Volcanic Hills III: Igneous Miscellany

25 10 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

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

With the core whites and reds now in the rearview mirror, we conclude our extensive coverage of the Volcanic Hills Estate Winery with some odds and ends, various bottles that fit less neatly into the relatively clear-cut categories explored in the last two posts. Wine’s endless diversity has at times been under threat by homogenizing forces, including bottom line-based agricultural and business practices, public demand and the allure of the almighty score as supplied by major critics. Fortunately, the spectacularly mutagenic grapevine refuses to stop reinventing itself (sometimes with human assistance), and the tide has turned away from standardization and towards treasuring the diversity we have across wine-growing regions.

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Enter the Okanagan Valley, a wine region that is home to more than 60 grape varieties but that has yet to put all of its chips on any one vinous genotype. It can seem as if growers there will give anything a shot: the classic cool-climate grapes, hybrids, strange German crosses that haven’t stuck in their homeland (e.g. Optima), and more recently warm-climate grapes such as Sangiovese and Tempranillo, on top of the Bordeaux and Burgundy menu options that crop up everywhere. Some decry this diversity as emblematic of a lack of focus and an unhelpful disregard for the important match between varietal and terroir. In my view, there’s room in the expansive space that is world wine culture for both the perfect lock-and-key matches between land and grape and pockets of “throw caution to the wind” experimentation. And besides, how does one map out terroir in a newer area without taking a few risks? On that note, let’s bring our Volcanic Hills coverage home.

2017 Volcanic Hills Rose (~$20 cellar door)

We begin with a rosé. As it turns out, Volcanic Hills’ very first rosé went on to win a Lieutenant Governor’s Award of Excellence. This is clearly not a bad start, although Volcanic’s approach has evolved from including various white grapes (aromatic and non-aromatic) and even a splash of Zweigelt ice wine (!) in the pink blend to something more focused in recent vintages. Although information on the winery’s website is scant, a little digging reveals that VH makes its current pink wines with Gamay, a grape that I think does particularly well in Ontario but has been working a little magic here and there in British Columbia as well. This knowledge leads me to expect something tart yet pleasingly fruity, perhaps with a bit more weight than your average rosé made with Pinot Noir.

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Indeed, the nose here seems inviting: slightly candied but with a lurking, subtly serious minerality, melded with fleshy pink grapefruit, pink peppercorn, rhubarb, watermelon hard candy, orange smoothie, and Nivea cream. A few sips yield an impression of broad chalky white minerals on the palate, albeit doused with cranberry, lemon, yuzu, and tangerine juices. Some seriously fresh, pungent citrus is the dominant flavour impression at first glance, with echoes of pomegranate, gooseberry, underripe strawberry and the aforementioned watermelon struggling to be heard above the citrus cacophony. Not a lightweight where body is concerned, although potent acidity cuts through any semblance of white zinfandel-type frivolities. This is stark yet not angular, and is without question ferociously refreshing. I can conjure up scenarios where this could serve as an ideal casual sipper, particularly where food is involved, even if the pleasure factor could be dialled up a notch or two.

88 points

2016 Volcanic Hills Magma Red (~$19 cellar door)

Here’s where things get a bit dotty. The Magma Red blend is 40.8% Zweigelt, 33.7% Merlot, 10.9% Marechal Foch, 7.9% Pinot Noir and 6.7% Gamay. Those are some delightfully specific percentages, but beyond that, what a combination of grapes!  I have a soft spot for Zweigelt, an Austrian varietal that represents one of the few truly successful man-made crosses (Blaufrankisch x St. Laurent). Typically smelling and tasting of red fruits, black pepper, and chocolate, Zweigelt has a surprisingly robust toehold in Canadian vineyards both east and west. And what of Marechal Foch? Although not a huge part of the present blend, I would anticipate that this Alsace-born hybrid of vitis vinifera and at least two American species of grape will still make its presence known. A vine-pulling program in the 1980s drastically reduced acreage, but Foch has done what few hybrids have managed to do, even in the colder North American wine regions where they once held court: found a niche as an expensive bottling with a dedicated cult following.

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Whoa. In the glass this is positively inky, darker than Hades’ own bedroom. The nose shouts out a bombastically fruity yet wild and even gamey impression, lush with black cherries, blueberries, blackcurrant Wine Gums, licorice All-Sorts, and a light garland of lilac, dill pollen, and new baseball glove. After a brief flash of fur and claws, the palate coalesces into a murky bramble sea (with only a few thorns, mind) decorated with a flotsam of baker’s chocolate, toffee chips and charcoal briquette from the oak. Waves of blueberry jam, red plum, red and black raspberries, and dewberry threaten until mollified by a hardcore musty white pepper note that seems to come out of nowhere. The total package gets a nice lift from the acid plus small volleys of nail-gun tannins here and there, spitting through the fruit and oak. The longer-than-expected finish is all Zweigelt bramble and the ghosts of smoky barriques. Part of my quality assessment involves some attention to whether the disparate elements of a wine come together to provide a unified impression of cohesive complexity, a true composition as opposed to a bunch of separate virtuosos all clanging together. This falls short of true cohesion as far as aromas go, but damned if it isn’t structurally sound with some fun terrain to explore.

88- points

2013 Volcanic Hills Magma Pinot Noir (~$25 cellar door)

If some of the grapes in the Magma blend are on the wane or likely to remain a vinous side dish, the capricious Pinot Noir is the second-most planted black grape in British Columbia, with acreage continuing to increase. I am not sure how I feel about this. Such proliferation seems at odds with the view that no other black grape is as adept at translating the essence of a place, one major source of Pinot’s reputation as being finicky. Then again, BC has been turning out some noteworthy examples, with emerging common threads of fresh juicy acidity and purity of fruit. Recent vintages of Volcanic Hills have featured estate-grown fruit and 14 months aging in oak (30% new).

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The colour, a glinting delicate ruby, is suggestive of a lithe, elegant sip as opposed to something clumsy and over-extracted. The understated aromas waft around a little before forging ahead to deliver well-integrated oaky notes of cloves, allspice, and hickory smoke underneath buoyant varietal signature red fruits (pomegranate, cranberry, goji, a little raspberry perhaps). Pinot Noir is naturally a high acid variety, but this is tart even by that benchmark, a linear, clean razor’s edge of underripe strawberry, red plum and blood orange leaving a compressed comet tail of hibiscus, rose hip, dried lavender, and traditional Chinese medicine shop. The zesty but ethereal fruits might be struggling to keep up with the floral spice, even as the oak remains tasteful. I suspect some will find this finessed but austere, another “food wine”. I am not sure how the high acid/low extract combination will play out in terms of aging. I say hold it lightly, like you might a piece of prickly pear cactus: don’t squeeze it, but don’t throw it away. Just let it sit there while you admire the view.

89 points

2016 Volcanic Hills Gewurztraminer Late Harvest (~$20 cellar door)

Late harvest dessert wines are often made from grapes that are left on the vine longer than normal, with the berries accumulating sugars and desiccating to various degrees to a raisin-like state. This can result in rather long fermentations as the yeast struggles to cope with such a concentrated must, although various modern winemaking techniques are now often used to stop the fermentation at a desired level of alcohol. The grapes for this single-vineyard offering hail from vines planted in the late 1990s, apparently on their own rootstocks! The vineyard is flat and regularly exposed to late afternoon breezes, which helps the grapes to ripen longer while avoiding rot. You can think of this as an ice wine without the ice.

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Imagine Gewurztraminer’s best aromatic characteristics on steroids: perfumed Turkish Delight, canned lychee and peaches, cantaloupe, Golden Delicious and Pink Lady apples, quince, candied ginger, carnation, musk. The palate offers more of the same, with the candied ginger front and centre, accompanied by ripe mangoes, pineapple skin, turpentine, and honeycomb. The sweetness is balanced with a fresh and vibrant but rounded acidity. You simply cannot expect Riesling-type acidity from this variety. What you can expect is what this delivers: opulent tropical and orchard fruit, a pungent floral spiciness, and the sort of pleasure that can mitigate all your ills, at least for a time. The savoury aspects do help hold one’s attention, lest things become too cloying. It’s good knowing they are out there, wines like this. Pure comfort from a winery that has figured out this vinous diva.

89+ points


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