Amulet Wines: Vinous Talismans

6 11 2019

By Peter Vetsch

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

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

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

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





Volcanic Hills III: Igneous Miscellany

25 10 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

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

With the core whites and reds now in the rearview mirror, we conclude our extensive coverage of the Volcanic Hills Estate Winery with some odds and ends, various bottles that fit less neatly into the relatively clear-cut categories explored in the last two posts. Wine’s endless diversity has at times been under threat by homogenizing forces, including bottom line-based agricultural and business practices, public demand and the allure of the almighty score as supplied by major critics. Fortunately, the spectacularly mutagenic grapevine refuses to stop reinventing itself (sometimes with human assistance), and the tide has turned away from standardization and towards treasuring the diversity we have across wine-growing regions.

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Enter the Okanagan Valley, a wine region that is home to more than 60 grape varieties but that has yet to put all of its chips on any one vinous genotype. It can seem as if growers there will give anything a shot: the classic cool-climate grapes, hybrids, strange German crosses that haven’t stuck in their homeland (e.g. Optima), and more recently warm-climate grapes such as Sangiovese and Tempranillo, on top of the Bordeaux and Burgundy menu options that crop up everywhere. Some decry this diversity as emblematic of a lack of focus and an unhelpful disregard for the important match between varietal and terroir. In my view, there’s room in the expansive space that is world wine culture for both the perfect lock-and-key matches between land and grape and pockets of “throw caution to the wind” experimentation. And besides, how does one map out terroir in a newer area without taking a few risks? On that note, let’s bring our Volcanic Hills coverage home. Read the rest of this entry »





Volcanic Hills II: Eruptive Reds

13 10 2019

By Peter Vetsch

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

The Volcanic Hills story is a charmingly Canadian one.  Founder Sarwan Gidda’s father Mehtab moved to the Okanagan Valley from East Punjab, India in 1958 with his wife and children, becoming the first Indo-Canadian family to settle in West Kelowna.  After a few years, Mehtab and family were some of the most prolific apple farmers in the valley, but from the late 1970s onward, slowly but surely, their agricultural vision began to drift to grapes.  Ray’s excellent introduction to Volcanic Hills Estate Winery outlined how Sarwan took the next step from grape farming to wine production in the 2000s, and how his children are now helping to carry on this burgeoning family legacy.

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Volcanic Hills is largely a grower-producer, making the bulk of its portfolio from its own 68 acres of estate vineyards in the West Kelowna area, carrying on the Gidda family’s initial farming mission.  Not only are all of VH’s Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Gamay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Zweigelt (yes, Zweigelt) and Marechal Foch (oh yes, Foch) wines made from 100% estate fruit, but all such grapes are own-rooted, planted on their own original rootstocks as opposed to being grafted onto disease- and pest-resistant rootstocks from non-vinifera species, as is the case with the bulk of wine grapes worldwide.  However, while the other two posts in this producer series will focus largely on what Volcanic Hills can do with its own fruit, the four reds below are exceptions to the VH rule and are instead sourced from warmer climes with longer growing seasons which can reliably ripen them.  The Giddas have contracts with other growers in Oliver and Osoyoos from which they obtain their Bordeaux reds and their Syrah, all of which are on offer at the winery for well under $30.  The price points of the entire Volcanic Hills library are such that John Schreiner was moved to name a recent article about them “Wines You Can Afford”.  But price is only one part of the equation; do they deliver for what they cost? Read the rest of this entry »





PnP Panel Tasting: Culmina Spring Releases, Part 2 – Funky Whites Edition

12 06 2019

By Peter Vetsch

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

The last set of Culmina releases featured on PnP was so fun to taste that I felt compelled to bring in the band to share the joy of this next group, a trio of weird, wild, semi-experimental whites that are seeking to test boundaries both within and outside of the winery.  Fellow PnPers Ray Lamontagne and Tyler Derksen gathered with me to taste through a lineup that included my own personal Culmina obsession, the incredible Unicus Gruner Veltliner, as well as two even more envelope-pushing whites from Culmina’s recently unveiled small-production Number Series.  Things got fun fast.

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The Number Series was introduced in late 2016 as a way for Culmina’s talented winemaking team to spread its wings a bit.  Part Reserve-level offering and part experimental test drive, each Number Series wine is a limited-production rarity that may only see a single run, never to be repeated again in subsequent vintages.  It represents the best of Culmina’s developmental efforts from that year, either showcasing a standard-rotation Culmina grape in a whole new way (like the inaugural Number Series Wine No. 001, a rich, ripe Riesling styled like an Alsatian Grand Cru) or braving the unknown with a varietal that isn’t part of Culmina’s normal lineup.  The two most recent Number Series bottles below both fall into the latter camp, and show off some intriguing winemaking approaches to boot.

As with all our Panel Tastings, while we discussed the wines as we were tasting them, we came up with our own impressions and our own scores for each bottle and did not share them until everyone’s assessment was complete.  We started, as every meal and tasting and day on this Earth should, with Unicus. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: Culmina Spring Releases, Part 1

30 05 2019

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

IMG_0135You have to admire a guy like Don Triggs.  After co-founding the eponymous Jackson-Triggs, taking the brand to meteoric heights and carrying the cause of Canadian wine along with it, Don parted from the brand in 2006 when it was subsumed into the massive Constellation empire, his finances and legacy secure, a career in wine that started shortly after his graduation in the late 1960s drawing to a close, retirement beckoning.  But instead of choosing that comfortable path, he threw himself back into the breach once more, this time thinking smaller in scale and fixated on quality.  This next quest started, literally, from the ground up.  With the aid of legendary vineyard consultant Alain Sutre, Triggs spent a year scouring the Okanagan Valley for just the right site, one that could reliably and properly ripen red Bordeaux varietals, including Canada’s white whale, Cabernet Sauvignon.  Finding a promising spot with southeast-facing exposure on what is now the Golden Mile Bench, the Okanagan’s first legally recognized sub-Geographical Indication (GI), they carried out a slew of temperature and soils tests and discovered that the microclimate of the site (at least in terms of degree-days, a measurement that tracks relative aggregate temperature over the course of a growing season) was very similar to that of Bordeaux.  Arise Bench, the inaugural estate vineyard of Culmina Family Estate Winery, was acquired, and Don Triggs’ newest project came to life.

Having located a potentially ideal site for big, chewy reds, Triggs and Sutre only had to look up to find complementary cooler spots for elegant whites.  Two separate and increasingly higher-altitude benches a short hike up the adjacent hillside completed the Culmina vineyard collection:  Margaret’s Bench, at almost 600 metres of elevation a truly unique Okanagan location, welcomes Riesling, Chardonnay and Canada’s top plantings of Gruner Veltliner, while mid-level Stan’s Bench splits time between these whites and Malbec and Petit Verdot to round out Culmina’s Bordeaux blends.  This three-tiered vineyard elevation stairway is the foundation of everything Culmina does, every square inch mapped and studied to maximize the location of each vine planted.

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As Culmina established its identity in the Okanagan, its lineup of releases began expanding: its base Winery Series line, culminating (no pun intended) with Hypothesis, the Bordeaux blend that was the mission statement for the venture, has now been joined by two other sets of releases.  The light-hearted R&D line (which stands for either “research and development” or Don and his twin brother Ron, who are featured in childhood form on the labels) allows Culmina to let its hair down a bit and focus on budget-friendlier wines that are a joy to drink; the limited-release Number Series is a set of small-lot one-offs that push the boundaries of possibility on Culmina’s trio of sites.  I had the opportunity to taste some of the winery’s latest releases, which have just started to hit shelves now, and track the continued upward trajectory of one of Canada’s most exciting wine projects. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: Dirty Laundry, The Whites

2 11 2017

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

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One of these things is not like the other…

Now that snow has blanketed the land and any remaining warm thoughts in Calgary’s mind have been augured away by blistering Arctic winds, I can fully admit that I tasted these Dirty Laundry wines in the wrong order.  I cracked the rosé and red portions of my sample pack back when fall was still a thing (last week) and saved the sunny patio portion of the tasting until it seemed like a cruel joke; serves me right for breaking with orthodoxy and not going lightest to heaviest like the textbooks all say.  But we persevere. I’ve always found Dirty Laundry’s white lineup to be a bit more impressive and consistent than its reds, and they have a particular affinity for Gewürztraminer, the grape that everyone seems scared to focus on too heavily but which truly rewards any such special attention.  However, tonight I got to dive into two bottles that I hadn’t tried before today, starting off with my favourite grape of them all. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: Dirty Laundry, Pink & Red

26 10 2017

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

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Okanagan label mastery.

Dirty Laundry is a winery best experienced in person, as it features a combination of location, history and brand awareness that is next to impossible to top.  It is perched up above the ideally named Summerland, BC, elevated over the Okanagan’s main highway, with vineyard views for miles and a patio strategically located to be drenched in scenery.  This spot was once, back in the era of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s initial construction, the home of a renowned and well-attended laundry service run by an AWOL railroad construction worker who had found a more lucrative calling; his fortune, and the popularity of his laundry business, was due in no small measure to the brothel being run discreetly on the upper floor while the clothes were cleaned below.  A couple of centuries later, the business currently occupying the land knows a good story when it sees one and has turned the tale of the dirty laundry into a branding behemoth that seeps into everything from wine names to labels to tasting room decor to the guest homes for rent on the property, the Bordello House and the Parlour House.  They commit to the identity, keep their humour on high alert and leave their prudishness at the door, and people keep coming back.

The wines themselves may be in a state of flux, caught between wanting to appeal to the widest possible audience and the crowds in for a good time and a novelty bottle-stopper and aiming for a higher level of quality, a product that captures attention in a different way.  I am rooting for them to succeed, as personality and creativity and branding effort are more than welcome in my own world of wine.  The below releases, recent rose and red offerings from Dirty Laundry and the first of a two-part review series, were an excellent chance for me to check in on the winery for the first time in a while and see where they were on their cheeky, quirky voyage. Read the rest of this entry »








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