Yalumba: Introducing Samuel’s Collection, Part I

19 11 2019

By Peter Vetsch

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

Yalumba is tidying things up a bit.  The Barossa stalwart, now on its 5th generation of family ownership dating back to 1849, traces itself back almost the entire length of the history of its region (whose first Shiraz vines were planted in 1847).  But 170 years of growth and development later, Yalumba’s impressive lineup of wines was starting to lack some internal organizational cohesion, with some forming part of a demarcated grouping or collection (the wildly successful Y Series being a key example of why this can be a boon to consumers) and others standing on their own, without clear delineation as to their place in the company hierarchy.  This would not be much of an issue for a smaller-scale producer, but when you make 52 different bottlings, it’s nice to know where things fit.  Enter Samuel’s Collection.

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This new mid-tier range is both a corporate reorg and a celebration, a way for a number of excellent but disparate Yalumba offerings to find a home as a tasteful homage to the winery’s founder Samuel Smith.  The Collection, featuring all-new clean, modern label art, features seven wines:  four reds from the Barossa Valley and three whites from the neighbouring Eden Valley.  The reds (Bush Vine Grenache, GSM, Shiraz, Shiraz Cab) all share measured ripeness, fermentation using ambient yeasts and a more lithe, transparent take on what can be a region known for muscle-flexing; the whites (Viognier, Roussanne, Chardonnay) are all similarly streamlined takes on sultry grapes, rooted in Eden’s cooler weather and acid spine.  I have had prior vintages of both of tonight’s reds, known back then as the Old Bush Vine Grenache and The Strapper GSM, and their packaging and branding was so divergent that it looked like they came from different wineries.  No longer.  The threads that unite now take centre stage…even the price, as every wine in the new Samuel’s Collection should hit the shelf at a $25ish mark.  As will be seen below, it is a group worth seeking out. Read the rest of this entry »





Amulet Wines: Vinous Talismans

6 11 2019

By Peter Vetsch

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

When the intrepid Dwight Sick left his longtime position as winemaker at Stags Hollow Winery and took up the same role at the Naramata’s Moraine Winery, he took two things with him:  (1) a trailblazing sense of adventure, forcing drinkers to check their premises regarding which grapes can work best in the Okanagan Valley, and (2) access to the best and most established plantings of Grenache in Canada, from the Kiln House Vineyard near Penticton.  That combination could never lie dormant for too long.  Sick helped plant the Kiln House Grenache vines over a decade ago, and he nurtured them into the Okanagan’s first bottling of varietal Grenache after years of effort and patience.  It didn’t seem right to let the red Rhone dream die, so soon after it had been realized.  So Sick didn’t.

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Enter Amulet Wines:  a special new side project that Sick has undertaken in collaboration with Dylan and Penelope Roche of the thrilling recent Okanagan venture Roche Wines, fulfilling a vision 15 years in the making.  Amulet is focused solely on Okanagan-grown Rhone varietals, a lesser-known but burgeoning (and shockingly effective) subset of British Columbia’s melting pot of grape influences.  The inaugural Amulet release is a duo of bottlings, both blends, both heavily featuring the Kiln House Vineyard, both aimed at proving that Canada is (or at least can be) a New World Rhone haven.  As Dwight Sick was one of the first to make me believe the truth of this latter proposition, I was eager to see how far an entire brand focused on this goal, and inspired by his vision, could carry it.

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First things first:  god damn are these visually commanding bottles of wine.  I don’t know how gripped I am by the “good versus evil” thematics that pervade the Amulet branding, but I am entirely enthralled by the bottles themselves, which harken back somewhat to Sick’s old Cachet bottlings from Stag’s Hollow in their transparent monochrome-and-red colour scheme.  However, what particularly elevates these new offerings are their centrepieces:  the curved golden metal coins emanating from the heart of each bottle, which are apparently replicas of Elizabethan-era “Gold Angel” coins, depicting St. Michael slaying a dragon, that were carried or worn as amulets to ward off evil.  Whatever these coins added to the overall production cost of the bottles, it was worth it — they are simply stunning.  I tried to pry mine off the bottles once they were empty, but to no avail.  I’ll look for a dragon next time.  Were the wines equally as compelling as their packaging? Read the rest of this entry »





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. Read the rest of this entry »





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? Read the rest of this entry »





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. Read the rest of this entry »





PnP Panel Tasting: Weird Canada – BC Carmenere Supremacy (Plus Special Guests)

21 09 2019

By Peter Vetsch & Raymond Lamontagne

It all started with Carmenere.  It snowballed from there.

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Sometime last year we became aware that there was at least one winery growing and making Carmenere in the Okanagan.  (I am now aware that this has been the case since at least 2005, but allow me my joy of discovery nonetheless.)  Then we were told of another.  And then another.  Then we decided, emphatically though without particular reason, that we MUST gather and taste all of these Canadian Carmeneres, even though we had no real plan for achieving this goal — it will not surprise you to learn that these idiosyncratic bottles are small-production, not in the Alberta market and often produced for winery club members only.  Then one such winery club member, who I had never previously met, happened to be IN the Okanagan while chatting with us about this now-fanatical obsession and picked up a couple of the Carms for us, along with some of the other weird vinous glory you will see below.  Then another local benefactor, who I had also never met, traded us the final piece of our Carmenere puzzle from her cellar.  Thanks to the kindness of electronic friends, we now had ourselves a proper comparative tasting, an honest-to-goodness BC Carmenere showdown.  The first ever?  I can hardly believe it myself.

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The Carm contenders:  Black Hills Estate Winery, which normally plays it fairly strait-laced but which allowed itself a foray into the wacky with this Club-only offering; Moon Curser Vineyards, whose entire portfolio is dedicated to oddities like this which fall outside of the Canadian mainstream (stay tuned for a future Panel Tasting when we dive into their Touriga Nacional and Dolcetto, among others); and Lariana Cellars, which has made Carmenere its signature red and a focal point of its streamlined offerings.  In addition to the main event wines, we couldn’t help but test-drive some other intriguing bottles from these producers, as well as a…Canadian Brunello?  Frankly, if you start a tasting premise at “Canadian Carmenere”, why stop there?  Tyler, Ray and I were born for this.  Bring it on. Read the rest of this entry »





Spain, Old and New, Part III: The Wines of Vina Real

9 09 2019

By Peter Vetsch

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

Nearly a year on from the start of this review set, through three different seasons of write-ups, I am closing in on the full story of the Cune wine lineup.  We started with the mothership itself, the Compania Vinicola del Norte de Espana (C.V.N.E.), the Riojan stalwart whose expressions cross four separate brands.  We then ascended to Imperial, the Cune adjunct focused on Reserva- and Gran Reserva-level wines from the top vineyards of Rioja Alta, the core of what most people know of Rioja as a wine region.  Tonight we move from the centre of the heartlands to Rioja’s outskirts, and from the centre of attention to a group of producers tired of being overlooked.  Cune’s Vina Real label is rooted in grapes sourced from the ever-ignored yet consistently impressive Rioja Alavesa.

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This least-known Riojan subregion lies in the north-central portion of Rioja, bordered by the Ebro River to the south and the Sierra de Cantabria mountain range to the north, which protects the vineyards from the cool coastal winds above.  It is both the smallest and the most elevated of Rioja’s three sub-zones, its hilly and terraced vineyards influenced by the nearby mountains, its 40 x 8 km surface area a relative pittance compared to its much more expansive siblings Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja.  Being the smallest and most neglected in the family also tends to make you the scrappiest:  Rioja Alavesa has recently, and ever more vocally, been seeking to carve out its own identity within Spain’s most prominent wine appellation.  There has been some talk of leaving Rioja altogether, which has not been all that well-received by the region’s governing body.  Rioja Alavesa is craving respect and recognition, and that is part of what Vina Real seeks to deliver.

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The winery is named for its vineyards’ proximity to the Camino Real, the “Royal Road”, a renowned traditional highway; its relation to the Camino de Santiago walking trail which crosses all of northern Spain is not immediately clear to me, though that pilgrimage road goes right through Logrono, the closest city to the winery.  Much of my discussion of the Cune-brand wines has alighted on that intersection between traditional and modern approaches that they seem to exemplify, but in none of Cune’s labels is this more clear than Vina Real.  The winery is part of Rioja Alavesa’s historical fabric, being among the first in the area to employ barrel aging for wines (which is now a hallmark of the whole Rioja region) and to make Crianza wines for earlier release.  But its present incarnation is unabashedly modern:  the magnificent new puck-shaped winery building, constructed out of cedar and inaugurated by the king of Spain himself in 2004, was designed as one of the first gravity-flow operations in the country and has bored out the surrounding hilltop to create state-of-the-art underground cellars.  Even this cutting-edge operation does not lose sight of its past, however:  the winery’s circular shape (as seen on Vina Real’s labels) is an homage to a traditional large Riojan fermenting vat, a physical representation of the old-meets-new dichotomy that defines this set of producers.  Do the wines follow suit? Read the rest of this entry »








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