Burrowing Owl: Avian Miscellany

26 10 2020

By Raymond Lamontagne

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

Oh man. September and October are tough months, at least this year. I dislike keeping people waiting for new entries on here, particularly after I tasted my way through some bottles with the purest of intentions to share my thoughts in a timely fashion. When you work in health care and run a business during COVID, however, it is quite likely that some of your good intentions around pastimes are going to fall by the wayside, at least temporarily. It is fortunate that I take decent notes and have a good gustatory memory. Burrowing Owl…where did we leave off? Oh yes. This one will be a bit of a grab bag offering that details the possible king of the Calliope value line, two whites, and a lone medium-bodied red whose provenance I particularly favour. Let’s delve in.

2018 Calliope Figure 8 Cabernet Merlot (~$20)

As Peter mentioned in the previous post, the calliope hummingbird occurs in the Okanagan. They also occur right here in Calgary, and I was lucky enough to spot one this year at the Weaselhead natural area for my 124th bird species seen since spring started (final tally for the spring/summer — 158!). Tiny bird. The present wine is no such thing, a 13.5% ABV blend of 50% Merlot, 41% Cabernet Franc, and 8% Cabernet Sauvignon. I might deduce from these blending proportions that someone had a keen eye on what ripens well in the Okanagan, combined with a good horse sense of what should please the red wine drinking masses. All grapes were hand-picked from estate vineyards in Osoyoos and Oliver, hand-sorted and crushed before a further four days of cold soaking prior to fermentation in stainless steel. The wine was then aged for 8 months in 16% new, 10% 1st year, and 74% neutral oak (all French). This seems like a goodly degree of care taken to yield an entry-level red blend, one that hopefully pays off in the drinking.

This pours a dark ruby, nearly purple perhaps, and the nose greets the drinker with an oaky spear of fresh cedar boughs. But hang on. A bloom of blueberry, black cherry, raspberry, and plum soon rises to the fore as the oak edifice erodes a little bit to reveal further gouts of strawberry syrup, dusty black currant, and dabs of menthol, pencil lead, and potting soil, these melding with the burgeoning fruits to yield a not-unpleasant purple cough syrup impression. The oak settles into a chocolate-covered-raisin-meets-cold-brewed-coffee sort of vibe, and my mind generates a “Bordeaux Jr.” conceptual motif that gets further reinforced by shards of bay leaf and green peppercorn. Quite pleasant, even if the midpalate is a touch shaky and brittle, as some Cab-heavy blends are wont to be. This cannot always decide whether to be purely pleasant or more stern… Something this mercurial can excite though, even as it also frustrates, and I’d say this executes its mission quite competently, with a few added twists.

88- points

2019 Burrowing Owl Pinot Gris (~$25)

Ah, Okanagan Pinot Gris. Cue the stereotypes. These wines are typically sunny and cheerful testaments to the charming end of the white wine continuum. I’ve had many forays. I won’t say these are simple wines, although certain examples can be rather monolithic in doling out a Jello-esque tropical fruit cocktail “tutti frutti” caricature. Don’t get me wrong, I do not expect such wines to taste like Chablis, and they can be a nice change of pace from the crystalline spray of citrus rind and white rock that constitutes many excursions into the Old World. The Burrowing Owl PG itself represents a very early (and gratifying) foray into BC whites for me, dare I say one that had a formative influence on my development as a wine nerd. Fun to revisit it here, many years and many wine books and certification courses later.

This moderate vintage was sunny and productive but permitted good acid retention, the hallmark of a pleasing balance between fruit and freshness. The hand-harvested grapes hail from estate Black Sage Hills vineyards, with gentle whole cluster pressing followed by a stainless steel temperature-controlled fermentation. There is an interesting and perhaps slightly technocratic admission that different yeast strains were used during fermentation to generate diverse flavours, a deviation from the notion that the flavours in wines are fully derived from the grapes and other facets of nature alone. You mean to say that people make wine? Yes, they do. How did this one turn out?

An initial few sniffs decode some kiwi, white glue, yellow peach, and some low-key banana-smelling esters, perhaps from the yeast-induced wizardry noted above. Eventually this scrapbook of sorts coalesces and broadens into yellow pear, lemon custard, canned mandarins, maybe a weirder and more savory orange fruit like a persimmon? A saline minerality starts to seep in around the edges of a perky but not ripping acid backbone. There’s even a mysteriously incongruent dusting of Chinese 5-spice. The Pinot Gris starts broad but again goes a tad thin mid-palate, with a discernable phenolic grip and a medium-length finish of citrus (lemon rind, grapefruit blossom) and white rocks in a sly nod to my Old World memory banks. I might dial up the acidity as I dial down the coloured marshmallow special effects. Still, this is more compelling than pure tutti frutti.

87+ points

2018 Burrowing Owl Chardonnay (~$35)

Here is a classic. Once again an earlier vintage of this wine represents an formative journey for me into the world of full-bodied, buttery, oaky Chard, although the Burrowing Owl style has never entirely shirked a vibrant acidity, always striking me as more balanced than the archetype from down south. One of the original four Burrowing Owl estate varieties (along with Cab, Merlot, and Pinot Gris), this Chardonnay has seen considerable tinkering from vintage to vintage, revealing an inescapably clear trend towards more elegance and finesse. Fifteen percent of the handpicked, whole-cluster-pressed must is fermented in stainless steel, with the remainder going into French and American oak barrels in which only partial malolactic fermentation takes place, a factor contributing to a sharper acidity than early iterations. The 8-month oak aging regime has morphed to the current one of 80% French and 20% American provenance, with 47% new, 33% one-year-old, and 20% two-year-old wood, followed by over a year of bottle ageing.

Sure enough, this features some of the rich robust notes that I have come to expect on the nose, and that are understandably missing from the Gris: theatre popcorn, a pat of brown butter, whiffs of pina colada and banana cream pie. I experience that burnt-straw-meets-lemon-rind impression that I invariably get off of a tastefully oaked Chard, as the confected elements largely give way to a more moderate melange of Asian pear, kiwi, cantaloupe, nutmeg, and pineapple chunk. The grapes are clearly ripe, but a curiously unobtrusive green note of zucchini skin and chopped thistles adds yet another dimension to ponder. Garlands of honeysuckle and slightly bitter tansy blossoms float up top. This sort of thing may just be Burrowing Owl’s sweet spot. Although part of me wants that linear spike of acid to poke just a bit more, one cannot quibble with such a finely-tuned balance of fruit and wood.

90- points

2017 Burrowing Owl Cabernet Franc (~$35)

Alright, here we are. Cabernet Franc often vies with Pinot Noir (#1) and Syrah (#2) for a position in the pantheon of my favourite black grapes. Despite this, I am admittedly more familiar with Burrowing Owl’s other red wines. These grapes hail from Oliver and Osoyoos, spending 18 months in oak (85% French and 15% Hungarian, with 25% new). Other commentators have used adjectives like “powerful” and “structural” to describe this wine. Hmmm. Franc can do those things, but part of its appeal to me lies in the fact that it doesn’t always need to do these things, and in fact often doesn’t. The aromas can be potent and the tannins scratchy, sure, yet the wine still exudes a classy subtlety that begs exploration. There is a chthonic wisdom that its offspring, the better-known Cab Sauv, often lacks.

My prevailing biases largely hold true here. Yes, this has a boisterous side, a sporty dark ruby hue that flashes some blackberry and gamey blackcurrant notes, with a burst of powdery tannins that expands like a shotgun blast. But the body is airy, almost a touch too light… I get strawberry, red plum, raspberry Jolly Rancher, and cranberry cocktail accompanied by some tell-tale green bell pepper, although there is none of the classic “stalky” character that can plague underripe Francs (I’d be frankly stunned if many wines from these scorching sites ever struggled with ripeness issues). A much-appreciated dry graphite/pencil lead vibe pervades the proceedings from front to back, complementing the crystalline (largely) red fruits. Oak-derived incense and juniper aromas meld nicely with green fig, black licorice, and carob in the extended finish. A fitting finale this rather arbitrary yet enjoyable spread of wines, and I promise I will see you sooner next time.

89+ points

Cork & Stelvin Ratings: 4.5/10; 8/10; 6.5/10 (The Calliope game is strong. I still have a soft spot for the green Stelvin design. The cork? Meh. It’s fine.)

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