Volcanic Hills III: Igneous Miscellany

25 10 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

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

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

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





Volcanic Hills I: Molten Whites

9 10 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

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

It’s days like today when I truly value my connection with wine, fermented grape juice yet so very much more. You know, the sort of day where everything hits the skids, and wine is there at the end of it to provide an affirmation of the pleasurable things, to stimulate intellectual curiosity, and to infuse existence with a certain beauty that works to counterbalance any ugliness that cannot help but seep in around the edges of even the best-curated life. White wine is where it all started for me. At its best it is sharp and crystalline yet hedonistically fruity, linear yet complex, tart yet comforting. My first wine that I actually cared to attend to – you know, I am drinking wine and I’m actually going to notice that it’s wine! – was a Canadian Gewürztraminer. I won’t say which one. It was delicious back at that juncture, but at this point leaves me wanting on those rare occasions when I loop back to it. Nevertheless, I still seek out all things Gewürztraminer in this country, and am rewarded every so often with beacons of surprising revelation. It just so happens that the Volcanic Hills Estate Winery has made something of a specialty of this perfumed grape, offering an entry-level multi-vineyard blend, a single vineyard offering, a late harvest dessert wine, and even a sparkling Gewürz. They also offer two takes on Viognier, another notoriously perfumed fruit bomb currently making a name for itself in the Okanagan. I may be just the Canadian wine writer to guide our loyal readers through this particular romp.

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The Volcanic Hills Estate Winery is operated by Sarwan Gidda and his son Bobby, and is now into its 11th year of operations. Sarwan, born in India, founded the Mt. Boucherie Estate Winery in 2000 with his two brothers. According to Noel Gallagher, “Everyone knows that if you’ve got a brother, you’re going to fight.” Sure enough, Sarwan departed the partnership to start Volnanic Hills in 2008, with Bobby designing the layout of the geothermally heated and cooled winery. The winery itself is situated on the southeastern slope of Mt. Boucherie, which most agree is a 60 million year-old dormant volcano. The Okanagan’s Mt. Etna? I’m not sure, but according to the Giddas, the 70 or so acres of estate vineyards benefit from this rich volcanic heritage. Many swear that you can taste such soils in the finished wines. My own experience with certain Old World whites does corroborate this, even if the mechanisms involved remain poorly understood. The Giddas trust winemaker Daniel Bontorin, who trained locally in the Okanagan, to create complex yet affordable wines from estate grown grapes as well as the produce of various contract growers. Let’s check in on the whites. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: The Reds of Castoro de Oro

14 08 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

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

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

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





Wine Review: The Whites of Castoro de Oro

31 07 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

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

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

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

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





Wine Review: The Reds of Sunrock Vineyards

4 07 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

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

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

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

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





PnP Panel Tasting: Midnight’s Children – The Many Syrahs of The Hatch

14 06 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

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

It has been a prolific week for PnP Panel Tastings! This one was a doozy. Peter, myself, and PnP spirits guru Tyler convened to open some Okanagan wines; we also ended up taking a massively (possibly Okanagan-wine-induced) deep dive into ’90s alternative rock, which was good for a monumental spike of nostalgia and a slew of earworms for the rest of the weekend. Sometimes hangovers sound like Wide Mouth Mason. The company was of course excellent, tolerant of my occasional requests for overly long Rush tunes (OK, it wasn’t all ’90s). That aside, this was the sort of night from which memories are made, frivolously pleasant and soul-searching alike, and what better vinous companion for me than The Hatch?

The-Hatch-Wines-West-KelownaYou see, four of the suspects hailed from the cellars of the Hatch, subject of a previous PnP Panel Tasting and still my favourite BC winery. I defy you to find a similar blend of idiosyncrasy, creativity, whimsy, and sheer stubborn courage in our westernmost province. There is a true artist’s aesthetic behind the wines. These guys do what moves them, unabashedly and without any discernable pretense. That kind of genuine interface with the world at large is becoming an endangered species other than in the world of wine, where uniqueness has long been a virtue, one that has likely only gathered steam in recent years. I think The Hatch has grown by leaps and bounds since its inception, pushing well beyond some initial growing pains into the world of truly fine wine, even as they never truly forsake the uncanny, the weird. After all, “a poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep”. The Hatch shall continue to keep us awake (except perhaps if you kill all four of these on the same night. Not recommended.) Read the rest of this entry »





Burrowing Owl Spring Releases

16 05 2017

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

Some people chart the seasons using a calendar; others look to the melting snow and the first robins to mark the start of spring.  For me and this blog, the new season only arrives when the box of new releases from Burrowing Owl is delivered and tasted.  I can now happily announce:  spring is here.

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OK, yes, I had a glass of the Chardonnay before the tasting started.  I regret nothing.

Burrowing Owl is one of the few Canadian wineries that has been consistently able to juggle both quantity and quality, producing 35,000 cases annually from 16 different varietals grown across 170 acres and three different estate vineyard sites encircling the scorching southern Okanagan hubs of Oliver and Osoyoos.  It is likely best known for its Bordeaux varietals, but also makes room in its vineyard sites for less expected offerings like Tempranillo and Viognier, not to mention a killer Syrah that is proof of concept of the region’s suitability for the grape.  Burrowing Owl’s two largest vineyards are scant minutes away from the US border, on western-facing slopes angling down towards the temperature-modulating Lake Osoyoos, which both restrains the Okanagan desert heat during the day and extends it at night.  The third is due west of Oliver, in the neighbouring Similkameen Valley, using its proximity to Keremeos Mountain to help grow Bordeaux whites Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, where 2017’s spring releases conveniently start. Read the rest of this entry »








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