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.)

Culmina: R&D Summer 2020 Releases

9 08 2020

By Raymond Lamontagne

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

Welcome back to our coverage of Culmina’s newly released summer offerings. Peter recently guided us through two classic Culmina bottlings and a unique saignée rosé. Now I get to analyze the winery’s new R & D offerings. Do not presume that such wines are necessarily experimental or cutting-edge in style, although admittedly that’s where my mind goes as well, and it turns out that “R & D” might actually stand for “research and development”. It is also possible that it stands for “Ron and Don”, representing Don Triggs, the founder of Culmina, and his twin brother Ron. The charming labels of these wines would seem to shore up this hypothesis, particularly since pushing boundaries seems to be more the purview of Culmina’s limited release “Number Series”. The R & D line represents wines that are fairly easy on the pocket book, less serious in their general demeanour than the upper-tier Culmina offerings, and intended for early consumption. In short, they are fun, cheerful, and not the sort of thing you are likely to encounter in dusty old cellars curated by the sorts of folks who only buy Bordeaux futures.


Before we rock out, I will mention that Peter provided coverage of the prior 2018 vintages of both the R&D Riesling and rosé. Although we are course different tasters, this still allows for some assessment of how these wines vary across vintage. I made a point of revisiting Peter’s write-ups only after doing my own tasting notes, and I may pull in a few observations here and there around vintage variation or other comparative musings. To the crucible that is the most enjoyable type of study: wine research. Read the rest of this entry »

Calgary Wine Life: City & Country, YYC’s Urban Winery, Part II

14 06 2020

By Raymond Lamontagne

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

When I took my WSET Level 3 course a few years back, my instructor mentioned that, were it not for our punishingly cold winters, Alberta might feature a grape-growing climate similar to Alsace! Climate change notwithstanding, I cannot see this situation fully playing out in my lifetime. Nevertheless, a guy can dream. In the meantime, it turns out that our wonderful city does have a winery that makes honest-to-gosh wines from vitis vinifera grapes sourced from more pacific climes. We first met City & Country in April when Peter reviewed a white and two rosés (including a white Zinfandel which was initially approached lightheartedly but which it turns out might be food pairing magic). Tonight I tackle a few C&C reds. First, some background, by way of a quick review.

IMG_2092City & Country can be found east of Macleod Trail and just south of Erlton, although the brand itself predates the bricks-and-mortar winery that started operations this year. Chris Fodor and his wife Karen first made their own wine in 2017 with some help from Pentage Winery in the Okanagan, where their winemaking endeavours were originally housed, but the Fodors’ aspirations were ultimately bigger than just one wine region, or even one country. They reasoned that a winery based in a large city could source grapes or even pressed must from anywhere, so long as everything is temperature-controlled. I’ll mention here that such a model is used by some of my favourite boutique wineries in California and elsewhere in the US, although in these cases the winemakers draw upon a limited number of local options (often very specific, unique sites) for grape sourcing. The Fodors seem to scoff at the notion of such constraints, although understandably the focus of the winery’s initial releases seems to be on grapes from next door in the Okanagan.

IMG_2094The Fodors officially opened the City & Country winery on February 1st, 2020. Of course, COVID-19 struck after a mere month and a half of operations, but City & Country pushed forward with characteristic Alberta resilience, featuring an online storefront, contactless delivery (free across the province for orders over $60),  and wines available at retail locations across the province. In an exciting update from Peter’s prior post, we can happily announce that the tasting room is again open at the time of this writing, with appropriate distancing and sanitization protocols in place. Phew! Although the world is far from out of the woods, let’s support Calgary winemaking and see what the Fodors have to offer. We begin with my favourite black grape. Read the rest of this entry »

Synchromesh Wines, Part I: Powered by Rieslings (and Merlot)

4 05 2020

By Raymond Lamontagne

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

Social distancing. Self-isolation. Working from home. Stress baking. Flattening the curve. It is all a bit much, but just maybe there is a light at the end of the tunnel, or at least a faint wink, luring us towards a world that won’t be completely the same ever again. Keep up the great work, (most) folks. Aren’t you glad that there is still ample wine to drink, and to read about? We here at Pop & Pour were particularly thrilled to spend part of our quarantined home-stay getting acquainted with the latest vintage of Synchromesh Wines, Canada’s Riesling overlords, a homegrown brand forging an unmistakable vinous identity.


Please excuse the floor… Cats live here, and it is not like tons of people are coming over to visit.

Alan and Amy Dickinson certainly had their research cut out for them when they set out in 2009 to find vineyard sites in BC that might yield top-shelf Riesling. This grape is one that will translate any nuances of terroir right into the glass, which is exactly what the Dickinsons wish to foster: minimalist winemaking that lets the land speak for itself. After almost of a year of searching, they acquired 5 acres of high-elevation south-facing vineyard that would serve as the nucleus of Synchromesh’s estate plot Storm Haven, which would later blossom to 107 acres when a neighbouring property was acquired in 2017. Although such an expansion may conjure up concerns of dilution of all that makes a specific parcel unique, au contraire. For one, the Dickinsons don’t play around with mediocre sites. Furthermore, a larger vineyard provides an opportunity to explore geological and climatic aspects of the site that in effect provide a larger palette from which to paint. Pinot Noir was added at Storm Haven, and the Dickinsons ultimately extended their stewardship to other vineyard locations in Naramata, a never-ending quest for further pure site expressions. All of their farming is organic, with no synthetic inputs, and all wines are fermented spontaneously, with a hard turn away from any factor that could blur the expression of each specific vineyard. Stay tuned for later in-depth coverage of Synchromesh’s home base; in this post I will focus on two special non-estate sites for Riesling, as well as another renowned plot for… Merlot?? Yes. Read on. Read the rest of this entry »

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