Rolly Gassman Pinot Blanc 2010 Alsace

rollygassmannpinotblanc

Got home from a trip last night to find a box of Alsace wine waiting for me. It’s only a few weeks since my last visit there, which once again reminded me just how good these wines can be, and what a beautifully terroir-focused region it is. Gassman is a winegrower who ranks right up there with the best, but who also has a particular style. His signature is a richness and opulence, but he manages to achieve this while still keeping varietal character (important) and terroir signature (much more important). So even though it was quite late, I popped this Pinot Blanc in to chill and then worked and drank. Perfect.

Rolly Gassman Pinot Blanc 2010 Alsace
This is a lovely wine. It’s much more generous than you’d expect a Pinot Blanc to be. Lovely pear and grapefruit and herb-tinged melon fruit on the nose. The palate is textured, ripe (although it is only 12.5% alcohol) and broad, with a bit of sweetness adding texture and weight. There’s a lovely melon and spice character here, alongside grainy citrus fruits. It’s rich and sweet but also very fresh, with real detail. At age five, this is drinking beautifully now. A lovely textural, broad wine that retains interest. 92/00
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The remarkable Marqués de Riscal City of Wine

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Yesterday I visited one of the world’s most remarkable winery buildings. I had dinner at the Marqués de Riscal ‘City of Wine’. I’d heard about Riscal’s bold architecture, but it’s only when you get close and see the construction face to face that you realise how stunning it is. It pops out of the sleepy-looking village of Elciego in an explosion of dramatic swirls and colours. I’ve never seen anything like this before.

Designed by celebrated Canadian architect Frank Gehry, it was opened in 2006. It combines the large Riscal winery winery with a luxury hotel. Gehry isn’t new to this part of the world, of course, and is famous for the titanium-clad Guggenheim museum in Bilbao.

marques de riscal detail

Riscal’s building borrowed some of the techniques from the construction of the Guggenheim. Its most distinctive feature is the beautiful waving metal canopies that clad the structure of the building. While these aren’t heavy, the design had to be tested in a wind tunnel in Canada because they can act like sails, adding stresses to the building in heavy winds.

They are quite stunning, and there are around 20 of them, in different colours. They are covered in titanium which came from Japan, and has been treated with a special process that changes the colour.

These ribbons are designed to be a metaphor for wine flooding out of a bottle. Hence the colour choices.

[Interestingly, if you choose to stay here, note that just 14 rooms are located in the Gehry-designed building, with the remainder in a non-Gehry-designed annex - something to bear in mind when you book.]

At Contino, Rioja, with winemaker Jesús Madrazo

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Contino is an estate-based winery, which is unusual in Rioja. It’s based on a 62 hectare vineyard that is at the beginning of Rioja Alavesa, not far from Logroño. The vineyard is in a 100 hectare meander of the River Ebro, facing south, at 400 m altitude.

Jesús Madrazo, Contino

Jesús Madrazo, Contino

We visited with winemaker Jesús Madrazo, whose father founded the winery back in 1974. After some drinks outside, we had dinner accompanied by a range of wines, going back to a magnum of the 1984 Reserva. I’d not tried these wines for a while, and I was really impressed.

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The Contino vineyard is based on alluvial soils, and 70% is pebbly, 5% is sandy and 25% is calcareous clay. The oldest plots in the vineyard are planted with white grapes, with Malvasia planted in the 1930s, Viura in the 1940s and 1950s, and Garnacha Blanca planted in the 1980s.

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These are superb Riojas. They’re definitely Rioja, but they have a purity and fruit focus that is sometimes lost in the more traditional wines.

Contino Blanco 2014 Rioja, Spain
A blend of 85% Viura, 10% Garnacha Blanca and 5% Malvasia. 24 hours skin contact, then fermented with Torula followed by QA23. Then when sugar levels have fallen to 10 g/litre, it goes to 90% new oak 500 litre barrels plus one 600 litre concrete egg, plus 10% acacia barrels. Lively, fresh and bright with white peach, pear and spice. Has some density in the mouth with a bit of pithiness. Stylish and attractive. 91/100

Contino Blanco 2015 Rioja, Spain
This has just been bottled. Powerful, vivid and lively with lovely weight. Subtle pear and peach fruit with some spiciness and nice texture, as well as a floral edge. Nice density. 92/100

Contino Rosé 2015 Rioja, Spain
This is a wine that Jesus has been making since 2002, but only in tiny quantities for guests at the estate. This year he’s made a larger quantity (three 500 litre seasoned barrels) for two UK customers (The Wine Society and Hedonism). It’s made from saignee Garnacha and direct pressed Graciano, together with a bit of Viura that was used to top up the barrels. It’s a distinctive, deeply coloured rosé that’s a vivid red pink. Lovely raspberry and cherry fruit with a bit of spice and a little tannic grip. This is a really nice wine with a sweet fruit core and a nice spicy edge. 90/100

Contino Garnacha 2014 Rioja, Spain
Just bottled a week ago. No new oak here, just the second use 500 litre barrels from the white. In 2008, 1000 litres were made, and now it’s maxing out at 4000 bottles a year. pH is 3.11 with 6.8 g/l TA, which is very high. Fresh with direct raspberry fruit, as well as red cherries and plums. Detailed with lovely focused red fruits and nice tannins. Juicy with vivid acidity. 91/100

Contino Reserva 2010 Rioja, Spain
This is the main focus at Contino and constitutes 80% of production. For 20 years after the winery was founded in 1974 it was the only wine produced. It’s a really elegant yet full flavoured expression of Rioja, showing sleek black cherries and plums, as well as spice and herbs, and a bit of tobacco leaf. The flavours are quite autumnal, and this is delicious. 94/100

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Contino Gran Reserva 2009 Rioja, Spain
We tried this from bottle and magnum. I preferred the bottle (the magnum will probably be better in time), and this is the one I took the note from. Concentrated, sweetly fruited and bold with smooth autumnal fruits. Spice, black cherries, warm herbs, tobacco. Lovely fine-grained tannic structure with superb balance and potential for further development. 95/100

Contino Gran Reserva 2007 Rioja, Spain (magnum)
Sweetly fruited with aromatic, slightly lifted tar, spice and herb notes complementing the warm black cherry fruit. This wine shows lovely depth and fruit intensity, with warm spiciness on the finish. Serious stuff. 95/100

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Contino Graciano 2011 Rioja, Spain
‘This is the soul of Contino,’ says Jesús Madrazo. It’s a grape that varies a bit. In 2009 it was harvested before Tempranillo on the 15 September, whereas the previous vintage saw it being harvested at the end of October. Vivid and rich with high acidity, lovely blackcurrant and blackberry fruit, and bright raspberry and cherry notes. So vivid. 94/100

Contino Viña del Olivo 2010 Rioja, Spain
This is from a special calcareous plot in the vineyard, and 10 000 bottles are made annually. Smooth and mellow with sweet black cherry and plum fruit. Concentrated and dense with sweet fruit and some firm tannins. Has great potential for development. 94/100

Contino Viña del Olivo 2005 Rioja, Spain (magnum)
Sweet, warm, savoury and spicy, with some tarry, herby complexity, and herbal black cherry and blackberry fruit. There are some tarry spicy notes adding a savoury edge to the detailed, complex fruit flavours. Grown up and structured, this is a lovely wine. 94/100

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Contino Rioja Reserva 1984 Rioja, Spain (magnum)
This may not be the most famous of Rioja vintages, but it’s a lovely wine of real poise. Wonderfully aromatic with a leafy, herby edge to the perfumed cherry fruit. The palate is fine with green tea notes complementing the silky cherry and raspberry fruit. Such elegance here: developed and now mature, but still fresh and floral. 96/100

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In the Okanagan, BC, Canada: Le Vieux Pin, La Stella, Black Hills and Tinhorn Creek

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Severine Pinte is the winemaker behind two high-end Okanagan properties: Le Vieux Pin and La Stella. The former is a Rhône specialist and is currently making some of Canada’s top Syrahs.

Severine Pinte

Severine Pinte

These are superb wines with real definition, and count among the country’s very best. They are quite northern Rhône in style, but they also have a bit of the Okanagan about them. Three different Syrahs are made: the floral, perfumed La Violette, then the Classic Cuvée (which ages well), and finally the Equinoxe, which takes things up a bit in terms of concentration and structure.

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La Stella is more Italian-oriented, with Tuscan villa-style architecture and some Sangiovese in the vineyard, along with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Both wineries draw on fruit from six vineyards throughout the Okanagan, giving a variety of terroirs for Severine to play with in creating the blends, even though it results in a lot of driving at vintage time. ‘It’s my seventh year here,’ says Severine. ‘Everything is different; none of the years are the same. There is no recipe; I adapt myself to the year.’

Because of the risk of frosts, they don’t prune short, but instead drop crop once the risk of frost has gone. A precision approach is applied in the vineyards, which have been surveyed by NVDI (which measures the density of the canopy) and also electroconductivity. From these surveys, a range of soil pits were then dug, and there are a range of soil samples that are currently being analysed at a lab in Victoria.

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The whites here are OK, but the real action is with the reds. A new wine, Espressivo, is a Cabernet-based blend that will be released soon, and it is lovely. It will complement Fortissimo, a Merlot-dominated blend, which is really elegant (it includes 21% Sangiovese in 2014). Alegretto is a 100% Merlot from ungrafted vines on sandy soils, and it is grippy and balsamic with a bit of lift. Maestoso, a Merlot, and La Sophia, a Cabernet Sauvignon, are high-end wines that impress, but seem to manage to combine a degree of precision and elegance with reasonably high alcohol levels.

 

Jesse and Graham

Jesse and Graham

Black Hills Estate, on the warm Black Sage bench of the Okanagan, is well known for its Nota Bene, a Bordeaux-style red blend. It was pouring with rain when we visited, so we didn’t go into the vineyard, but we did a mini vertical of Nota Bene, along with winemaker Graham Pierce and assistant winemakers Jesse Cooper and Tamara Hagel.

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I was impressed with how well the 2008 was ageing, with focus and purity, and more than a bit of elegance. 2011 was a very cool vintage and the harvest was delayed until November, and the result is a vivid blackcurrant and blackberry fruit wine with some fine green notes that reminded me a bit of Chile.

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2013 and 2014 are both quite primary, but you get the impression that there’s potential for development here. These are wines that need a decade to show their best, suggests Graham. They are perhaps a little too polished in their youth, but the way the 2008 is developing is very encouraging. We also looked at some barrels, including a very interesting Carmenère, with lots of personality and focus.

Andrew Windsor, Sandra Oldfield and Andrew Moon

Andrew Windsor, Sandra Oldfield and Andrew Moon

Tinhorn Creek was the final visit of the day. Kenn Oldfield and a friend started this winery in 1993, and it is currently being run by his wife Sandra Oldfield, with support from the two Andrews (viticulturist Andrew Moon and winemaker Andrew Windsor). They are producing wines that offer good value for money in reasonable quantities. This is important: it’s easy to focus solely on the expensive boutique wines, when a healthy wine region needs a mix. We had an enjoyable visit with Sandra and the Andrews. The first vintage here was 1994, with just 1000 cases, and this ramped up to 40 000 annually by 1999 and since then has remained about the same. The Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer are really attractive wines at good prices. At the other end, the Oldfield Series Cabernet Franc 2013 is an elegant expression of this variety with a spicy, savoury edge.

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In the Okanagan, BC, Canada: Meyer Family Vineyards, Culmina and CheckMate

Jak Meyer and Chris Carson

Jak Meyer and Chris Carson

Jak and Janice Meyer bought a small vineyard in the Naramata Bench back in 2006. Originally, this was just a hobby vineyard, but in 2008 when Jak started selling the grapes he realized that selling 600 cases was quite a bit of work and that he’d never make money doing it. So in 2008 he made a commitment to expand. Then the opportunity came up in 2008 to buy a property in the Okanagan Falls, and so the current Meyer Family Vineyards was born. The philosophy was to focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and now five of each are made, plus a brand new sparkling wine. We met with Jak and his winemaker Chris Carson, and tasted a range of the wines, dipping back in vintages, too. They’re some of the best examples being made of these varieties in the valley.

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I was particularly impressed by the 2014 McLean Creek Road ‘Old Block’ Pinot Noir (from the oldest block on the home property), and the Tribute Series Art & Viv Meyer Chardonnay 2014 which comes from the Naramata Bench.

Donald Triggs and Pascal Madevon

Donald Triggs and Pascal Madevon

Donald Triggs is a well known figure in the Canadian wine scene. When Jackson Triggs/Vincor was taken over by Constellation in 2005, he tried to retire, but couldn’t quite figure out how to do it. He asked each of his three daughters whether or not he should start another wine business, but only the youngest, Sarah, said she thought it would be interesting. So he started the search for the perfect site for making wines from the red Bordeaux varieties. He took the advice of Alain Sutre, who he had worked with before. ‘Is there another level for the Okanagan, or is what has already been achieved all that there is?’ Sutre replied that he thought that, yes, there was another level, but it would require a lot of patience and a lot of attention to detail. Triggs’ criteria for a site were that it should ripen Bordeaux reds, it should be farmable organically, and it should lead to a sustainable business.

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Golden Mile Bench

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Culmina

Triggs saw five properties before he selected a really nicely situated vineyard site on the Golden Mile Bench, which is now Culmina. There was an existing vineyard block, but this was replanted along with the rest of the property. In order to take into account the variations in the soils over the vineyard, the irrigation system has 108 controllable valves, which can be altered remotely. This is a precision approach to viticulture. As well as the main vineyard site, there’s a second site on top of the hill that is used for whites (Chardonnay, Riesling and Grüner Veltliner), where it is a bit cooler.

With consultancy from Pascal Madevon, the wines are pretty stylish, in a modern mould. The Unicus (Grüner Veltliner) is successful in the warm 2015 vintage and offers rounded pear and spice fruit with some pithy notes and just a touch of white pepper. Decora (Riesling) has also fared well in 2015, while the Dilemma (Chardonnay) in 2014 is a bit closed and reductive, in need of more time to develop. The main action here, though, is Hypothesis, a Bordeaux-style blend with lots of polish and some good structure. I had a slight preference for 2013 over the two preceding vintages. These wines should age well. ‘It’s the beginning of the story, not the end,’ says Sarah Triggs. ‘A new region and a new terroir.’ Hence the name hypothesis.

James and Philip, CheckMate

James and Philip, CheckMate

CheckMate is a high-profile new Chardonnay-only winery that is part of the Mission Hill stable. We visited with winemaker Phil Mcgahan and viticulturist James Cooper to try these newly released wines. The debut 2013 vintage release consists of five wines from three different Chardonnay vineyards. There’s the Heritage Vineyard in the Golden Mile Bench, which has what may be the oldest Chardonnay vines in Canada, planted in the early 1970s. We had a look at some of these old vines, which would certainly have been among the first plantings of Vitis vinifera in the Okanagan. They are knarly and pretty old, and from an unknown clone imported from Washington State, known as the Declaver or Heritage clone.

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Then there’s the Barn Vineyard in Black Sage Bench, and the Border Vista Vineyard near the American Border in Osoyoos East Bench. These are three quite warm sites, but the Checkmate Chardonnays are remarkably detailed and elegant, albeit in a richer new world style. I really liked them, especially the Little Pawn Chardonnay. These wines are extremely expensive, but they are very good indeed, and prove what can be achieved in the Okanagan given care and attention, and skilled winemaking.

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Unintended and unexpected consequences

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I was at a dinner last night when I heard the news.

I really wasn’t expecting the British people to vote to leave the European Union. I was shocked.

So, now: we will begin to see the unintended and unexpected consequences of leaving, which will be a difficult and perilous process.

With every big change there are unintended and unexpected consequences. Whether it is changing jobs, moving home, ending a relationship, having a child, or creating legislation in parliament. Decisions might be made for particular reasons and there will be some predictable consequences. But there’s usually a whole set of things that happen that take us by surprise.

We should be cautious when we wish for change, of whatever sort. There will be consequences that we never predicted. That’s just the way it is.

What will Brexit mean for the UK wine trade? What will it mean for the flourishing English wine producers, who are just starting to make waves with their sparkling wines? We won’t know for some time.

For now, we will probably experience a lot of instability. People will make strange decisions, motivated by fear and fuelled by uncertainty. The EU will be scared of other countries following suit: they may try to punish the UK as a disincentive to others who would follow in our steps. It’s all a bit of a mess. It will be probably fine in the long run, but I do worry about those unexpected and unintended consequences.

I’m still shocked.

In the Okanagan, BC, Canada: Summerhill Pyramid, Liquidity and Painted Rock

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Summerhill Pyramid Winery is one of the Okanagan’s most distinctive. We visited with Ezra Cipes, CEO and son of the founder Stephen Cipes. Stephen brought his family here back in 1986 from New York, and began Summerhill Pyramid winery in collaboration with winemaker Eric von Krosigk.

Eric and Ezra

Eric and Ezra

Back in the late 1980s, when the Okanagan was deciding on its future direction – the switch from hybrid to Vitis vinifera vines was well underway – Jack Davies from Schramsberg came to visit as a consultant. He inspired the Cipes to focus on sparkling wine.

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The vineyard was certified organic in 1995, and four years ago achieved biodynamic certification with Demeter. ‘Biodynamics has been amazing,’ says Ezra. ‘It has brought the vineyard into a much more harmonious place.’ All the preparations are made on site by Ezra’s brother Gabe. ‘Farming is mining,’ says Ezra. ‘You are mining the soils. You are driving tractors on the soils. It’s hard on the vineyard. Biodynamics is about giving back to the soils, making them healthy, and making sure there is biodiversity.’

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Eric adds an interesting perspective. ‘The soil is its own ocean. Everything is down there. There is incredible interaction and interconnectivity.’ All this going on underground, and we don’t see it, nor are we aware of it.

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But it’s hard to get past the pyramid. Stephen Cipes took us in there. It’s a one-eighth scale replica of the great pyramid, and they were preparing for a guided meditation inside as we entered – this was the summer solstice. All the wines, at some stage, pass through the pyramid. ‘Liquids are changed and transformed in the sacred geometry chamber,’ says Stephen. His view is that the energy here makes a good wine better, but also a bad wine worse. If people enter in a good mood they will leave brighter, but if they enter in a bad one, it will get worse.

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The Cipes Brut NV, a blend of Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc, is fresh, pure, affordable and delicious. The Blanc de Noirs and Blanc de Blanc (no ‘s’) are both lovely withs with admirable purity and precision. Then we get to the more intense, distinctive cuvées: the Ariel 1998 is bold, toasty and intense, and comes in a very distinctive bottle (a third broke during the second fermentation). And the 1996 Cuvée Tradition is really distinctive: bold, toasty and with some apricot, bacon and sage notes. I like them, but they are an acquired taste.

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A range of still wines are also made, and these are very good. The Gruner Veltliner 2015 is the inaugural release, and it may well be the best I have tried outside Austria. It’s floral, aromatic, peppery and rich with a detailed spiciness. There’s a fine, textured off-dry Riesling (2014), and a really appealing Pinot Noir (2012). But the highlight was the Pyramid Aged 2007 Pinot Noir, which showed vitality, concentration, texture and finesse.

Liquidity, Okanagan Falls

Liquidity, Okanagan Falls

Liquidity is a new winery and bistro in the Okanagan Falls area. We met with owner Ian MacDonald and winemaker Alison Moyes to have a look at their range of wines. This is an 8000 case winery with 15 hectares of vines, and first vintage was 2012. Alison has been here since 2015.

Alison Moyes, winemaker, Liquidity

Alison Moyes, winemaker, Liquidity

The wines are all pretty solid, but I was most impressed by the Chardonnay (2014), which is made in a fresh New World style with some spicy oak complementing the clean fruit, and the Pinot Noir (2014), with its lovely floral cherry fruit nose. The Merlot and Bordeaux-style blend Dividend are also pretty good (both from 2014 too).

Painted Rock

Painted Rock

Painted Rock is another property that I’ve visited before, and I’ve also run into the wines in London a few times. The dynamic, detail-oriented John Skinner founded this property after an extensive search for the perfect vineyard site in the Okanagan, and carefully planted it with a mix of Bordeaux varieties and also Chardonnay and Syrah.

Lauren Skinner and Gabriel Reis

Lauren Skinner and Gabriel Reis

We visited with John’s daughter Lauren Skinner, and also assistant winemaker Gabriel Reis. It’s a lovely spot, and the winery has a really stunning visitor centre. The wines are very well made in a modern style that borrows from both old and new world traditions. They are incredibly polished, and have been well received by critics.

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The Syrah 2013 is rich, bold and ripe with a little bit of exotic, spicy American oak in the mix. There’s also a bit of cool climate pepperiness here. The Merlot is impressive, with its sweet texture and fine-grained, chalky texture under the generous black fruits. But it was the 2014 Red Icon that I fell for. It’s a five-way Bordeaux style blend, but as well as showcasing ripe fruit, it also has an expressive personality, shows a bit of restraint, and has attractive floral aromatics.

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In the Okanagan, BC, Canada: Mission Hill, Cedar Creek, Gray Monk and Tantalus

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The second day of this trip was spent immersed in the beauty of the northern and central Okanagan. As a wine region, the Okanagan is simply too diverse to make all that much sense of. The lake is very long, and climate shifts quite a bit from the cooler north to the pretty warm south. Add on the differences between being on the east side and the west side. Then factor in the changing soil types, and you have a matrix that logically results in about 15 sub-appellations, which are sorely needed as the wine scene here matures. As long as conjunctive labelling is adopted (whereby the sub-appellation name can only be used on a label along with Okanagan), and I can’t see a problem, because these sub-appellations aren’t just vanity projects or ego trips – they are based on terroir. But there are a few big wineries in the valley who are resisting because of vested interests.

mission hill

Mission Hill

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We rolled up to the imposing gates of Mission Hill winery, to be greeted by two security guards who checked us over thoroughly but in a friendly way. The gates pull back and we enter a remarkable world. It’s one of the planet’s grandest wineries, and it’s here in the Okanagan. Mission Hill may not be to everyone’s taste, with its immaculate, manicured grandeur, but it is a real asset to the valley, because it satisfies the needs of a lot of tourists every year. It also provides a massive validation to the Okanagan as a globally important wine region, not just a regional curiousity: that someone should build something like this, here, is a bold statement of belief.

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We were hosted by Ingo Grady and winemaker Darryl Brooker. Darryl is an Aussie who was previously in charge of Cedar Creek, a boutique winery on the opposite shore of the lake that joined the Mission Hill portfolio a couple of years ago. Proprietor Anthony von Mandl now has four properties in the valley, each with a particular talent. There’s Mission Hill, a Bordeaux blend specialist, Cedar Creek (aromatic whites and Pinot Noir), Martin’s Lane (a new Pinot Noir specialist, wines not yet released, located next to Cedar Creek) and Checkmate (Chardonnay). ‘We’re starting to mature as a company,’ says Darryl.

Ancient drinking vessels, Mission Hill

Ancient drinking vessels, Mission Hill

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We tasted a range of Cedar Creek and Mission Hill wines. I particularly liked two of the wines. The Cedar Creek Platinum Riesling Block 3 2014 was aromatic, lively and assertive with just enough sugar to balance the sky high but well integrated acidity. And the Cedar Creek Platinum Pinot Noir Block 2 2014 was beautifully floral and textured with nice detail and freshness. I asked Darryl about Pinot in the region. ‘I think it’s really exciting,’ he replied. His view is that it only works north of Okanagan Falls, but from here up, it really shows the terroir well and is the variety that could be used to base the appellations on. ‘The potential is still relatively untapped. One of the main reasons for me moving here is Pinot Noir.’

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We also tried the Cedar Creek Desert Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2013. This was made by placing whole berries in and amphora, sealing it, and coming back 8 months later. It was pressed and then bottled with no additions. It’s close to 15% alcohol, but the wine is really interesting, and not at all funky. There’s an interesting texture here.

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From Mission we headed over to Gray Monk, where we were hosted by the incredibly jovial Trudy and George Heiss (above). They were pioneers here, in Lake Country, at the north end of the appellation, and were responsible for importing Pinot Gris, Auxerrois and Gewurztraminer into Canada back in 1976. There was hardly any vinifera here then, and Trudy’s father managed to get some from the research station in Colmar, Alsace. It was late in the season and there was very little material left, but they got budwood and rootstock and had to do the grafting themselves. All the Pinot Gris in the valley (it’s the most widely planted variety) comes from their imports.

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They farm 75 acres with their three sons, and also have 250 acres under contract. The wines are cleanly made and pleasant, and they’re also affordable. Along with Pinot Gris and Blanc, there’s Ehrenfelser, Siegerrebe, Auxerrois and Gewurztraminer. They are all pretty wines with crisp acidity, helped with a little sugar. The reds are solid but less successful.

David Paterson

David Paterson

The third visit was at Tantalus, which has a reputation as a Riesling specialist, with winemaker David Paterson. He’s doing a great job here, and all the wines are worth taking a good look at. We scooted round the vineyards in an ATV (all terrain vehicle) and had a peep at the 1978 Clone 21B Riesling plantings that were established here by Dr Helmut Becker as part of his famous experimental trials. Becker, then the head of Germany’s famous Geisenheim research institute, visited the valley in 1976. He was blown away by the potential of the Okanagan, particularly for white wine production. Yet at the time it was all hybrid vines. In what became known as the ‘Becker Project’, he oversaw the importation and planting of some 27 different vinifera varieties, including this Riesling clone, which has done very well.

1978 plantings of Clone 21B Riesling

1978 plantings of Clone 21B Riesling

As well as making excellent still and sparkling Riesling, Tantalus also do really well with Pinot Noir. ‘North of the Okanagan Falls, it’s the only red grape variety that should be grown,’ says Paterson.

tantalus old vine riesling

In the Okanagan Valley, BC, Canada, day 1: Quails' Gate

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It’s never much fun when you have a tight connecting flight and then get delayed. Yesterday I arrived in Vancouver after a nice flight (6000 words written, a sleep and a Woody Allen movie), only for technical problems to keep us at the gate for 50 minutes before getting off. It’s a horrible feeling as you sit there with your hopes of making your connection slowly fade minute by minute. In the end, I ran, got through immigration quickly, suffered an intensely frustrating delay at security to get airside again, and then managed to get to my gate just in time to fly.

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It was worth the hassle, though, because the Okanagan Valley is truly beautiful. On a run this morning through a national park, I stopped and sat by the side of the lake. And I stared, and I thought of all the joys, frustrations, sadnesses, anxieties and highlights of the last nine months. It has been the most complicated, difficult and turbulent nine months I have experienced. But there have also been many beautiful moments. Natural beauty has a way of encouraging contemplation, and the sorts of thoughts that nature elicits always seem to be hopeful, bright and integrating. I need to do a bit of integrating.

For the next few days I will be travelling the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys as a guest of the BC Wine Institute, with fellow wine journalist Elaine Brown as my travelling companion. Elaine and I will then join the WineAlign crowd in Penticton to serve as overseas judges for the National Wine Awards of Canada. It is quite an exciting prospect.

Tom and Nikki

Tom and Nikki

Yesterday afternoon and evening was spent with Quails’ Gate winery in West Kelowna. This is quite a substantial venture owned by the Stewart family, who first started farming here in the 1950s. The Quails’ Gate winery started in 1989, and now draws on around 100 hectares of estate vineyards. Tony Stewart, who hosted us along with winemaker Nikki Callaway, explained that because of the exacting nature of viticulture in the Okanagan with its cool climate, he prefers not to have to rely on growers. Most of their vineyard is in the central Okanagan, with a big chunk of it around the winery. But they also have some vines down south in Oliver.

Tony has decided that their focus as a winery should be on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and I was really impressed by both. The Pinots, as evidenced by tasting the Stewart Family Reserve from 2005, 2006 and 2009, age very well. The Chardonnay used to be quite big and new worldy, but Nikki, who arrived here in 2012, has brought more refinement and a less obvious oak regime to the wines. There’s a similar story with the excellent Syrah: the new vintages are better than the old, and 2014 really impressed.

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We also tried a new wine: a Bordeaux-style blend called the Connemara, from the 2014 vintage. This is a superb wine with real elegance and style, and a hint of nice greenness that many new world winemakers are a bit scared of, but which here works so well.

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With dinner at the excellent Old Vine restaurant next to the winery, we went through the whites, looking at 2010 and 2015 vintages of each. The Riesling, at $16, is a complete steal. It’s fresh, dry, and delicious, and is ageworthy. Chenin Blanc is interesting. This is quite a cool region for Chenin, and the result is an acid-driven wine of precision and focus. 2015 was really nice, but the 2010 was showing a bit of reduction (it is screwcapped), which I hope it will recover from. Look out, also, for their white blend, which combines Chasselas with Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. It’s not complex, but it’s fresh and delicious and great value for money.

Dinner with Dirk: Chave 1988, De Vogüé Bonnes Mares 1969 and Taylors Vargellas 1976

chave de vogue

Dirk Niepoort is one of my favourite people on the planet. Last night we dined at Noble Rot, and shared some very special bottles.

Chave Hermitage 1988 Northern Rhöne, France
This bottle was pretty much perfect. In beautiful condition and still a deep, primary colour. Lovely detailed black cherries, spice, tar, pepper and meat notes, as well as some tea leaves and citrus peel. It is fresh and light, but rich at the same time. Complex, and drinking so well now, but no need to rush to drink up. 97/100

De Vogüé Bonnes Mares 1969 Burgundy, France
This is spectacular. Decanted, and chilled down a little, this is a Wine Society bottling, but it was bottled at France, so I’m assuming it was domaine bottled. It’s fresh and bright, with a hint of malty richness on the nose but a pristine, silky palate. The texture is amazing: it’s rich and seamless with elegance meeting power, and the softest structure. Sweet black cherries and plums underpinned by smooth, fine-grained tannins. Ethereal, and 1969 isn’t supposed to be a great year. 97/100

taylors vargellas

Taylors Quinta de Vargellas Vintage Port 1976 Douro, Portugal
Elegant, fresh and supple, this reminds me a bit of 1970. It’s lighter than you’d expect from a Vintage Port, but it has such finesse and elegance. Burgundian! Sweet, fine redcurrant, red cherries and a bit of pepper spice, with a hint of raisin and nice sweetness. Pure and lovely. 95/100