red offering sees similar oak treatment as the Syrah, spending 15 months in 40% new French oak before hitting the bottle.

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I spent a lot of time just gazing at this wine in the glass, its delicate, almost watery ruby hue even more open and see-through than the Syrah.  This is emphatically Cab Franc to smell, particularly in the pervasive capsicum and celery stalk thread strung through the prettier hints of violet, cherry Halls and tilled earth; they didn’t hide the green inherent to the grape here, but they also took the care to integrate it into the whole.  I did not fully appreciate the effort on my first glass, but over time, as the bottle inextricably emptied, I found myself coming back to this Old World-styled, ethereal, barely medium-bodied exemplar, with pleasantly scratchy tannin, vivid acid and an unapologetic stalky herbal profile, rhubarb and red fruits laced with sandpaper and plaster dust.  It is a similarly understated, even underdone, approach as was taken with the Syrah above, but this time it meshes with the grape and creates something compelling, especially at $22.

88- points

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2014 Volcanic Hills Merlot (~$22 cellar door)

And now for something completely different…in winemaking style, anyway.  After the above pair of svelte welterweight takes on a couple of red grapes that can don a variety of expressions, I thought I had Volcanic Hills’ vinous approach pegged:  lighter, leaner, red over black fruit, erring on under- as opposed to overripeness.  Some foreshadowing that I was wrong appeared almost immediately, as the VH website introduced its 2014 Merlot with the words:  “Made in a ‘fruit-forward’ style…”.  That often is code for significant ripeness levels, and sure enough, this wine, from the same vintage and the same general area (Oliver and Osoyoos) as the Cab Franc above, jumps a point and a half of alcohol to a swarthy 14.9%.  After 18 months in 40% new French oak, it’s ready to brawl.

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As its ABV might suggest, the Merlot is deeper, thicker, blacker and more impenetrable than its daintier cousins.  The fruit is darker and sweeter, edging towards Port-like, blackberry compote and maple syrup and Halloween toffee, though with a pervasive bitter streak floating above that actually helps keep things from flying off the handle.  Unsurprisingly, it is immediately pleasurable to taste, rich and dense, glycerol-tinged and trying to please, an aspiring powerhouse that starts to showcase a bit of range in a gritty asphalt-laced finish.  The enhanced ripeness glosses across some phenolic questions, but in the limited $22 Canadian Merlot market, this is eminently drinkable; it puts me back in the wilderness a bit as to the house style, but perhaps suggests that the style of “make tasty wine first” is job one anyway.

87- points

2014 Volcanic Hills Cabernet Sauvignon (~$28 cellar door)

We have reached the price pinnacle of Volcanic Hills’ dry lineup with this $28 Cabernet, and with it a return to sub-14% alcohol levels — at 13.8% ABV, this is over a full point lower than the earlier-ripening Merlot in the same portfolio, which is not something you see every day.  It’s also the first of these four bottles to contain grapes from the neighbouring Similkameen Valley, joining Okanagan grapes from Oliver in French and American oak barrels for 18 months of maturation before bottling.  Reasonably priced varietal Cabernet Sauvignon is the last frontier of Canadian wine, a challenge that many are keen to take up but which may never be fully achieved; this offering is a credible effort at a thankless job.

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I note with some relief that the colour of this Cab lacks the glossy sheen of the riper, amped-up Merlot; this has a more stately, measured ruby-purple presence about it, trending back towards translucence.  Aromatically it is a pinpoint snapshot of Cabernet, a classic combination of blueberry and blackberry, dark chocolate and menthol, agile and not overwrought.  Once the wine hits the tongue these friendlier familiar flavours are interwoven with liniment, pavement and that pervasive chalky or medicinal bitterness, but it holds on through a papery finish, powering through a varietal challenge that has capsized many Okanaganagan ships.  I don’t know that my (close-to-)home region best exemplifies itself with its continual quest to make Cab, but consumer demand is a real and critical thing in a still-growing viticultural area, and Volcanic Hills shows its skills at satisfying this unquenchable popular thirst.  VH Part 3 coming soon!

87+ points

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