Sandhill Estate Vineyard Gamay Noir 2010

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Sandhill Estate Vineyard Gamay Noir 2010

Sandhill Estate Vineyard Gamay Noir 2010

While I’ve been taking it easy over the holidays in terms of wine writing, I can’t let the end of the year slip by without writing up this wine.  Gamay is one of my favourite varieties, I’ve been on a bit of a Canadian kick of late, and it makes sense to end the year with something I  like.  But it’s more than just that.  This wine is in fact the wine I enjoyed drinking more than any other in 2012 and so my wine of the year is the Sandhill Estate Vineyard Gamay Noir 2010.

I’ve been a fan of Gamay from before I knew anything about wine, and I can trace it back to a Beaujolais Nouveau dinner in Seattle where the proprietor had a small barrel of the stuff he poured for diners that third Thursday of November many years ago.  I didn’t know what grape or grapes went into the wine, and really wasn’t at all interested at the time, but I enjoyed the sense of occasion.  When I started learning about wine a decade later, though my tasted shifted from Nouveau to the more savoury village wines, Gamay remained a favourite of mine, irrespective of what the rest of the wine world thinks of it.

I wrote a fair bit about Gamay when I covered the Sorrenberg offering back in February, but since I now have at my disposal the wonderful Wine Grapes tome, I can’t help but throw in a few additional details.  The book officially calls the grape Gamay Noir, as does this producer, which differentiates it from its sibling Gamay Blanc Gloriod (no longer cultivated) and the red-juice producing Gamay Teinturier de Bouze which is thought to be a mutation of Gamay Noir.  The parentage of Gamay Noir is believed to be Gouais Blanc and Pinot, making it a sibling of Aligoté, Auxerrois, Chardonnay, Melon, Romorantin and at least a dozen other slightly less widely known varieties.  In addition to the countries I originally mentioned, it’s apparently also cultivated in South Africa, so another wine has been added to my shopping list for the next visit.

This is yet another wine of the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia.  The region should by now be very familiar to return readers, but if you need a refresher on the basics, please have a look at my posts on the JoieFarm Reserve Chardonnay and the Gehringer Brothers Estate Winery Auxerrois.

That brings us to Sandhill, which should not be confused with Sandhill Winery in Columbia Valley, Washington State, Sandhills Winery in North Carolina, or Sandhill Crane Vineyards in Michigan.  There was even a Sandhill Vineyard in Australia, but it changed its name.  I can’t imagine why.

This Sandhill was founded in 1997 and is one of a dozen wine labels owned by Andrew Peller Limited.  The wine is made by Howard Soon, a Vancouver native with over 30 years of winemaking experience.  His approach gives Sandhill the relatively unique selling point of only producing single vineyard wines.  Grapes are sourced from five different vineyards, in addition to the estate vineyard, and the origin features prominently in their branding.  Winemaking is non-interventionist so as to allow appreciation of the particular vineyard terroir.  Production is very limited, and wines in the “Small Lots” line are often only made in quantities of a dozen or two barrels – sometimes less.  White wines produced include Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier.  Red wines include Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Gamay Noir, Malbec, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Sangiovese, Syrah, and a few blends of the above.  They also produce a rosé based on Gamay Noir, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese and Barbera.

This wine was produced using fruit from the Sandhill Estate Vineyard, in the South Okanagan.  The site has a unique microclimate, enjoying both an abundance of direct sunshine and temperatures which can climb to nearly 40C/104F.  In addition, it’s located at the base of a rocky hill which reflects sunshine back at the vineyard.  This wine was fermented with commercial yeast and aged for just over a year in third use French oak barrels.

In the glass it is clear and bright, with a medium plus ruby colour and quick thick legs.  On the nose it’s clean and developing, with medium plus intensity and notes of dark chocolate, liquorice, bacon, black cherries, and black pepper.  On the palate it’s dry, with medium plus intensity. medium acidity, medium plus body, medium alcohol, medium plus fine tannins, and medium plus length.  The palate delivers what was promised on the nose with notes of dark chocolate, black cherries, liquorice, bacon, and black pepper.  There’s also some brambles and earthiness, which gives the wine texture.

I rate this wine as exceptional – it’s really fantastic.  There is a complex array of flavours which makes for a very rich drinking experience.  There’s certainly varietal typicity, in that it’s absolutely Gamay, but produced by someone looking to make a fine wine (as opposed to how a great deal of Gamay is made).  I knew nothing about the producer when I bought it and the same was true when I drank it.  Now though, I am in love with this wine and I would feel guilty if my wife didn’t feel the same.  More’s the pity that I’m not likely to run into another bottle without a trip back to Canada, and I don’t think a replacement from Washington, North Carolina or Michigan will quite do the trick.

Lake Breeze Zephyr Brut 2009

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Lake Breeze Zephyr Brut 2009

Lake Breeze Zephyr Brut 2009

While I’m pleased that people occasionally read my posts, it’s probably obvious I write for my own sake.  I initially started writing to aid my studies as my WSET Diploma Unit 3 Exam approached, and then continued to document what I was drinking just to keep track and to keep up with my studies after I had passed the exam.  Writing here has the additional benefit of giving me an outlet when it comes to expounding on things that I find interesting.  Very few people with whom I spend time in person want to hear me go on about how much I’ve enjoyed tasting rare French hybrids and German crossing that I picked up in Canada.  And while I do have some more obscure varieties in the queue, today I’ll have a look at something a bit more conventional, the Lake Breeze Zephyr Brut 2009.

Since I live in Australia, I must first make clear that this is the Lake Breeze of British Columbia, Canada and the lake in question is the Okanagan Lake.  This should not be confused with another fine winery, Lake Breeze of Langhorne Creek, South Australia where the lake in question is Lake Alexandrina.  I doubt the two are related, and I hope I don’t ruffle any feathers if they were unaware of each other up until this point.  Tabuaeran is an island in the Pacific about equidistant from both wineries and might make a nice halfway point to meet up and discuss the situation.

I try to structure my posts with information about the grape, region and producer, and to wrap it up with a tasting note.  This week all the wines are from the Okanagan Valley, which by now is already quite familiar territory so instead the focus has been on the new (to me) grape varieties.  However, today’s wine is a Pinot Noir, and not only have we seen many such wines, we’ve even seen two varietal sparkling Pinot Noirs, one of which was from Ross Gower in Elgin, South Africa.  As it turns out, sparkling Pinot Noir is not the only connection between Lake Breeze and South Africa.

Lake Breeze was founded in the mid-1990s with its first vintage in 1995.  Their vineyards date to 1985, which makes them quite old by local standards.  The original owners termed it a “wine farm”, harkening back to the 25 years they spent in South Africa.  The winemaker, Garron Elmes, is originally from Cape Town and studied oneology and viticulture at Elsenburg College in Stellenbosch.  To top off the link to South Africa, Lake Breeze was the first vineyard in Canada to cultivate Pinotage, using clippings they imported from U.C. Davis.  It’s possible I’m the only person on the planet who thinks that’s incredibly cool, but as I said earlier, if I write it here instead of blathering about it to people in person, I can still have friends.

In addition to this sparkling Pinot Noir and a Pinotage, Lake Breeze produces a fairly broad range of wines.  Their whites include varietal Ehrenfelser, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Semillon, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc, in addition to a white blend, and they produce a rosé from co-fermented Pinot Noir and Viognier.  Their range of reds includes two Pinot Noirs, two Bordeaux style blends, and a Merlot.  They only produce this single sparkling wine, using the tradition method of second fermentation in the bottle.

Since the two sparkling Pinot Noirs we’ve seen previously were both rosé, a quick word on winemaking might not go amiss.  Most grapes, regardless of their skin colour, contain pale flesh and relatively clear juice.  There is a class of grapes known as teinturiers, which have red flesh and therefore red (or at least pink) juice, and we’ve covered one in the form of the Georgian grape Saperavi.  However, Pinot Noir is not a teinturier and it produces clear juice, as evidenced by not only this wine but also by the many white sparkling wines of Champagne that contain Pinot Noir, and even the still Chardonnay Pinot Noir blend from Haute Cabrière we saw back in April.  If you want Pinot Noir, or any other non-teinturier red grape to contribute colour to a wine, the juice must have contact with the coloured grape skins after they’ve been crushed.  That typically happens during fermentation, through in some cases before and/or after, prior to pressing, as well.  For rosé wines there are a number of methods, from very brief skin contact before pressing, extraction of some of the juice from after it’s been in skin contact (leaving the rest of the juice to make red wine), and even in some cases blending red and white grapes or wine.

But as to this wine, in the glass it is clear and bright, with a pale lemon green colour.  It has fine beading with long lasting lace around the rim.  On the nose it’s clean and developing, with medium intensity and notes of biscuit, blossom, and strawberries.  On the palate it’s dry with medium plus acidity, medium minus alcohol, medium body, medium plus flavour intensity, and medium length.  There are notes of sour cherry, strawberry, and grapefruit – all fruit without the developing characters of the nose.

I rate this wine as a solid good.  It’s certainly fresh, with some vibrancy.  It came across as a bit fruity on the palate, certainly more so than I expected from the nose, but the tart acidity keeps it lively.  It didn’t have the complexity or development that would have pushed it into the very good category, but it doesn’t disappoint.

Gray Monk Estate Winery Rotberger 2010

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Gray Monk Estate Winery Rotberger 2010

Gray Monk Estate Winery Rotberger 2010

I’ve made it no secret that I value rarity when it comes to grape varieties.  When people speak of rare wines, they most typically mean wines that are very exclusive because they are incredibly expensive.  While that may mean it’s rare that you get to drink any, if you have the budget it’s not actually difficult to get your hands on such wines, and there’s no shortage of people happy to sell them to you.  When it comes to grapes however, the type of rarity I value is more a factor of availability, which is at times disconnected from price.  Sometimes grapes are rare because they are unfashionable, while others lack demand because they are simply unfamiliar.  Today’s wine is firmly in the second camp, the Gray Monk Estate Winery Rotberger 2010.

I had never encountered Rotberger, not even as the name of a grape variety, prior to seeing this bottle on a shelf near Vancouver in September, and with good reason.  It is quite possibly the rarest grape I’ve covered, with roughly 16HA of vines planted in Germany, another 3HA in Canada and a few in Italy but not enough to show up on the most recent vine census.  For scale, there’s over 10 times as much of yesterday’s obscure grape, Maréchal Foch, planted worldwide.  Or put another way, the rarefied vineyards of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti are just over 25HA and therefore larger than the total global plantings of Rotberger.

Rotberger, as you may have guessed from the name, is a German crossing.  Developed in Geisenheim in 1928 by Heinrich Birk, it is the product of Schiava Grossa (also known as Trollinger) and Riesling, making it a sibling of Kerner.  Some more information about German crossings can be found in the write up of the Kabminye Kerner.  In the vineyard, it is vigorous and provides high yields of red grapes, which in turn produce light, fruity wine, frequently rosé or sparkling.  Its name is easily confused with Rotburger, another name for Zweigelt, an Austrian cross of different parents.

As with yesterday, we’re in the now familiar territory of the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, Canada, so for more information about the region please have a look at the posts for the neighbouring JoieFarm Reserve Chardonnay and the Gehringer Brothers Estate Winery Auxerrois.

The roots of Gray Monk Estate Winery go back to the earliest days of viticulture in the Okanagan Valley.  Hugo Peter first moved to the area in search of an agricultural retirement and was followed by his daughter Trudy and her husband George Heiss.  George and Trudy established the vineyard in 1972 and a winery a decade later.  With three sons, George, Steven and Robert, they’ve expanded production and the winery such that until just recently they were the largest VQA winery in British Columbia, and they have a fourth generation starting to pitch in.

Their wines are spread across three lines.  There are three Latitude 50 wines, entry level red and white blends based on colour and a Gamay rosé.  The Odyssey wines are classic varieties and blends at a higher price point, including sparklers and a Merlot-based fortified wine.  In the middle though is where it gets interesting for fans of alternative varietals with the Estate wines.  In addition to the conventional Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Riesling in white and Gamay Noir, Merlot and Pinot Noir in red, they offer Ehrenfelser, Gewürztraminer, Kerner, Pinot Auxerrous, and Siegerrebe in white and this rosé Rotberger.  They also produce a white fortified wine made from Orange Muscat and Muscat Canelli .

In the glass this wine is clear and bright with a medium minus ruby colour and a slow film when swirled that breaks into thick tears eventually.  On the nose it’s clean and youthful with notes of peach, strawberries, and sweet spice.  On the palate it’s dry, with medium acidity, medium minus body, medium plus intensity, hint of tannins but very filmy, medium alcohol, and a medium length.  There are notes of strawberry, some mild black pepper, watered down cranberries, vanilla, some stem green notes.

I’ll rate this wine as a solid good.  I want it to be a bit more interesting but the flavours are somewhat indistinct, so after I’ve taken a sip it’s challenging to pick out what I just tasted.  However, it’s well balanced and has some mild complexity so it’s certainly more than just acceptable.  I have no idea as to varietal typicity, but it’s pleasant and refreshing which is most of what I want out of a rosé, and therefore I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending it to somewhat who wants to try something rare.  And if you can’t get a hold of any, there’s always the more widely planted DRC.

Niche Wine Company +124 Reserve Foch 2010

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Niche Wine Company +124 Reserve Foch 2010

Niche Wine Company +124 Reserve Foch 2010

It’s been a long two weeks, between an office move and a five day course in project management, but I’m back and looking forward to covering some new grapes.  It’s been a bit difficult to get myself back in gear, but I’m going to make it easier with a string of varietal wines from grapes that are new to me.  Today is something of a rarity, the Niche Wine Company +124 Reserve Foch 2010.

I picked up some interesting wines while I was in Canada, in particular some varieties I’d not encountered before.  Auxerrois was a familiar name but hadn’t tried one, and Ehrenfelser was completely new to me.  The grape in this wine is one that I had come across in my studies but never expected to try because it’s so uncommon, and also because it’s a hybrid.

I believe this is our first hybrid, and as such it deserves a note.  Most grapes used to make wine are from the Eurasian species Vitis vinifera which translates to wine bearing grapes.  However, it’s possible to produce vines which have Vitis vinifera and another Vitis parent, and such vines are known as hybrids.  It’s typically done in an effort to supplement vinifera with resistance to various pests, diseases, or difficult climatic conditions.  After phylloxera hit Europe in the 19th century, there was a great deal of interest in such hybrids, typically bred with phylloxera-resistant North American species.  Many were produced through viticultural research in France and are collectively known as French hybrids, something of an analogue to the German crossings discussed in the context of the CedarCreek Estate Winery Ehrenfelser.

However, development of hybrid vines is somewhat controversial, in that non-vinifera vines can have undesirable properties in wine, such as a scent evocative of animal fur which is termed foxy.  Of the many hybrids to emerge at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, most were subsequently banned in France for grape production, and others relegated for use only as root stock onto which Vitis vinifera vines were grafted.  Some, however, such as Vidal and Seyval Blanc, have proven popular in areas with marginal climate because of their ability to survive winter freezes.

This grape, Maréchal Foch or sometimes just Foch, is a hybrid developed in France in 1911 by Eugène Kuhlmann, and commercially released in 1921.  It takes its name from Ferdinand Foch, a French general who became Maréchal de France in 1918.  I know of him because I’m keen on military history and hardware, and while it’s quite common for the names of war heroes to grace things like ships and tanks, I can’t think of another general to have a grape named in his or her honour.  This hybrid is recorded as bring the result of breeding Goldriesling (Vitis vinifera) with Millardet et Grasset 101-14 OP (which is itself a hybrid parented by Vitis riparia and Vitis rupestris), though it has not as yet been confirmed or disproved through DNA profiling.  A red grape able to withstand the cold, very little of it remains in Europe, with plantings being limited to tiny amounts in the Loire and eastern Switzerland.  However, it has found favour in some cold states in the northern USA as well as both eastern and western Canada.

Speaking of Canada, this wine is from the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia.  I’ve written about the region a few times since my trip to Vancouver in September, so I won’t repeat myself, but details can be found in my posts on the JoieFarm Reserve Chardonnay and the Gehringer Brothers Estate Winery Auxerrois.

The Niche Wine Company is a very small producer based in West Kelowna.  Joanna and James Schlosser run the winemaking and business side of the operation, which operates on vineyards James’ parents, Jerry and Kathleen, own and work.  They released their first vintage in 2011, with varietal wines based on their plantings of Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay, and this Foch.  They also produce a rosé, which at least for their first vintage was a blend of Pinot Noir, Riesling and Chardonnay.  The company had two releases of their Maréchal Foch 2010.  The first was released after just under a year in a mix of French and American oak barrels, whereas this second release is from a portion held in reserve and put into first use American oak barrels for an additional 124 days.

In the glass this wine is clear, and bright, with a deep brick red colour that is nearly black and quick, thick legs.  On the nose it’s clean and intense with notes of dried red fruit, raisins (more Pedro Ximénez than Port), a little nail varnish and dark chocolate.  On the palate it’s dry, with medium plus acidity, medium minus body, medium plus intensity, medium fine tannins, medium alcohol, and a medium length.  There are notes of raisins, dark chocolate, prunes, cherries, and a hint of coffee.

I rate this wine as very good.  It has a great intensity and complexity of flavours, particularly for a wine that’s so young.  It was very fresh right out of the bottle, though 30 minutes after decanting the raisin notes started to appear which rounded out the flavour profile nicely.  I wasn’t expecting this wine to be anything other than a curiosity – a hybrid that’s still listed in textbooks but with decreasing plantings.  However, it absolutely delivered.  While I’m unlikely to encounter another bottle any time soon, I wouldn’t hesitate to pick up a dozen for the cellar to see how it looks a few years down the road.

Offline a bit longer

I know it’s fine for blogs to go quiet for a week or two at a time, but after such a busy second half of November, I’ve been out of action for all of December so far.  Fear not, I haven’t died of alcohol poisoning, nor suffered an even worse fate of having to give up drinking.  Instead, I’ve been overwhelmed with the double whammy of having to move my office and then immediately spend a week in a course that has nothing to do with wine.

Fortunately, come Friday I will be exceptionally keen to get back to wine writing, and I have a few very interesting bottles in the queue.  So apologies for the quiet patch, but I’ll return within a week.