Calgary Wine Life: Checkmate Chardonnay Global Challenge @ Sub Rosa

6 06 2017
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Anthony Gismondi.

Checkmate Artisanal Winery has no shortage of vision or ambition.  It is both a newcomer to the Okanagan wine scene and the oldest of old hands, founded by Mission Hill proprietor Anthony von Mandl after his purchase of a pre-existing winery (Antelope Ridge, just west of Oliver) and some of its vineyards back in 2012.  Thanks in part to von Mandl’s existing land holdings, Checkmate began its life with elite sources of fruit from five top-tier vineyard parcels, the youngest of which is just shy of 20 years old and the oldest of which are some of the most senior in the country.  The vineyards scatter across the southern Okanagan:  there are two near the winery on the Okanagan’s first-ever formal sub-appellation, the Golden Mile Bench, two across the highway to the east on the neighbouring Black Sage Bench, and one literally 30 feet from the Canada/US border southeast of Osoyoos.  The fruit they produce is reflective of Checkmate’s quality vision and laser focus:  the winery makes SIX different Chardonnays and FOUR separate Merlots, and nothing else.  Their price is reflective of von Mandl’s burning ambition to elevate Canadian wine:  the Chardonnays range from $80 to $125 a bottle and the Merlots all clock in at $85.  It is probably safe to say that this country hasn’t yet seen a winery like this.

At the controls of this super-premium venture is winemaker and general manager Phil McGahan, who began his working life as a lawyer (I knew I liked him when I met him for some reason) and then switched gears and did winemaking stints in Australia’s Hunter Valley and for Sonoma cult Pinot and Chardonnay producer Williams Selyem before being lured north by Checkmate’s potential and master plan.  If your first reaction to the idea of a winemaker leaving California for Canada is surprise (or disbelief), McGahan went to great lengths to point to the Okanagan’s location vis-a-vis southern California as a selling feature:  with world temperatures rising in past decades, he saw Canada as being well-placed as a grape-growing region going forward, perhaps even better than existing warmer-climate regions that may soon find themselves outside of the ideal range for viticulture.  The Okanagan’s combination of (very) long summer days, extensive sunlight and substantial diurnal temperature shifts are proving increasingly attractive to grapes now tended with more careful farming practices, all of which makes up for the area’s shorter growing season.

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The Checkmate wines are created with a quality focus from start to finish, consistent with the raison d’être of the winery.  The Chardonnay grapes are handpicked starting at 3:00 a.m., when it’s cooler, and the fruit is then stored in a cool room at 4 degrees Celsius for 24 hours before being hand-sorted and gently whole-bunch pressed.  Long and slow ferments ensue, mostly with wild yeasts to tease out additional flavours, after which the wines spend 16 months in barrel for better oak integration, with lees stirring towards the end before the Chardonnay is bottled unfined and unfiltered.  All six Chardonnays are made in the same fashion, leaving any distinctions or divergences in their flavour profile to be explained by the story of their site.

So how do you convince the buying public that not just one but SIX Okanagan Chardonnays are worth $80 or more a bottle, and that what is coming out of British Columbia currently can suit up with the best in the world?  You line them up with the world, don’t tell anyone which is which, and let the public see for itself.  That’s what happened this week in the James Bond villain subterranean lair that is Sub Rosa, the quasi-secret underground speakeasy beneath The Guild restaurant on Stephen Avenue, where Canadian wine luminary Anthony Gismondi and winemaker Phil McGahan led a curious crowd through a Judgment-of-Paris style blind tasting of ten Chardonnays, all at similar price points, six of which were Checkmate’s new 2014 releases and four of which were various international heavy hitters.  We had 30 panicky minutes to taste through the full set of wines and rank our favourites, after which each wine’s identity was revealed.  What did this experiment say about the present and future of cult, super-premium, site-specific Canadian Chardonnay?  Read on. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: 2011 Stift Goettweig Gruner Veltliner Messwein

14 12 2012

[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]

Just a classic-looking bottle of wine.  And don't overlook the awesome ceiling fresco on the neck capsule!

Just a classic-looking bottle of wine. And don’t overlook the awesome ceiling fresco on the neck capsule!

Wine lovers owe monks more than you might expect.  For centuries in Europe, it was these members of religious orders who cultivated and maintained vast tracts of vineyard land owned by the church and who advanced the world’s knowledge of viticulture and winemaking.  Legendary wine regions like Burgundy in France were first classified and sub-divided into distinct terroirs by the monks, who analyzed soils and slopes and charted the subtle similarities and differences discovered and their effect on the grapes that were grown in each location.  But that’s all ancient history, right?  Not so fast.  On the banks of the Danube River in Austria there is a Benedictine monastery that is almost a millennium old which has been making wine for 300 years and which still owns and is involved in managing wine production today.  This piece of living history is Stift Goettweig, founded in 1083 and home to a contemplative order of Roman Catholic monks bound to vows of solitude and meditation who have been producing wine on the property since 1730.  In 2006, the monastery leased its 26 hectares of vineyards to a small group of investors (a group that includes some of those running the monastery itself) who are dedicated to making high-quality white wines from grapes grown in the hallowed soil, particularly from Austria’s signature grape, Gruner Veltliner. Read the rest of this entry »





Some Notes About Scoring

21 03 2011

It has been (correctly) pointed out to me that, in most cases, a wine’s rating or score is not an absolute value.  It’s not a direct measure of how good a particular wine is as matched up against every other wine in the world, but instead is a somewhat-relative reflection of how well a winemaker has created a wine of his or her chosen style, how well a producer has hit the vinicultural mark at which they were aiming.  So if you have two wines that are rated 90 points, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re equally matched to each other in every way in terms of flavour and quality; to properly assess these ratings, each wine is more accurately matched against others of a similar ilk.

My ratings don’t quite work that way. Read the rest of this entry »