Burrowing Owl: Reds of Prey

14 01 2021

By Peter Vetsch

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

So it’s been a while. I think this two and a half month gap between posts probably represents Pop & Pour’s longest lull since I started the blog almost ten years ago. Blame work stress, or COVID malaise, or blogging burnout or existential dread or some combination thereof, but I have found it a struggle to write recently and the site has suffered as a result. However, I have come to realize that the longer I went without posting, the more I fell back into doing nothing remotely beneficial after tiring days, which just exacerbated the funk and malaise and made me feel worse. I’m not someone who can do nothing for long and feel good about it, and I failed to recognize the benefit of this creative outlet until I stopped using it. So cue my 2021 New Year’s resolution (other than to get vaccinated, hopefully as soon as humanly possible, and to act like a responsible adult until I do): get back to the blog. Game on.

This is the final instalment of a three-piece, two-author review saga of the always-dependable wines from Burrowing Owl, starting with my initial assessment of the winery’s carefree Calliope side label, then turning to Ray’s foray into the first part of the Burrowing Owl lineup, and culminating with tonight’s look at a couple of the winery’s top reds, the Merlot and the flagship Meritage. Through its long Okanagan history, Burrowing Owl has been known for the big red portion of its portfolio first and foremost, thanks to its enduring determination to craft accessible, powerful versions of Bordeaux varietals in BC, even back when it was an extraordinary challenge to do so consistently. Vineyard age (their estate vineyard is now nearly 30 years old) and honed-in farming and winemaking techniques have dialled in this objective, while also making room for compelling white wines and other offerings. But the heart never strays too far from home, even if the body explores new horizons.

2017 Burrowing Owl Merlot (~$38)

Merlot was an initial Bordeaux focal point for Burrowing Owl, which makes sense, because it ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon, is more forgiving at less-than-optimal ripeness, and was thus a higher-floor play in the early Okanagan days for those seeking to make credible and pleasing hearty reds during a shorter growing season. Some evidence that the winery has grown considerably in reach and acclaim since then is that the prior vintage of this bottling was reviewed and published in Wine Spectator magazine (it got 90 points, if you’re wondering), a relative rarity for Canadian wines. The grapes for this Merlot hail from Burrowing Owl’s Oliver and Osoyoos vineyards and were hand-harvested in mid-October. After a cold soak and fermentation in stainless steel tanks, the wine was then matured in a global panoply of oak, spending 14 months in a bizarre combination of French (57%), American (17%), Hungarian (17%) and Russian (7%, !!!) barrels before being bottled in June 2019.

The wine is a surprisingly welterweight semi-translucent ruby in the glass, but is far from shy, deploying warm and welcoming fruitcake, gingerbread and dark chocolate aromas buoyed by molten plum and currant fruit, all rich and luscious but classically Merlot. Traces of burnt sage and Glosette Raisins (each reflecting the heat of a warmer vintage) emerge with time in the glass, rounding out a pitch-perfect profile for a wine of this style. This glossy sheen slips slightly on the palate, as shades of herbal greenness (basil, celery stalks, strawberry leaf) linger underneath polished dark berry fruit and generous oak while scratchy tannins swirl around the gums and top of the mouth. Mocha, black licorice and asphalt notes add complexity but lead into a slightly bitter finish. This comes across a bit uneven, more enjoyable on a casual sip than a detailed assessment, but it is never overbearing and upholds its varietal character throughout.

88- points

Cork Rating: 5/10 (Probably more to be done with this canvas. Where are the owls?)

2016 Burrowing Owl Meritage (~$63)

“Meritage” is the only wine term I can think of that does not arise out of any jurisdiction’s wine laws, is purely an invented marketing term, but is a registered trademark that you have to pay to use on a bottle. It refers to a blend of Bordeaux grapes made outside of Bordeaux (whether white or red, contrary to popular belief), featuring two or more grapes in the blend with no one grape making up over 90% of the total. The trademark is held by the Meritage Alliance, founded over 30 years ago by a group of American winemakers, and it costs up to $500 a year for a winery to make use of it. The term “meritage” is actually literally a combination of the words “merit” and “heritage” (which is why it rhymes with the latter), intending to reflect both the quality of the grapes in the blend and the Bordeaux traditions of blending grapes being faithfully followed around the world. There are no specific quality requirements associated with the use of the moniker, but it does add a touch more mystique than “Bordeaux Blend” and is certainly used faithfully for prestige-based purposes by dozens of producers.

This particular Meritage has made use of all five of the primary red Bordeaux grapes across its history, but the precise makeup of the blend varies significantly year to year, with Burrowing Owl’s sole aim to craft the best possible blend of the top barrels each vintage. The 2016 edition features 44% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Franc and 1% Malbec (sorry, Petit Verdot); Cab does not always take the lead in the bottling but is in the driver’s seat this year, thanks in large measure to a near-ideal vintage weather-wise. 2016 was a tremendous vintage in the Okanagan due to warm, calm, easy weather conditions perfect for slow, even ripening and long hang time. The grapes were harvested as late as November 1st then vinified and aged separately in barrel for 14 months (intercontinental barrel origin percentages unknown, but I assume mostly French) before being tasted and blended, then aged together for a further 4 months before bottling.

This is deeper and purpler in colour than the Merlot despite being a year older, and is much more composed aromatically, pure black cherry and blackberry lifted by pomegranate and surrounded by incense, violets and campfire embers. (Special shout-out to the wine’s tech sheet for the awesome aromatic descriptor of “burlap”.) Greater body density somehow also results in a greater sense of freedom, the blend wandering the palate without seeming tied down, the tannins far silkier and more integrated. Everything works together, understated but effective acid coaxing blackcurrant, blueberry, mincemeat, fennel, new tennis racquet and black jellybean flavours into a seamless, cohesive whole. Am I the only one who gets oatmeal in deep powerful reds like this? Maybe that’s what “burlap” was getting at. This is immaculately crafted, comes across as absolutely effortless and lingers long after the glass is empty.

91+ points



One response

15 01 2021
Philip Angino

Welcome back, and you are back with one of our best BC Wineries Burrowing Owl. From Fernie BC Cheers

Liked by 1 person

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