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 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 »





Wine Review: The Reds of Castoro de Oro

14 08 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

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

Welcome back for part 2 of my coverage of a cross-section of the current lineup of the Golden Mile’s Castoro de Oro, following on the heels of last week’s assessment of a trio of their whites. Those wines were fun, clean examples of how a savvy winemaker can produce something that is capable of appealing to a rather broad swath of the wine-drinking public. One can simply enjoy such wines in a purely casual fashion, equal parts pleasant taste and social lubricant, or one can, likely on a different occasion, plumb and probe for something deeper. Will the reds (and a rosé) paint a similar picture?

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Before I attempt to answer that question, a few words about the winery name (see my last post for more about the vineyard conditions). The name “Castoro de Oro” is a tribute to how Canada was founded and gives a nod to our majestic country’s national animal. Yes, the pictures on the label and your phrasebook Spanish do not deceive you: “Castoro de Oro” really does mean “golden beaver”, with a nod towards Canada’s roots in the fur trade.  Back in our colonial days, beaver pelts were deemed “soft gold” because they were in tremendous demand on the market. Additionally, it was none other than beavers who created the small lake that helps provide a key moderating influence on the climate at Castoro de Oro’s vineyards. The top hat seen on the winery mascot above embodies the fashion that was vaunted at the time of the soft gold rush. Truly, what fantastic branding. Ultimately, though, what matters to me is in the bottle. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: The Whites of Castoro de Oro

31 07 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

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

It’s alive. The blog, that is. Peter is enjoying some much needed R & R overseas and got to sample hybrid grape Solaris for the first time. Don’t get too jealous of that particular detail. Although I’d welcome a chance to add this one to my life list, apparently we aren’t missing out on all that much. Meanwhile, let yours truly guide you through another Pop & Pour Okanagan run that will span two posts and six wines. I’ve enjoyed tasting these, particularly as I reflect on how this family owned winery has seamlessly melded careful viticulture, whimsical yet clever branding, and an earnest appeal to passion and hard work. All this yields a singular focus on making award-winning handcrafted wines from grape to glass. It seems warranted to begin with the whites. But first, some further background.

IMG_E0849The Castoro de Oro estate vineyard was planted in 1980. Located in the esteemed Golden Mile, this site seems engineered by Mother Nature to deliver full ripeness in the grapes, yet not at the expense of acidity. Here we have vines facing southeast to provide ample sunshine, with the grapes also growing on a slope right next to a lake, factors that together work to mitigate any effects of frost. This is all well and good, but too much heat can cause flabby wines that lack precision. Fortunately, a mountain provides evening shade that permits the grapes to cool off during the summer, preserving tartness and resulting in a key balance between acid and ripe fruit flavours. This is particularly important for white wines, for which acidity is the only source of freshness and structure (well… for the most part. Tannins from wine skins and barrels sometimes play a small role).

Enter Bruno Kelle and (Calgarian) Stella Schmidt, self-described “partners in life and wine-making”. They acquired this site and launched the Castoro de Oro winery in 2006, farmers who like to make wines that most people can afford. I can jive with that, although I can find it hard to relinquish the role of “guy who is supposed to assess these wines in a serious way according to certain criteria”. I’m going to wear that black hat here, because to some extent I have to… AND, I’m also going to attempt to appreciate these wines based on the winemakers’ own vision. Here we go. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: The Reds of Sunrock Vineyards

4 07 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

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

You cannot make truly good wine without ripe grapes. Simple, no? Insufficient sugar in the fruit is not going to leave much for yeast to consume, and such starved fungi are not going to produce something with sufficient body (and alcohol) to merit any sort of “greatness” mantle. Moreover, grapes need heat if they are to attain physiological ripeness. This refers to the changes in tannins and other chemical components that occur largely in grape skins, stems and seeds during the ripening cycle beyond the mere increase in sugar.  These changes are what produce the key varietal aroma signatures we know and love, preventing a wine from tasting green, weedy, and brittle.

Although sugar ripeness and physiological ripeness are clearly correlated, it would seem that grape hang times might be a stronger predictor of physiological readiness than just heat alone, although in my view (and botanically speaking) you aren’t going to get any degree of maturation, period, without heat. The key question for wine quality is: how much heat is too much? Overly ripe grapes mean clumsy, muddled wines that are boozy, lacking in precision or definition, and often almost devoid of any sense of place or regional character. Such wines are going to be tremendously fruity and powerful, but may not offer much in the way of nuance or balance. As I read up on Sunrock Vineyards, which could very well be the hottest single vineyard site in British Columbia, I wonder how they approach these ripeness issues.

Sunrock is owned by Arterra Wines Canada, formerly the Canadian subsidiary of the massive Constellation Brands, but recently acquired in 2016 by the Ontario Teacher’s Pension Plan (for some reason that tickles my funny bone…I’m sure we drove many a substitute teacher to drink). Arterra farms around 1300 acres of Okanagan vineyard, with the expected corresponding range of quality tiers. Jackson-Triggs might be the best known of Arterra’s brands, and the single-vineyard Sunrock labels formerly carried this name as the top tier of that portfolio. Sunrock is now a standalone winery, a fine example of a large corporate entity with the good sense to recognize and preserve the unique character of a single site. And what a site it is. Read the rest of this entry »





Ripasso and Appassimento in Niagara: A Virtual Tasting with Barclay Robinson, Winemaker at The Foreign Affair

15 04 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

As a wine lover, I often feel I am walking a tightrope of sorts between appreciation of bare-bones, terroir-driven wines of place on the one hand, and esoteric, funky winemaking techniques on the other. My allegiance gravitates implicitly to the former camp, populated by relatively pure expressions of soil and grape variety that eschew the muddying effects of various vinification tricks of the trade. Then again, I can be a sucker for the weird, particularly if there is true intent behind the decision to use a particular cellar technique: the careful realization of a particular vinous vision can be every bit as compelling as what results from a more hands-off approach. It turns out that in some cases, particular techniques are the tradition. And traditions, like other aspects of culture, are meant to be shared, applied to new contexts, and ultimately celebrated.

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Enter Barclay Robinson, winemaker at Ontario producer The Foreign Affair, who recently shared the story and results behind some of these techniques and traditions in a personal virtual tasting.  This was a lot of fun, Barclay being exactly the sort of guy I like tasting with: erudite yet down to earth, funny yet quick to impart knowledge. The winery, situated in the Vineland area of the Niagara Peninsula, is completely unique in the Canadian context. Founders Len and Marisa Crispino lived as expats in Italy, where they fell in love with the Amarone wines of Valpolicella. These burly concoctions are made using the the appassimento process, in which the grapes are dried after harvest for to up to 6 months, typically resting on bamboo racks or straw mats, or alternatively strung up from the ceiling where air can circulate and work its dehydrating magic. These raisined grapes provide a very concentrated must (the juice to which yeast is added after crushing to make wine), which makes fermenting the resulting wine to total dryness quite a challenge. I have grown to appreciate Amarone over the last year or so, although its combination of high alcohol, intense flavour concentration, and a unique nut-like bitterness can be polarizing. The Crispinos decided to bring this winemaking approach to Ontario, albeit using the Bordeaux varietals known to do well in the Niagara Peninsula (alas, Niagara Corvina is not a thing at this juncture). Read the rest of this entry »








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