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.

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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 »





Gerard Bertrand: Domaine de L’Aigle

23 06 2020

By Peter Vetsch

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

The South of France is paradise, for vines and tourists alike.  Consistent weather, tons of heat and sunshine, yet just enough reprieve thanks to surrounding bodies of water — it’s the recipe for both stress-free ripening and a highly satisfying vacation.  Because of these climatic blessings, the growing areas around the Languedoc-Roussillon can successfully cultivate almost any grape you can think of, which helps its ability to generate value-priced reasonable facsimiles of varieties grown at enhanced pedigree and cost elsewhere.  This flexibility may come at a cost, however, hindering the area’s ability to carve out its own identity, one not tethered to other regions’ preconceived notions.  Languedoc luminary Gerard Bertrand has above all sought to let his home region’s soils sing loud and clear, and over the years he has cultivated an impressive array of vineyards and standalone estates that aim to do just that.  It is somewhat ironic, then, that one of his most compelling recent acquisitions is a place that doubles as a convincing stand-in for what I would have told you was the least possible French region to reflect in the deep South:  Burgundy.

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I should be careful to clarify:  Domaine de L’Aigle is nobody’s copycat.  Located at the northern peak of the Limoux appellation, which itself is slightly inland of the Mediterranean Sea and just south of famed fortified board-game city Carcassonne, the Domaine is situated at the foot of the Roquetaillade cliff, always the home of numerous nesting eagles (hence the winery name).  The combination of the highest altitude in the region and the cooling air coming down off the adjacent Pyranees mountain range makes average temperatures here 2-3 degrees Celsius lower than its neighbours in the Languedoc, resulting in substantially more rainfall and a massive drop in temperatures overnight.  In this one specific spot — which was France’s first home of sparking wine, by the way, back in 1531, before Dom Perignon figured out bubbles in Champagne — the climate is sufficiently moderate and bracing that the Burgundian duo of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay excel.  The focus of Domaine de L’Aigle is to explore these northern French varieties (as well as a little Gewurz, in a nod to even-more-northerly Alsace) as translated by the Languedoc’s terroir.  Gerard Bertrand acquired the Domaine in 2007, and it is now one of 16 biodynamic estates under the Bertrand umbrella, joining the previously reviewed Domaine de Villemajou and Chateau la Sauvageonne.  Bertrand’s focus is eternally on clearly transmitting the voice of the South; let’s see how it speaks through the grapes of the North. Read the rest of this entry »





Bricks Wine Advent Calendar 2019: Day 19

19 12 2019

By Peter Vetsch

Some New World sites are unlike anything that came before them, with no obvious comparator from the Old World to help tell their story; Australia’s Barossa Valley and Washington’s Rocks District of Milton-Freewater are good examples of places that, to me at least, don’t taste like anything except themselves.  Other non-European regions have a clear cross-reference to a classic vinifera haunt, a reasonable facsimile in the Old World that allows for an easy introduction.  Think the Willamette Valley and Burgundy.  Australia’s Margaret River falls in the latter camp, and has the benefit of two different European doppelgängers:  its Cabernet-based reds are routinely compared to those of Bordeaux, but its other specialty, Chardonnay, is very Burgundian in essence, combining acid and texture and a regal sort of presence in a way that makes you understand why this recently maligned grape remains at or near the pinnacle of white wine expressions.  I have a massive soft spot for the wines of Margaret River, so it was with great delight that Day 19 was revealed to have come all the way from Down Under.

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Voyager Estate was one of the first wineries to be established in Margaret River, located south of Perth in the southwest corner of Australia.  Its first vineyards were planted in 1978, a decade or so after the inaugural winery in the region saw its start.  Voyager now has five different estate vineyards spanning roughly 110 hectares, all located in a privileged position:  in the Stevens Valley, a spit of land that protrudes directly out into the Indian Ocean, to the point where its vineyards are surrounded by water on three sides, in the so-called “Golden Triangle” of Chardonnay, according to James Halliday.  Voyager is one point of the triangle; its neighbours Leeuwin Estate (along with Vasse Felix’s Heytesbury, the makers of the finest Margaret River Chard I’ve had to date, courtesy of its Artist Series) and Cape Mentelle form the other two.  The vineyards in this area have the benefit of taking root in the oldest soils in the country, gravel-based lands dating back thousands of millions of years (!!), and being kept cool by continuous swirling breezes that help prevent rot and allow for longer hang time.

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The team at Voyager is meticulous to near-OCD levels in the vineyard, striving for absolute uniformity in each block of vines:  careful pruning aims for the exact same number of buds, shoots and bunches per vine to ensure even and contemporaneous ripeness.  The winery is serious about its non-interventionist approach and its goal to express the purity of its soils, which plays out across all steps of the planting, picking and winemaking process:  the vineyards are organic (or in the process of converting thereto), all fruit is from estate plantings, all grapes are hand-harvested, all fermentation is with natural yeasts, and the winery has recently become carbon neutral.  Tonight’s offering, the 2016 Voyager Estate Chardonnay, spent just under a year in tight-grained French oak barrels with only partial malolactic fermentation in an effort to hit that intoxicating combination of texture and acid that only this grape can do justice.

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Stelvin Rating:  6/10 (This screwcap is weirdly difficult to photograph in focus, but it’s a Stelvin + in my book.  I should really fix that dent in the table.)

Everything starts out in highly promising fashion:  the wine is a brilliant gleaming lemon-gold colour as it hits the glass and starts beaming aromas before my nose is even halfway there.  It is a Burgundian dream aromatically, toasty chestnuts (open fire included), coconut crisps, pecan pie and popcorn kernels joyously interweaving with lemon curd, fresh pear and apple crisp fruit.  There was some consensus amongst our Advent blogging group that this might be pretty close to the nose of the calendar so far.  Then a few seams start showing.  The acid is vicious but almost hyperactive, like a tiny lapdog constantly nipping at your ankles.  The broad, full texture seems like a disparate entity, hitting just a touch out of rhythm, almost like you’re drinking two wines at once.  It’s a vertigo-inducing feeling, like a bassist that’s half a beat behind the rest of the band.  Smoke, custard, bananas Foster, lemon meringue and toffee notes play an enticing song, but I’m too stuck wondering why the tempo isn’t in sync to be able to fully sink into it.  I know this is a winery of impeccable credentials, and I can tell this Chardonnay has all of the elements of a winner, but despite being delicious it currently comes across a little bit scattered.  By this point in the calendar, I feel the same way.

88- points





Bricks Wine Advent Calendar 2019: Day 9

9 12 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

In at least two ways Day 9 marks a return of sorts. One: a Schug wine (that time in the form of a Pinot Noir) appeared in the 2017 Bricks calendar. Two: we briefly met the Carneros AVA on Day 6 this year, in its guise as the original home of the Starmont Winery. This time Carneros truly gets its due, with today’s wine proudly sporting “Carneros Appellation” on a label affixed to the bottle neck. A personal favourite California appellation and yet another iconic producer? Sign me up.

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The Los Carneros AVA straddles both the Napa and Sonoma counties. Receiving official AVA status in 1983, Carneros was in fact the first California wine region to be demarcated based on climate rather than political boundaries. A true cool-climate wine region, it finds itself well-suited to the classic Burgundian varieties Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Indeed, this region appears to have been the first in California to establish anything like a decent track record with the temperamental Pinot. Cool winds blow in from San Pablo Bay and early morning fog is commonplace, moderating the warm temperatures needed for ripening such that acidity in the grapes is preserved. Moisture-retaining fertile clay soils also contribute a cooling effect. This yields fresh wines characterized by an elegant precision and a quintessential purity of expression, albeit one not entirely devoid of a certain distinctive sun-kissed California sweetness. As Paul Lukacs explains in “The Great Wines of America”, an overly forceful winemaking hand can easily mar this purity. Fortunately, German emigre Walter Schug understood this.

The Schug Carneros Estate Winery got started in 1989, when Walter ended a 10-year winemaking stint with Joseph Phelps to forge out on his own. Walter had in fact been bottling Pinot Noir under his own label since 1980 and doing so with the blessing of Phelps, even as he continued on as the winemaker at Phelps’ estate. Walter attributed his persistence with the variety to “patience and urgency” in equal measure, with grace and balance in the finished wines being the end goal. His passion for Burgundy did of course extend to Chardonnay, and currently lives on under the guidance of Walter’s son Alex. As you might deduce from the climate conditions explained above, Carneros Chardonnay is notorious for high acidity, thereby providing a much-needed counterpoint to the fatter, round, and frequently buttery Chardonnays produced in warmer Cali AVAs.

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Perfectly consistent with my expectations, the 2017 Schug Carneros Chardonnay receives most aspects of the classic Burgundian treatment, being 100% fermented and aged on the lees in small oak barrels. Vineyard sources include the Schug Estate itself (49%), with contributions from the Ricci, Hi-Vista, Cornerstones, Lund, and Sangiacomo Vineyards to add complexity. The wine is aged sur lie for 8 months, with the oak regime including 16% new medium toast French Allier oak barrels. Malolactic fermentation was not induced, apparently a more recent trend in the Carneros, allowing the wine to retain a more acidic backbone despite many of the other winemaking decisions seeming to converge on a full body with the corners rounded. Let’s see how it all shakes out.

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Cork Rating: 7.5/10 (this is a great cork… Look at this graphic. Alas, the other side features the winery name and a phone number! For a good time call…)

The nose doffs its hat toward the old country, with wisps of smoky hay, yellow mustard, struck match, flint and nutmeg heralding something that is likely to be quite steely as opposed to histrionic. Sure enough, the palate harkens to Granny Smith but also Honey Crisp apple, lemon rind, lemon pepper, and pineapple skin, initially compact and linear but revealing a broader attack that falls just short of creamy over the course of multiple sips. The acidity is cross but not outright angry…well, maybe a bit angry, butting up against the toasty oak that is more prominent on the palate than the nose. Fortunately the wood fails to completely obscure the famed Carneros purity. Some nectarine and honeydew begin to vie with the apples and lemon, and I briefly conjure up thoughts of pear Jello (yes, that used to be a thing), underripe kiwi, and plantains before the acid clamps back down after this nearly tropical pulse. Perhaps a shade too stern and woody to be truly graceful, this is still certainly trying hard to jump over this latter bar, ultimately landing somewhere in the ballpark. I ponder those twinkling sparks of Carneros fruit and peach kernels lingering on my palate, a finish longer than expected. See you in a few.

89- points





Bricks Wine Advent Calendar 2019: Day 3

3 12 2019

By Peter Vetsch

Three days into this year’s half-bottle extravaganza and we haven’t seen a standard-shaped Bordeaux or Burgundy bottle yet.  First off was the reinforced bubbles bottle, followed by the Germanic flute (which trickily held a red), and tonight it became immediately clear that the streak was going to continue.  Can we roll with the punches?  Yes we can.

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This is also the third straight day that I’ve peeled off the tissue paper to find a familiar friendly face:  Day 1’s Tawse has been my go-to Ontario stalwart for years, Day 2’s K.H. Schneider makes the best goddamn Dornfelder in the world, and Day 3’s can is brought to you by the wonderful, hospitable, salt-of-the-earth people at Fox Run Vineyards, from New York State’s gorgeous Finger Lakes area, a winery and a region that I was lucky enough to visit back in 2016.  That was the same year that this wine — sort of — was named the feature white of the Calgary Stampede.  Meet the Fox Run Vineyards On The Run Unoaked Chardonnay, can edition.

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Fox Run is a New York State institution.  This pastoral property on the western shores of Seneca Lake was originally a dairy farm before grapes were first planted there in 1984.  Fast forward 35 years and the winery now owns 50 acres of east-sloping vineyards and focuses on crafting a wide variety of estate wines under the watchful guidance of longtime winemaker Peter Bell.  While they rightly take pride in their excellent Riesling lineup, their Chardonnays are in my mind an equal part of their house identity, both the spritely unoaked Doyle Family Chardonnay and the marvellous barrel-fermented Kaiser Vineyard Chardonnay.  I believe that this can is made up of the former, although the can itself gives away no hints of its specific identity.  The can also strangely does not indicate a vintage, perhaps to avoid the annoyance of having to re-print can labels for each successive harvest; however, I am told that it is most likely not a NV wine and is instead probably the 2018 edition of the Doyle.  This is excellent news, because it means that it is likely also 8% Traminette, a lovably bizarre, slightly soapy, melony hybrid whose vinifera parent is Gewürztraminer (hence the name), which is normally added to the Doyle Chardonnay as a minority blending partner to rev up its personality.  (Fox Run also makes a varietal Traminette, which you absolutely must buy if you ever get the chance.  Traminette is amazing.)

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Cork Rating:  I don’t know what the hell I’m supposed to do with this.  2/10.  Nice tab.

First impressions:  spritz!  The release from the can causes multitudes of tiny bubbles to cling to the sides of my glass for a good ten minutes while a reductive matchsticks and smoke aroma blows off.  What remains is a chiselled aromatic profile of fresh lemon, smoked lime, honeydew, wet grass, pina colada and something oddly like boxed cake powder or Premium Plus soup crackers, the latter two of which I will credit to the Traminette.  The olfactory intrigue does not arise due to any lees stirring or barrel contact, of which there was none — Fox Run built the Doyle in as linear a fashion as possible, save only for the incorporation of this Chardonnay’s mischievous blending brother.  The regimented cool-climate style takes over on the crisp, lean, precise palate, whose relatively neutral flavours of Asian pear, underripe white peach, river rocks and chalk dust are energized by a tight line of acidity that is not undercut by any excess in body or weight.  I almost think this would have been better off being drunk straight out of the can as opposed to splayed out in a Burgundy glass — it is a straight-shot linear wine well-suited to patios and campsites, its low alcohol and pH priming it to provide immediate refreshment, but its mission not extending to unfolding in layers over time.  That said, its consistency and focus are a continual joy with each successive vintage, and, it turns out, with any given container.

87+ points





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 »





Calgary Wine Life: A Field Guide to the Wines of Albert Bichot

10 02 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

Peter has kicked off the 2019 blogging campaign in style, with an intriguing comparison of wine preservation methods that will make a significant contribution to the annals of Pop & Pour science. And me? Well, I’m back doing one of the things I do most frequently on this blog: covering a tasting. This one was a casual drop-in scenario, bypassing the formal sit-down presentation, and on this date that was just fine by me. The frigid weather has left me irascible and more than a little crabby. Fortunately, we’ve got a prescription for those blues… and its not more cowbell. It is glorious, glorious Burgundy.

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I’ve mentioned my love affair with Burgundy (and Pinot Noir more generally) enough times on PnP, so I won’t belabour the point here. I had not tried any wines from Albert Bichot before, but I was promptly faced with 15 (!) of them, in a carefully curated sequence of whites and reds, from Chablis to Grand Cru, complete with a bonus round detour into Beaujolais Cru territory. Fifteen! I was titillated and daunted in approximately equal measure. How the hell is a guy supposed to keep these all straight, what with the small pours, limited analysis time, and numerous distractions around the table? I like to meditate on a half-bottle or more, savouring and seeing how the wine develops over time, as one’s palate habituates to the initial impressions. This is another kettle of fish entirely, with a pace more like Whac-A-Mole than a game of chess, although I do have my tricks, particularly a powerful secret weapon: “Beginner’s mind”. This is an application of mindfulness, where one deliberately pays attention to the present moment, concentrating the attention into a laser beam focused only on the wine in the glass, and then seeing what associations are dredged up. With beginner’s mind, you explicitly adopt a form of make-believe in which you imagine that the liquid in the glass is foreign, entirely novel, never before encountered, and see what this clean slate provides. Might sound hokey, but give it a try during a tasting. It’s like a palate cleanser for the brain. All this aside, I will not take much credit for the fact that I WAS ultimately able to keep all these wines distinct in my mind’s eye. This was more testament to the artistry of the 6th generation producer Domaines Albert Bichot. Read the rest of this entry »





Bricks Wine Advent Calendar 2018: Day 14

14 12 2018

By Raymond Lamontagne

After last night’s quirky yet mightily delicious Rioja, I’ve got the distinct feeling that this weekend run of three wines is going to deliver fireworks. Lo and behold, today’s reveal is a Chablis from one of the best known, most emblematic producers in the region. Burgundy remains my favourite wine region despite many strong contenders. And Chablis, that northern Burgundian outpost of stark minerality and abject crystalline purity, is a particularly singular wine region unto itself. Plagued by viticultural hazards, including regular springtime frosts and the odd unpredictable hailstorm, grape growing is no easy task in this hinterland. I continue to marvel at exactly how these hard-working vintners can distill these harsh conditions into such sheer, stony, precise, pixelated and elegant wines. They are known for a distinctive “gunflint” note, described as “goût de pierre à fusil“, or “steely” if you prefer something rather less martial. ‘Minerality” remains hard to definitively pin down as a construct. We have to date identified no specific “mineral” receptors in the human gustatory system, and yet one cannot reasonably deny the existence of such aromas in certain wines. I’ve even heard the argument that Chablis is where Chardonnay shines most brightly, its true spiritual home. The notion that this grape’s genuine essence could be more ethereal mineral than gaudy fruit intrigues me to no end, subjective viewpoint though it may be.

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William Fevre began with the 1959 harvest, although William’s father Maurice was growing grapes back in the 1930s, mainly in Chablis’ Grand Cru vineyards. Today William Fevre owns the largest number of Grand and Premier Cru vineyards in the region, populated mostly by old, low-yielding vines. The estate was purchased by the Henriot family of Champagne in 1998. Although such a takeover can sometimes be a harbinger of decreased quality, the Henriots instead implemented a new philosophy geared towards better preservation of the nuances of Chablis terroir: use of new oak was abolished in favour of old barrels with an average age of 6 years. Grapes are grown organically, although the estate isn’t particularly fussy about getting official certification. William Fevre seeks to preserve even the most muted variations across individual sites. This focus is coupled with an emphasis on “instant appeal” in the wines, one of those ideological melds of tradition and avant-garde technology that works, and works well.

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The 2015 vintage in Chablis was characterized by a late onset of winter, with some frost and rain until the end of May followed by hot, dry weather at the start of June until the end of August. This is pretty optimal for the Petit Chablis and (non-Cru) Chablis vineyards, lesser sites where grapes can struggle to reach an appropriate degree of ripeness. Indeed, the fine folks at Bricks chose well here. According to William Fevre cellarmaster Didier Seguier, “It’s a perfect vintage for the lower appellations, Petit Chablis and Chablis… These can be difficult in cool, late years, but in ’15 they have a good level of ripeness and freshness.” The entry level Chablis AOC profiled here is harvested manually, with the grapes receiving a brief, gentle pneumatic press followed by gravity settling of the juice. Some fine lees is retained, and the wine does undergo malolactic fermentation (many basic Chablis do not, although I believe the practice has become more common in the region of late). Maturation occurs only in stainless steel.

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Cork Rating: 3.0/10 (Points for total and utter clarity as to region and vintage. Alas, there is little else to score here.)

This all sounds textbook. Frankly, that’s exactly what I am expecting here, in the very best way. I am not disappointed. The fruits include tart Granny Smith apple and the most stern and austere of the green pears, followed by some suggestions of under-ripe hard nectarine, lemon and watermelon rinds (you know, that watery white stuff), a few ghosts of pineapple and starfruit. White berries do occur in nature (e.g. the snowberry) but they are largely unpalatable. If one were indeed edible, I feel I would detect such a note in this taut, precise little dynamo. A pleasing minerality of matchlock musket, chalkboards, and Epsom salts begins to billow from the glass, and I welcome more associations of green banana peel, salted cultured butter, margarita glass rim, and Siberian peashrub/caragana flowers (let’s go with “acacia” for those of you following along on a tasting wheel). The fresh acid is far from meek, malo notwithstanding, and the finish recalls an abrupt sharp slap followed by a few conciliatory caresses. This aggression will not stand, man. Truth be told, this is far too classy to merit more than a few allusions to anything truly bellicose.

89+ points





Bricks Wine Advent Calendar 2018: Day 8

8 12 2018

By Raymond Lamontagne

I am on a Chardonnay kick of late. Admittedly, though, California Chardonnay has not been on the docket much. If it were, Carneros would perhaps be one logical starting point for a guy who enjoys delicate renditions. This AVA spans both Napa and Sonoma counties, is moderately cool and windy, and enjoys a number of day degrees comparable to Beaune. Make no mistake, however. The sunshine is more intense and the growing season is longer than in Burgundy, leading to more prominent fruit flavours even as the grape’s acidity is preserved. A gentle winemaking hand yields a sip full of pure crystalline citrus and apple fruit character, gracefully lifted up by the acid and a distinct silky texture. A heavy-handed approach mars this regional signature almost completely, yielding a wine that might score points with some reviewers but that shows little distinction by way of place.

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With family roots in the Rheingau, Koerner Rombauer, his wife Joan, and their two children arrived in the Napa Valley in 1972. They became partners in Conn Creek winery, learning the wine business there and then staking out on their own in 1982. Rombauer vineyards was a run-away success, serving as an initial home base for numerous other up and coming California wineries (e.g., Duckhorn, Spottswood) while Koerner and Joan also made their own wines. Rombauer Vineyards purchased its first Chardonnay from the Carneros region in 1990, from the Sangiacomo family. This partnership fit lock and key, with Carneros grapes and Rombauer’s winemaking providing a synergy that resulted in numerous accolades, including four appearances on Wine Spectator’s “Top 100 Wines” list. The Rombauers purchased their own vineyard in Carneros in 2002, the same year that Joan tragically died from pancreatic cancer. Today a third generation of Rombauers remains employed at the winery. Carneros Chardonnay remains one of their standard bearers, with Wine Spectator claiming that “Rombauer defines the California Chardonnay style that so many adore”. So a big boozy white, ripe with tropical fruit aromas, buttery and decadent? Hmmm. Read the rest of this entry »





Burrowing Owl Fall Release Trio

8 11 2018

By Peter Vetsch

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

I have now been receiving and reviewing Burrowing Owl releases since 2015, and in addition to some minor shock about my blogging longevity, this has also given me enough familiarity and enough reps with the wines to truly help me understand the winery’s house style.  The whites tend to be creamy and generous, often buoyed and propelled by oak but not at the expense of the underlying fruit.  The reds are bold and ripe yet not overdone, a strong reflection of the scorching desert-like climate of the estate’s Oliver, BC home.

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Year over year, the releases and the winemaking choices behind them come across as impressively consistent, part of the reason why Burrowing Owl has long been on the short list of top quality wineries in the Okanagan Valley.  Now that the snow on the ground here in Calgary seems permanently settled in until April, it feels like there’s no better time to tuck into this trilogy of warm, rich, classic bottles, which always seem to be best enjoyed with a notable chill in the air, starting with a wine that just might be setting a new PnP record. Read the rest of this entry »





Global Champagne Day Taittinger Technical Tasting @ Alloy Restaurant

21 10 2018

By Raymond Lamontagne

Happy (belated) Global Champagne Day! There is probably no better way than a champagne tasting to shake off what has become a considerable amount of wine writing rust. Tasting bubbles, bantering with a few friends, listening to a knowledgeable and engaging speaker — good for the soul. As usual I arrive at the restaurant too early, a neurosis that rarely extends to other important engagements in my life but one that seems omnipresent where wine events are concerned. I simply do not want to miss anything. Right away there is a glass of Cuvee Brut Reserve NV (non-vintage) in my hand, Taittinger’s entry level offering, and at this point I do not mind waiting. IMG_2148Taittinger’s Mikael Falkman comes highly recommended, although on this occasion he seems more inclined to let these majestic wines speak for themselves. He does come to life near the end of the tasting with an exuberant blend of knowledge and humour.  Mikael makes sure to provide a concise history of this famed house, but I particularly appreciate his expositions of the Taittinger family’s winemaking philosophy. I will provide these gems and nuggets along with my tasting notes for each wine. Read the rest of this entry »





Calgary Wine Life: Nautilus Technical Tasting with Winemaker Clive Jones

25 07 2018

By Raymond Lamontagne

The more New Zealand wine I drink, the higher it climbs in my esteem.  Renowned for its superb array of cool climate vineyards and their purity of fruit expression, New Zealand provides a fine showcase for my favourite black grape, Pinot Noir; I have also met few who cannot appreciate the unique and ultra-distinctive style that is New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. We were all exceptionally pleased to welcome to Calgary Nautilus Estate’s winemaker Clive Jones, who travelled all the way from the globally renowned Marlborough region to put an array of his wines through their paces before us. Limits on word count and reader attention span mean that I must immediately plunge into telling six different stories about six different Marlborough wines…OK, five stories. You’ll see below.

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2017 Nautilus Sauvignon Blanc (~$23)

Clive’s knack for explaining technical winemaking details in highly entertaining fashion becomes immediately apparent as the tasting begins. He feels fortunate that a vintage as challenging as 2017 in Marlborough, one marred by not one but two cyclones, could yield a wine of this caliber: “It did get 92 points…if we care about points.” I don’t, but much of the world at large does.

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Nautilus winemaker Clive Jones

Only about half of 2017’s grapes were picked before the weather turned foul, but miracles were wrought and enough of the remainder were able to be used in the final blend. This crisis averted speaks to the classic advantage for those making a varietal wine from a blend of different sites year in and year out, a characteristic that Marlborough (with its myriad soil types and small-scale regional differences in elevation and climate) shares to some extent with Champagne. With an array of lots from different parcels to choose from, careful adjustments can be made by the savvy winemaker to land on a house style every time. The intent in Nautilus’ case is to dial down the aromatics (but not too far down) and dial up the palate weight, yielding something with a pleasing texture that maintains the drinker’s interest. Interestingly enough, part of Clive’s strategy involves adding around 1% of barrel-fermented wine to the Sauvignon Blanc blend, the remainder hailing from trusty temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks. This calculated attempt to tame what is usually a fiercely aromatic, high-acid variety while still exalting the grape’s fundamental identity executes its mission with precision. 

Read the rest of this entry »





Cellar Direct: Underdog Whites

27 03 2018

By Peter Vetsch

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

IMG_7833Close-following Pop & Pour adherents (if such things exist) will have been waiting for this moment for a couple of months.  In my last write-up about the tremendous Euro-tacular wine offerings of Cellar Direct, I teased that the two Italian reds going head-to-head in that review were not the only bottles (or colours) from that country that Cellar Direct had sent my way, but I opted to hold back the indigenous Italian white wine from that set so that it could shine in an all-white duet in a later post.  Well, here we are, and tonight’s 100% Arneis lead-off hitter is joined in the batting order by a rather mysterious and off-grid white Burgundy (to the extent that anything Burgundy can be considered off-grid), each bottle a tantalizing find that proves both that even famous regions have hidden values and that you often need some expert assistance to find that value needle in the prestige haystack.  If Cellar Direct is anything, they are that Old World value sherpa, leading you to consistent quality at credible price points over and over again.  Their streak of never sending me a bad bottle lives on. Read the rest of this entry »





PnP Panel Tasting: Quench! Wines BC Portfolio

1 02 2018

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

First, some exciting news:  I’m happy to announce that Pop & Pour Wine Advent 2017 authors Raymond Lamontagne and Dan Steeves are officially going to be sticking around as regular contributors on the blog, bringing their expertise and exuberance to a screen near you and formally making PnP a joint venture from this point forward.  I’m hoping that this will allow the site to be less tied to my schedule and to have a greater presence around events and bottles that interest you (or that interest us, at least – hopefully they will interest you too).  And what better way to go from a solo gig to a group gig than having a panel tasting?

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A highly worthy BC lineup for our first PnP Panel Tasting.

Here’s how we play our game.  Dan, Ray and I got together to jointly taste a (remarkable) set of wines; we discussed while we tried each wine, but we evaluated and scored each bottle separately and independently, without sharing our final assessment until all scores were locked in.  We divvied up the writing duties, but rather than average out the scores or try to come to a numerical consensus, we preserved each person’s score for each bottle to give you a sense as to the level of divergence in the room through the course of the tasting.  Hopefully this will be the first of many such panel reviews, but if you have any thoughts as to the format or results, leave a comment or send me a message and let me know!

The focus of this inaugural Pop & Pour panel tasting was a sextet of offerings from Quench! Wines, a Vancouver Island-based agency exclusively focused on the burgeoning British Columbia production scene.  We got to taste a pair of wines each from three critically acclaimed Okanagan producers:  Terravista, Bella and Fairview Cellars.  You could not have put together three more divergent groups of wines if you tried, a testament to the diversity that is possible in the Okanagan Valley, particularly since each distinct grouping aptly highlighted a different element of the potential of the region.  I got to lead things off. Read the rest of this entry »








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