Calgary Wine Life: Checkmate Chardonnay Global Challenge @ Sub Rosa

6 06 2017
FullSizeRender-640

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.

FullSizeRender-635

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 »





Calgary Wine Life: Thomas Perrin Beaucastel Component Tasting

23 02 2016

FullSizeRender-242I’m having myself a bit of a tasting month here.  A week after sitting down to some incredible 50, 51 and 52 year old Taylor Fladgate Ports, I was treated to one of the most memorable experiences of my wine life:  a chance to taste through the individual varietal component wines of the unparalleled Chateau de Beaucastel with proprietor Thomas Perrin, the first time such a tasting had ever been held in Alberta.  Beaucastel is the legendary estate of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the top region in France’s Southern Rhone Valley and the first area declared to be an Appellation d’Origine Controllee (AOC – now Appellation d’Origine Protegee, or AOP) in 1936, known for producing rich, dense and complex reds and whites of remarkable quality and longevity.  The Perrin family has owned Beaucastel for over 100 years, having purchased it shortly after most of the vineyards were ravaged by the phylloxera louse and just before the scourge of World War I. Two wars, 100 hectares and five generations later, Thomas Perrin and his family members carry on the legacy of the Chateau and the Perrin name.

Beaucastel’s winemaking philosophy was created and entrenched largely by Thomas’ grandfather Jacques Perrin, whose name graces the estate’s top wine, Hommage a Jacques Perrin, released only in top years.  The elder Perrin converted the entire estate to organic viticulture back in 1962, when almost nobody would even have known what that meant and the prevailing wisdom pushed hard the opposite way, toward the increased use of vineyard chemicals and pesticides.  Chateauneuf-du-Pape permits the use of an astounding 13 different grape varietals, 14 if you count the white version of Grenache (reds – Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Counoise, Terret Noir, Muscardin, Vaccarese; whites – Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Clairette, Picpoul, Bourboulenc, Picardin), which is way more than your standard high-end rigid French appellation; Beaucastel makes a special point of using them all, white and red, in every vintage of its CNDP release.  They plant, harvest, vinify and mature each varietal separately, as each has a different growth curve and ripeness window, but in all cases they aim to tell the harmonious story of grape, soil, climate and region, of terroir, in their wines.

FullSizeRender-236

Read the rest of this entry »





Calgary Wine Life: Greywacke Tasting with Kevin Judd

7 10 2014

Kevin Judd is a New Zealand visionary, a trailblazer who has left a permanent imprint on the nation’s young wine culture.  As the founding winemaker of Cloudy Bay, now the near-ubiquitous signpost for the sharp, tangy, herbal style of Sauvignon Blanc that is instantly recognizable in the glass, Judd pioneered a flavour profile for New Zealand’s signature grape that put the country on the world wine map.  He helmed the ship at Cloudy Bay for 25 years, taking it from an unknown producer in an anonymous wine nation to a whirlwind New World phenomenon, the crown jewel of a Sauvignon Blanc revolution that saw millions of bottles fly off the shelves.

IMG_2063

After Cloudy Bay was sold to luxury brand behemoth LVMH (whose wine portfolio includes such luminaries as Krug, Dom Perignon, Chateau d’Yquem and Cheval Blanc, upper-crusters all), Judd finally realized a lifelong dream of starting his own label and making wines in a manner that best suited his palate:  riper batches of fruit, slightly softer acid, yet retaining all of the structure and complexity that a cooler climate can provide.  He called the new venture Greywacke, a name he had quietly reserved 15 years earlier while waiting for his opportunity:  the word (pronounced “grey-wacky”) refers to the grey sandstone rocks that are commonly strewn across New Zealand’s vineyards.

Read the rest of this entry »





Calgary Wine Life: Torres Mas La Plana 40th Anniversary Tasting

16 07 2014

photo 4For the CEO of a global wine empire, Miguel Torres Maczassek is a pretty chill guy.  Soft-spoken yet jovial, the 5th-generation head of one of the wine world’s largest family businesses initially comes across as unassuming, but his passion for his multitude of intercontinental wine projects and his pride in the Torres family legacy shines through whenever he speaks.  Torres (the estate) has vineyards and properties across all of the major wine regions of Spain and many other countries, and Torres (the man) recently spent 3 years living in Chile running the family’s operations there, making connections with local growers and taking steps to preserve and revive some of the country’s oldest known varietals.  He was in Calgary recently to help celebrate the 40th anniversary of Torres’ flagship red, Mas La Plana, which I have had and enjoyed many times before and which is one of those rare premium wines that can still be found locally at a fairly reasonable ($50ish) price point.  We had the opportunity to track the evolution of this wine through four different decades, from the 1980s to the 2010s, and to witness firsthand the steps taken to fully realize the family’s vision for its top bottling. Read the rest of this entry »





Calgary Wine Life: Sicilian Master Class @ Theatre Junction Grand

31 10 2013

Quick:  name a Sicilian wine producer.  Did you say Planeta?  Me too.  Name another one.  To my embarrassment, I couldn’t.  My list of known Sicilian producers ends at one.  This fairly sizeable void in my wine knowledge is particularly galling because, believe it or not, Sicily is the biggest wine-producing region in Italy:  it actually produces more wine per year than Australia, more than Chile and Bordeaux combined.  So why does it continue to have such a low profile?  Because, up until recently, the wine produced was not generally of high quality and was often sold off in bulk to other parts of the country instead of bottled on its own.  Even now, less than 20% of Sicily’s annual production is bottled for individual sale, and only 5% or so comes from a legally designated DOC region.  But there is currently a quality revolution underway in Sicily, one that has been brewing since the 1980s and that has seen many longstanding producers forego high yields and the sale of their crops by the ton in favour of more meticulous growing and winemaking practices and the creation of better wines under their own labels.  This week I got the chance to witness this transformation midstream.

image-7

Read the rest of this entry »





Calgary Wine Life: Cork & Canvas CPO Tasting @ Willow Park

6 03 2013

[Cross-posted at www.calgaryisawesome.com]

My two year-old son is going to his first symphony on Sunday.  Before the matinee performance of Peter and The Wolf, the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra is putting on an Instrument Petting Zoo so that kids like mine who haven’t experienced live music can see and feel for themselves the difference between an oboe and a piccolo, a trombone and a timpani.  Our city’s remarkable orchestra is constantly innovating like this, striving to make symphonic music more accessible to a broader audience, whether it’s putting on these Symphony Sundays for smaller children or lending their arsenal of talents to performances of music from video games, The Lord of the Rings, or rock and roll bands like Queen.  This fun and unpretentious vibe extends to the CPO’s fundraising efforts as well:  if you want to, you can adopt your own member of the orchestra for a year, or book a concert for your child’s elementary school.  Or, like me, you can drink.

Photo1-162

Read the rest of this entry »





Calgary Wine Life: Taste With Piero Lanza of Poggerino

17 02 2013

[Cross-posted at www.calgaryisawesome.com]

There’s nothing quite like listening to winemakers talk about their own wines.  You can learn a lot about a wine by reading labels, going to websites, talking to shopkeepers and (of course) reading blogs and online reviews, but nothing gets you inside the soul of a wine faster than hearing the person who created it talk about what led up to its birth.  On Valentine’s Day, a few of us were treated to this rarefied experience at Vine Arts on 1st Street and 13th Avenue SW, where Wine Boy Imports presented an interactive tasting with Piero Lanza, co-owner and winemaker at Fattoria Poggerino in Tuscany, Italy.  Lanza led us through his entire lineup of classically inspired wines and made most of us mentally pencil in a trip to central Italy at some point in the future.

Photo1-157

Poggerino is first and foremost a family venture:  it was purchased by Piero’s grandfather in 1940, and he and his sister are the third generation of Lanzas to work on the property.  The estate is comprised of 43 hectares of land, although only 12 hectares are planted to vines (11 to Sangiovese, 1 to Merlot), with the rest largely covered in forest.  Lanza described the relatively narrow spread of the vineyards as “human-sized”, stating that he preferred to keep the operation on a scale that allowed him to personally work on all the crops and “speak to my vines”.  His passion for maintaining, preserving and expressing the essence of the land is powerfully sincere and has led Poggerino to be both organic and biodynamic in its vineyard practices.  “This land is mine on a piece of paper, but it’s really for everybody”, Lanza explains; many of his decisions with respect to the handling of his crops paint him as a steward for future generations.  He is focused on ensuring that the soils where his vines grow are constantly teeming with life and that the grapes themselves are merely one part of a thriving ecosystem instead of a single disruptive force that creates imbalance with its surroundings.  Given Lanza’s dedication to the land, it is not surprising that his winemaking style is devoted to reflecting the unique footprint of the soil through its grapes.  He keeps any intervention in the cellar to a minimum and aims to produce wines of elegance and intensity without excess concentration, keeping them fresh and food-friendly.  In his words, “I work hard to produce simple wines.”  We were lucky enough to try 5 of them, each somewhat different from the others, but all reflecting a common origin. Read the rest of this entry »