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.

IMG_0829

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 »





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 »





The Patient Vintner: Bodega y Cavas de Weinert

24 05 2019

By Peter Vetsch

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

If I was to tell you that I was drinking the current release of a mid-tier offering from a well-regarded producer and from a name region, made from 70-110 year-old vines, and that the vintage date on the bottle was 2006, what would you guess the region was?  Rioja – maybe a Reserva offering from a traditional-minded producer?  Champagne, if you are extremely liberal with your definition of “mid-tier”?  Somewhere in Italy?  Portugal?  You would probably be most of the way through the global wine region Rolodex before you landed on Mendoza, Argentina, and once you did, you would probably immediately discard the possibility, knowing this to be the heart of bold, fruity, approachable Malbecs that are released and enjoyed in their youth.  Bodega y Cavas de Weinert, and its current-inventory $25 old-vine 2006 Malbec, will cause you to re-evaluate all of your presumptions; they are an anachronism in all the best ways.

IMG_0079

This classical estate actually has a rather recent history:  the winery dates back to 1890, but its current identity was tied to its acquisition by Brazilian Bernardo Weinert in 1975. Swiss winemaker Hubert Webber has been at the helm since 1996, when he was ensconced at the ripe old age of 27; his mission has been to craft wines from Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot wines that avoid early showmanship and start to reveal themselves after a decade or more, as it is only then that the Bodega will release them to market.  Lengthy barrel aging (up to 5-6 years in large oak foudres in Weinert’s cool granite cellars), then further time in bottle pre-release, is the estate’s hallmark — Weinert follows the old-school Spanish model of only allowing his wines into the public sphere when they are deemed ready to drink, whether or not this follows the standard chronological vintage release playbook.  In other words, don’t necessarily assume that the 2007 will follow the 2006 as the next wine on the shelf.

IMG_0085

The relatively modest prices of the finished wines might be reflective of advantageous land and labour costs in Argentina, but they are not the result of any lack of care in the vineyard:  Weinert’s vineyards, located in Mendoza’s top subregion of Lujan de Cuyo, feature largely ungrafted own-rooted vines that are a minimum of 25 years old and are exclusively hand-harvested.  Fermentation takes place in cement tanks, and Weinert’s cellar boasts both the largest barrel in Argentina (44,000 L) and the oldest barrel in the world, each of which are a reminder that the goal of the Weinert wines’ extended time in barrel is not wood flavour transference (which increases the newer and smaller the barrel is), but gentle, lightly oxidative maturation.  I had the opportunity to taste a trio of Weinert offerings, all 12-13 years old (as is par for the course in this particular corner of Mendoza), to explore this wholly unique take on Argentinian viniculture.  Malbec first, as always. 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.

IMG_0437

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 »





Yalumba: Coonawarra Cabernet Classes

28 02 2019

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

Tonight’s bottle duet replicates one of the most common questions that plagues burgeoning wine consumers:  when it is worth it to jump a tier?  If you’ve tasted and enjoyed the entry-level offering from a given producer, should you invest the extra few bucks to try their next level up?  Will you get more in return, enough more to justify the additional expense?  Value judgments and personal preference are always at least somewhat subjective, but objectively, when you move from a winery’s starter bottle to the next level up, and when you pay more for that privilege, it’s often because you’re getting one or more of:  (1) better, more consistent, more carefully sorted grapes, (2) better vineyard sources, or older vines from within the same vineyard, (3) more estate fruit grown by the producer itself, (4) better (or at least more expensive) winemaking and maturation practices, including more time aging in oak barrels (my legal career confirms that, in some ways at least, time is in fact money), and/or (5) better lots, blends or barrels from the results of the winemaking process.  You can see the similarities in style, region and approach common to the producer between the entry-level or next-level bottles, but in theory at least, due in part to the factors above, you should see some elevation in quality and product as you climb the hierarchy.

IMG_9778

That isn’t to say that pricier is always better; diminishing returns are real in the world of wine, particularly when you enter the realm of luxury wines that cannot hope to deliver the value per dollar of their earthbound affiliates.  But in my experience, the price jump from the cheapest offering of a given brand to its next level up almost always pays off in quality; the patience and precision and commitment required to make truly good wine can be strained when you’re also trying to keep below a $20 price tag, and even the slightest bit of economic leeway can make a massive difference.  Neither of tonight’s offerings fall fully into the entry-level category, but they represent the first and second rungs of Yalumba’s Coonawarra Cab quality tiers, so they will serve nicely to illustrate the considerations that go into whether to make the jump. Read the rest of this entry »





12 Days of Vinebox: Day 3

27 12 2018

By Peter Vetsch

I was not expecting to pull a rosé out of the Vinebox collection, let alone (1) one from Spain that (2) is made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, but here we are — this box is already full of surprises.  The 2017 Castillo de Benizar Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé hails from the large dead-central Spanish region of La Mancha, the bullseye of the Spanish map.  It is an area known mostly as the workhorse of the Spanish wine industry and a generator of unspeakably large volumes of wine every year, thanks in particular to the Airen grape, the most prolifically planted grape you’ve never heard of, which makes up the largest acreage of plantings in the country.  But La Mancha is starting to be about more than just quantity, and the friendly climate allows for almost anything to be successfully planted, including King Cab.  Gems can be found.

IMG_9440

Castillo de Benizar is a brand of producer Bodegas Ayuso, whose massive new 15,000 m2 production facility allows for fermentation/tank storage of up to 35 MILLION LITRES of wine at once.  But this particular bottling (er, vialling) isn’t a mere commodity.  The Cabernet Sauvignon vines from which this rosé is created are planted on a separate plot specifically and unusually dedicated only to rosé production, making this no saignée afterthought or vinous byproduct.  Old-school Spanish rosé tends to be mellow and earthy and (intentionally) oxidized, but newer renditions buck that trend and focus on the freshness and fruit purity that are currently making rosé a universal global language.  This one follows suit.

IMG_9442

Castillo de Benizar’s pink Cab is a striking bright watermelon-flesh colour and gives off cool minty and herbal aromas (spearmint, chlorophyll, sage) along with mineral-laced bath salts and soft pink lemonade and raspberry fruit.  Even expecting a more modern pink take based on its colour, I was still unprepared for the level of perkiness and brightness that seeps into every pore of the wine.  There is zero hint of rustic Old World earthiness, which has been wholly eradicated and replaced by turbo-charged acid and vivid Pop Rocks, Thrills gum, strawberry smoothie, pink grapefruit, green apple Jolly Rancher and Welch’s white grape juice notes.  It continually jumps around on the tongue, making all neural synapses fire in rapid sequence.  Despite the confectionary nature of its flavours, the rosé finishes clean and comes across as fairly dry, although the piercing acid probably covers some dose of residual sweetness.  Look at that colour!  Not your grandfather’s rosado.

88 points

IMG_9441





Bricks Wine Advent Calendar 2018: Day 22

22 12 2018

By Raymond Lamontagne

This is my penultimate entry for this project. It has been a long run. I am glad you are still with us. We told you it would be opinionated. Pretending that everything tastes the same or somehow manages to land on the same quality benchmark as everything else would be disingenuous. Rest assured, though, I very much appreciate the fine work ALL of these grape growers and vintners have put into this beverage, this agricultural product, this work of art we call wine. I was pleasantly surprised by today’s reveal. For you see, I am a Pinot Noir guy who still manages to really loves Cab, in all of its decadent, rich, lavish glory.

IMG_2527

Woodward Canyon was founded in 1981 by Rick Small and his wife Darcey. Named for the canyon where Rick’s family has farmed the land for multiple generations, Woodward was the second winery to be bonded in the Walla Walla Valley, with the Smalls playing an integral role in the process by which the Walla Walla AVA was created in 1984. The focus has been largely on Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blends, with some grapes grown on estate vineyards while others are sourced from select growers in the Columbia Valley. This emphasis on farming first typically yields wines of place, although Woodward Canyon is not averse to blending across sites to yield a particular style. Enter the present bottle. Read the rest of this entry »








%d bloggers like this: