Monday, December 11, 2017

Blue Mountain: at the top of its game

Photo: Blue Mountain winemaker Matt Mavety

Almost since its first vintage in 1991, Blue Mountain Vineyards & Cellars has had a strong following for its wines.

There was a time when customers needed to get on the winery’s mailing list. When the postcard arrived, announcing a new release, he who hesitated missed out because the wine sold out so quickly.

I once was in charge of securing wine for a couple of family weddings. The winery did me the favour of supplying the wines. In both instances, this created something of a sensation among the guests who appreciated good wine. It gave me a lot of satisfaction that the guests were not being served plonk.

It has become easier these days to get Blue Mountain wine. You need not ask for a favour or two. The Okanagan Falls tasting room is open from spring through fall. The wines shows up in wine stores. There still is a strong demand for Blue Mountain’s wines but there also are about 300 wineries in British Columbia. In the early 90s, there were perhaps 20 or 30 wineries in British Columbia. There is a lot more wine to choose from these days.

Even so, Blue Mountain remains at the top of its game. It makes all of its wines from the 38-hectare estate vineyard. It could increase production by buying and planting more vineyard in the Okanagan Falls region if there were some adjacent to the estate. That is not likely to happen.

“We are much better off to stay focussed on what we are doing,” says winemaker Matt Mavety, whose parents, Ian and Jane, founded the winery. “The overall goal here is not to get bigger. It is more about trying to fine tune the wines we are making. That is the family’s long-term perspective right now.”

There are few wineries as tightly focussed as Blue Mountain. The Mavety family decided that their Okanagan Falls property enjoyed conditions comparable to Burgundy; consequently, Burgundian grape varieties dominate the vineyard. The winery produces two red varietals, Pinot Noir and Gamay Noir, and three whites, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc. The latter two are nods to Alsace and Sancerre.

The winery makes both still table wines and sparkling wines, in two tiers – regular and reserve.

This blog looks at two excellent “regular” table wines released earlier this fall as well as the winery’s three reserve tier sparkling wines.

The sparkling wines are all made in the traditional method of Champagne. The base wines are fermented to dryness, blended where appropriate, and then put in heavy bottles for the secondary fermentation that produces fine and long-lasting bubbles.

Blue Mountain is especially disciplined when it comes to making bubble. Gold Label Brut, its “regular” sparkling wine, ages about two years on the yeast lees before the wine is disgorged. This enhances the body of the wine and develops the classic brioche aromas and flavours.

“For us, a minimum aging time for Gold Label is two years,” Matt says. “If we can’t do two years, there is no point doing it.”

The reserves remain on the yeast lees for five or six years (36 months in the case of the Rosé). The extra time on lees develops more intensity and more complexity, putting the wine on the same quality level as Champagne – without costing as much.

In early 199os, when Blue Mountain began making bubble, there were just three other BC wineries making sparkling wine. Today, I would estimate that at least 100 wineries have released bubbly, or are working on it, in every style from carbonated to traditional method. Even with that much competition, Blue Mountain is still one of the leading producers of bubble.

Here are notes on the wines. (R.D. means recently disgorged.)

Blue Mountain Pinot Gris 2016 ($21). This complex white wine is made with fruit from 30-year-old vines. Forty percent was fermented and aged for eight months in French oak (new and used). The remainder was fermented and aged in stainless steel. The two lots were blended in June 2017. The result is an elegant and complex white, with aromas and flavours of citrus, pear and apple. It is crisp and dry, with a hint of anise on the finish. 90.

Blue Mountain Pinot Noir 2015 ($30). This wine, made with six clones of Pinot Noir from mature vines, has been aged 16 months in French oak (ranging from new barrels to three-year-old barrels). The wine begins with aromas of cherry and toasty oak. On the generous palate, there are flavours of cherry, cassis, vanilla and toasty oak, with spicy notes on the finish. The richness of flavour reflects the hot 2015 vintage but the moderate alcohol, just 12.5%, tells us that the Mavety family took pains to pick early to retain freshness and acidity. 90.

Blue Mountain Brut Rosé 2013 R.D. ($33). This is 65% Pinot Noir and 35% Chardonnay. The wine presents in the glass with a rose petal hue and with fine bubbles. Those bubbles propel aromas of strawberry and flavours of raspberry. Crisply dry on the finish, this would be an excellent wine for brunch. 91.

Blue Mountain Blanc de Blancs 2009 R.D. ($39.90). This wine was disgorged in in August 2016 and spent a little more than a year aging in bottle before release this fall. Made in the traditional Champagne method from Chardonnay, this is easily a match for Champagne. Crisp and dry, the wine has a lively mousse that delivers brioche and citrus aromas. On the palate, there are hints of green apple mingled with a nutty, toasty finish. 92.

Blue Mountain Reserve Brut 2009 R.D. ($39.90). This elegant wine is 55% Chardonnay and 45% Pinot Noir, a classic Champagne blend. The wine was aged on the lees for six and a half years, was disgorged in August 16, and aged more than a year in bottle before release. The wine, which has a fine mousse, begins with aromas of brioche and apple which are echoed in the flavours, along with a hint of strawberry. Time on the lees has given this wine an appealing rich and creamy texture. 93.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Clos Du Soleil: wines driven by terroir

Photo: Clos du Soleil's Michael Clark

 A deliberate spirit of Bordeaux winemaking influences the approach to winemaking at Clos du Soleil Wines in the Similkameen. There is a strong emphasis on making wines that express the terroir.

While the winery purchased fruit from the Okanagan in its early days, that was just a strategy to carry on the business until the estate vineyard was in production. Now, the winery works exclusively with Similkameen fruit, either from its own vines or from nearby vineyards that it manages.

 “At Clos du Soleil we are committed to producing wines from the very best vineyard locations in the Similkameen Valley that best demonstrate the unique terroir of our valley,” says Michael Clark, the winery’s managing director and winemaker.

One of the wines reviewed here is from what is called Middle Bench Vineyard. “We don't own it but we have a very long-term and strong relationship with the owner,” writes Michael Clark, the managing director at Clos. “The relationship first developed out of our "Grower's Series Pinot Blanc" from that vineyard, which became a big hit with our customers, and we are committed to continuing to produce that wine in to the future, as wine lovers have come to really value the distinctive and dense expression of Pinot Blanc produced by that site.”

 He continues: “The vineyard is only about two minutes from the Clos du Soleil Estate Vineyard, but slightly lower in the valley (the "Middle Bench" as opposed to the "Upper Bench" where Clos du Soleil's Estate Vineyard is located). As a result, the soil is finer, with more silt, and with less stone content. In more recent years, we at Clos du Soleil have actually taken over the farming of that vineyard ourselves, and, since doing that, have been using other grapes from that vineyard too, such as the Syrah we first began producing in the 2014 vintage.”

 In June, Clos du Soleil purchased an additional 10-acre parcel on Upper Bench Road, near its current 10-acre estate vineyard. In the French spirit, this block is being called “Les Collines” which is French for hills. “The land is hilly terrain comprised of several steep ridges which is ideal terroir for growing Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon grapes that will be used to produce Clos du Soleil's white wines such as their flagship white Capella and the Estate Reserve White,” the winery said in its announcement.

Initial plans call for planting half of the block in 2018. The site is already certified for organic production. Michael plans to go further, introducing biodynamic practices here.

The winery’s announcement continued: “For grape growing, the soil composition is of paramount importance for establishing a vineyard. The soil at Les Collines is extremely rocky with high levels of angular rocks within the gravelly loam and is similar in composition to the Upper Bench Similkameen soil series seen on the Estate vineyard. The organic practices in place on this property have contributed to maintaining soil health and quality. As a result, Les Collines is already primed for the highest-quality grape production.”

 Here are notes on three sophisticated red released by Clos du Soleil this fall.

Clos du Soleil Growers Series Syrah 2015 ($33.90 for eight barrels). The grapes for this wine are from Middle Bench Vineyard. This delicious wine delivers a big mouthful of sweet fruit – black cherry and plum accented with notes of vanilla and mocha. There is a hint of white pepper on the nose and on the finish. 90.

Clos du Soleil Signature 2014 ($44.90 for 29 barrels). This is a blend of 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 37% Merlot, 14% Petit Verdot, 8% Cabernet Franc and 3% Malbec. This wine begins with aromas of mint, cassis and vanilla, leading to flavours black cherry, black currant, plum, vanilla and chocolate. Decanting is recommended to allow this wine to express its power. 94.

Clos du Soleil Estate Reserve Red 2013 ($59.90 for eight barrels). This is a blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 37% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, 4% Petit Verdot and 1% Malbec. The wine was aged 17 months in French oak barrels. This has the elegance and power for a Grand Cru from Bordeaux. The wine begins with aromas of cassis, blackberry and blueberry. On the palate, it delivers flavours of black currant. On the finish, notes of leather and black olives mingle with spice. Decanting is also recommended for this wine, which was bottled unfined and unfiltered. 94.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Moon Curser winemaker revels in diversity

Photo: Moon Curser's Chris Tolley

Moon Curser Vineyards co-founder and winemaker Chris Tolley seems to have a bit of a nightmare: that he could be making wine in Beaujolais with just one varietal.

“I would do horrible in Beaujolais,” he says. “The idea of knowing just one grape for my whole life ….” He lets that frightening [to him] thought hang in the air.

Life is different at Moon Curser. He works with numerous varietals, almost all estate grown and some fairly obscure in the Okanagan. These include Arneis, Tannat, Touriga Nacional, Dolcetto, Carménère, Tempranillo, Marsanne and Roussanne. There is not much chance of getting jaded as a winemaker with that array of grapes every harvest.

He also grows some varieties that are more mainstream in the Okanagan. “Syrah is something I always count on,” he says. “When it comes in, I like the grapes; I like the way they taste; I am all excited about it. We start fermenting it. It has these wonderful aromas. I taste it along the way. We put it in barrel. I am happy with it … I am happy the whole time. Every wine should be that.”

In late summer, I had a leisurely tasting with Chris. Because I got sidetracked by other commitments, to say nothing of a month in Spain, it has taken me some time to write up the notes. Many of these wines are now sold out at the winery. However, both the wines and his comments were so interesting that I am offering my notes all the same.

Moon Curser Arneis 2016 ($22.52 for 269 cases). The winery has an acre and a quarter of this variety from northern Italy. In 2016, Chris picked the grapes at a slightly lower ripeness than in previous years to produce a crisper white, more in the northern Italian style. The aromas are floral, with notes of melon and citrus. It has flavours of melon and green apple, finishing with a crisp, refreshing character. 91.

Arneis is a variety that Chris is still getting his arms around. “In the winery, I am always wondering exactly what I am doing,” he admits. “This took a month to ferment. We fermented it a little cool and with a new yeast. That is a whole new game, trying to find a yeast to match up with Arneis. They [the yeast suppliers] don’t suggest one. It was never close to being stuck but it was one of those wines that gave you no satisfaction to make. Once it is made and you taste it, and once you receive some feedback, you realize there is good quality there.”

Moon Curser Afraid of the Dark 2016 ($19.04 for 577 cases). The blend is 45% Viognier, 40% Roussanne and 15% Marsanne.  The grapes are fermented separately and blended later, to be aged in stainless steel. This is one of Chris’s favourite wines; he is perplexed that it is a perennial silver medal winner but rarely a gold medal winner. I would suggest that competition judges are fickle, or just not exposed to enough Rhone white blends. This is a luscious and fleshy white with aromas and flavours of apricot and nectarines. 91.

Moon Curser Dolcetto 2016 ($23.39 for 407 cases). This Italian variety, widely grown in Piedmont, was planted by Moon Curser in 2013. This wine was from the first full crop. It is an opulent, ripe, unoaked red, with aromas of cherry and strawberry. On the palate, the cherry and strawberry notes are joining with flavours of black currant jam. In short, a delicious fruit bomb. 92.

“Dolcetto is one of my most favourite varietals,” Chris says. “I know it is not a very big wine in Italy, in terms of body. It can be. It has colour and intensity galore. They have short fermentations and they don’t do it in oak either.”

Moon Curser Carménère 2015 ($ for 297 cases). This varietal is so popular in the Moon Curser portfolio that Chris has mused about converting his entire vineyard to Carménère. The grape almost went extinct in its native Bordeaux. After phylloxera   devastated the vineyards, it was not replanted, perhaps because it ripens late. The reputation was re-established in Chile. There are at least three producers in the Okanagan. The wine begins with aromas of black currant jam and pepper. Generous in texture and weight, it has flavours of black cherry, pomegranates and vanilla, punctuated by a peppery note on the finish. 92.

“I do like the wine quite a bit,” Chris says. “It is a nice varietal. I think this is what they sort of expected to get in France before they pulled it out. They decided in their hotter vintages to let the Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot do the talking. In the cooler vintages, they needed the Merlot and Malbec. The Carménère? In the hotter seasons, its power wasn’t needed and in the cooler season, it detracted from the blend with its vegetal characters.”

The succession of warm to hot vintages in the Okanagan since 2012 enabled Chris to make a powerful Carménère year after year.

Moon Curser Syrah 2014 ($23.39 for 1,008 cases). Chris believes this wine, reflected a very good vintage, was the best Syrah he had made. It is an elegant and concentrated red, with aromas of black cherry, spice and pepper. On the palate, the dark fruit flavours are meaty and earthy. 92.

Moon Curser Syrah 2015 ($23.39 for 1,188 cases). This is a bold and juicy wine, with aromas of black cherry, pepper and mocha. On the palate, there are flavours of black cherry, fig and licorice punctuated with subtle notes of pepper. 91.

“2014 is probably the finest Syrah we have ever done,” Chris says. “It was a great year. 2015 was not a bad follow up.” The only issue with 2015 was that smoke from forest fires created a risk of smoke taint. Alive to that danger, Chris pressed the Syrah from the skins at the end of fermentation rather than giving it a long maceration. The wine is marginally lighter than 2014 but the flavours are correct.

Moon Curser Border Vines 2014 ($23.39 for 1,021 cases). The blend is 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% each of Malbec and Carménère, 14% Merlot and 6% Petit Verdot. This is a harmonious, well-integrated blend with aromas of cassis and vanilla, leading to flavours of black currant and black cherry. There is a touch of spice and leather on the finish. 92.

Moon Curser Border Vines 2015 ($23.39 for 888 cases). The blend here is 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 39% Malbec and 11% Carménère.  In former times, this wine was called Six Vines because it was a blend of six Bordeaux varietals. It now focuses on just three varietals, in part because Chris had no Merlot available in the 2015 vintage. However, the wine tastes as good as ever. It begins with aromas of blueberries, black currants and mint.  It is somewhat lighter in body than the 2014 because, to avoid smoke taint, Chris did not macerate the Cabernet Sauvignon on the skins after fermentation. The wine is still rich with flavours of black currant and black cherry and absolutely no hint of smoke. 91.

Moon Curser grows no Merlot. When Chris was developing the estate vineyards, he chose to plant varietals that almost no one else grows. Merlot? Well, it is the most widely planted red in the Okanagan. The supply once seemed inexhaustible. In the last few vintages, the demand for wine grapes has more than caught up with the supply and it has become difficult to get Merlot.

Moon Curser Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($37.30 for 243 cases.) This densely structured wine – a classic age-worthy Cabernet – begins with aromas of cassis and blackberry. On the palate, there are flavours of black cherry and black currant, along with black olives, leather and dark chocolate. 92-93.

Moon Curser Tannat 2013 ($37.30 for 100 cases). The Tannat grape, whose historic home is southwest France, is the primary red in Uruguay and is being planted in a number of other wine growing areas. Moon Curser describes it as “a robust and intense grape variety.” This is a dark, concentrated wine with aromas of plum and vanilla. On the palate, the dark fruit flavours (figs, raisins) are something of a liquid fruit cake. 93.

“I really like the Tannat,” Chris says. “I could see doing a lot of Tannat but you would need a big maturation program. I could not see releasing it really young.” He described the 2016 Tannat, still maturing in barrel, as “grippy” because the tannins have not yet matured.

Moon Curser Dead of Night 2014 ($37.30 for 364 cases). This is a blend of 50% Syrah and 50% Tannat. This full-bodied wine has aromas and flavours of black cherry, vanilla and plum, with a hint of pepper on the finish. 94.

Moon Curser Dead of Night 2015 ($37.30). This is a blend of 50% Syrah and 50% Tannat. Dark and almost jammy on the palate, this wine reflects a big, ripe vintage. It has aromas and flavours of dark fruit, including figs. The rich flavours linger a long time on the palate. 94.

“I did not think of blending Syrah and Tannat when we first started,” Chris says. “Beata [his wife] asked me to. I did and found there is a bit of synergy there. I always thought of  using Cabernet Sauvignon, as they do in Madiran. But I find Syrah and Tannat blend beautifully together. Syrah seems to take the edge off the Tannat and Tannat takes up the intensity level. It ages incredibly well. We end up with a pretty decent aging wine.”

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Lariana in top five at BC Iconic Reds tasting

Photo: Lariana's Carol and Dan Scott

Fourteen, a red blend from Lariana Cellars, ranked third out of 20 in the recent BC Iconic Reds tasting.

That result should serve to lift the modest profile of the smallest winery in Osoyoos, although a review of some of the restaurants with Lariana on their lists suggests the wines are being discovered by good sommeliers.

Lariana Cellars was established in 2012 by Dan and Carol Scott, long-time operators of a recreational vehicle park on the west shore of Osoyoos Lake, just north of the border. The vineyard is a former orchard at the top of their property, tucked just behind the U.S. customs and immigration buildings at the border.

The winery has a small but focussed portfolio. The one white is a Viognier, fermented and aged in concrete eggs. There is wide agreement that this is one of the five best Viogniers in the Okanagan, and perhaps the best.

The current reds are limited to a Carménère (sold out) and the winery’s flagship blend, named for the year of the vintage. The first was Twelve, the second was Thirteen and the third, which was just released this fall, is Fourteen. The Fifteen will be released some time next year while the Sixteen and the Seventeen are still in barrel. Annual production is around 500 cases.

The blend is always anchored by Cabernet Sauvignon, a variety that produces excellent grapes in several Osoyoos vineyards, including Lariana’s. Twelve was a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Carménère. Thirteen omitted the Merlot while Fourteen was a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carménère, but no Syrah.  The unreleased Fifteen is Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Carménère, but no Merlot.  
The Scotts have neither Merlot or Syrah in their five-acre vineyard, so blending decisions are influenced by the quality and availability of purchased grapes.

Not yet released – probably next fall – is Lariana’s 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, the winery’s first single variety from that grape. Only 100 cases were bottled. The quality is exceptional. I would suggest reserving some if this is a variety you collect.

The Scotts recount the Lariana history with some brief notes on the winery website:

Welcome to Lariana Cellars, a boutique-style winery featuring small lot, handcrafted wines from Osoyoos, BC. Our story began decades ago with 10 acres of property on Osoyoos Lake, located at the southern most tip of the Okanagan Valley. Originally known as Shady Lagoon Campsite, the lakeside remains an RV Park while the upper portion has changed from orchard to vineyard.

It wasn’t until 2007 that the promise of a shiny new tractor inspired us to replace our fruit trees with grapevines. The vineyard was planted under the advice and direction of one of the Okanagan’s most respected pioneers in grape growing.

The countless hours we invest and the careful growing practices we employ result in premium grapes that are a true reflection of our unique microclimate. Hot, dry days and cool, crisp nights set the ideal stage for producing deep, flavourful varieties such as Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Carménère. In 2012, after three years of selling our crop to local wineries, we decided to take the plunge and Lariana Cellars was born.

 At Lariana, we’ve been exploring the art of viticulture since our teens. From the days of working at Shannon-Pacific vineyard on Black Sage Road in Oliver, to hauling grapes down to the coast to be crushed under the feet of friends, to our beginnings of making Okanagan wine with friends for many years, to our early dabbling in creative at-home experimentation, wine has always been our calling.

Founding family members, Larry and Anna, were a huge influence on our decision to follow our passion. [They were Carol’s parents and also shareholders in Shannon-Pacific.] Their unwavering foresight and zest for adventure inspired us to name our winery for them, keeping our motivation to have fun creating serious wine constantly on the tips of our tongues.

Our garage-style winery is located alongside our five- acre vineyard and we are very much involved in every aspect of the winemaking process. With the help of a professional wine maker, we love combining classic vinification practices with innovative new methods to produce wines that are sure to leave you wanting more.

The professional winemaker is Senka Tennant, a legend in the Okanagan. She was the winemaker and one of four original owners of Black Hills winery, where she created the red blend called Nota Bene. Today, she and husband Bob operate Terravista Vineyards, a Naramata boutique specializing in white wines from Spanish grape varieties.

Here are notes of current releases from Lariana.

Lariana Viognier 2016 ($25 for 325 cases). The wine has aromas of stone fruit, with flavours of apricot and peach. It is perhaps not as lush as previous vintages but bright acidity of the 2016 vintage gives the wine an appealing freshness. 92.

Lariana Fourteen 2014 ($45 for 450 cases). The blend is 63% Cabernet Sauvignon, 26% Merlot and 11% Carménère. Firm and age-worthy, the wine begins with aromas of black cherry. On the palate, there are flavours of black currant, black cherry, leather and tobacco. 93.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Why Laughing Stock was sold

Photo: Laughing Stock's David Enns (left) and Arterra's JayWright

When Vincor International was acquiring wineries a decade or two ago, chief executive Donald Triggs generally retained the management of those wineries.

As an example, Kim and Erica Crawford, the founders of New Zealand’s Kim Crawford Wines, were given a two-year contract to run the winery after Vincor bought it. In fact, they remained eight years before leaving to do their own thing again.

Jay Wright was one of Vincor’s senior executives at the time. Now, he runs Arterra Wines Canada, the Mississauga-based company that operates the Canadian wineries once part of the Vincor portfolio. Arterra was formed in December, 2016, after Constellation Brands sold its Canadian wineries to the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund.

This week, Jay used the Kim Crawford template when Arterra acquired Laughing Stock Vineyards, the premium Naramata Bench winery founded in 2003 by David and Cynthia Enns. The founders will stay on to manage Laughing Stock. David just turned 60; Cynthia is in her late 40s; and both are healthy and full of energy.

“This is more about business as usual and a partnership,” Jay said in a recent interview. “It is not about changing David’s dream. It is about allowing David the opportunity to dream bigger. Our philosophy is about partnership. The last thing we want to do is not allow these guys to continue to fulfill their legacy and their dreams. Having an opportunity to partner with a creative genius making wonderful iconic wines in a new part of wine country for us was important.”

He adds: “Opportunities to partner with classic iconic wine brands like Laughing Stock Vineyards are rare and serendipitous.”

In fact, Arterra was not shopping to acquire wineries. In the Okanagan, where it runs about 1,200 acres of vineyards, Arterra already owns Jackson-Triggs, Black Sage Vineyards, Sumac Ridge, See Ya Later Ranch, Inniskillin Okanagan and 50% of Nk’Mip Cellars. It also owns Steller’s Jay, a major sparkling wine brand. Jay already had a lot on his plate.

“As a new company, we have been very focused on standing up as an independent Canadian company,” Jay says. “We have been very focused on confirming our strategy for the future and becoming an independent company; on unplugging ourselves from Constellation Brands; and on hiring people and setting up the infrastructure for the future.”

Late last summer, while he was introducing new employees to Arterra’s Okanagan properties, it was suggested that he look at Laughing Stock Vineyards which had retained Deloitte Canada to solicit (very discreetly) offers for the business. At first, Jay said his schedule was pretty tight. The schedule went out the window when he met David and Cynthia Enns and grasped what they have built.

Laughing Stock was in play because the founders recognized that they were at a turning point with their business.

“It’s not that we hit the wall,” David says. “But last year was a big harvest. We did almost 160 tons. We were maxing out the facility, and that is just because of the fruitfulness of the vineyards. We have had five growing seasons that were stellar. We have literally gone from 5,000 to 10,000 cases in that five years.”

Their choice, he concluded, was either to retrench, or to keep growing and filling the pipeline supplied with wines that were selling out faster and faster.

“You can’t stop a machine,” David says. “It is either going forward or backwards. Going backwards was not really a fun proposition. To go backwards meant losing people and taking on more responsibility, which was not the direction I wanted to go.”

So they hired Deloitte to find a partner to support growth. Seven companies considered the opportunity and four made offers, including Arterra.

“We wanted to find the right partner for us and for what we wanted to do,” David says. “We wanted to slow things down and re-focus on some of the things we like to do. I don’t think we will ever be out of the wine business. It is an integral part of who we are now. It’s our community.”

Even though Jay Wight was not looking to acquire, he changed his mind after and Paul Kasselbaum, Arterra’s chief winemaker, spent a morning in early August at Laughing Stock. They clicked immediately with David and Cynthia.

“I was inspired and excited,” Jay recalls. “I went back to our owners [Ontario Teachers] and said I know we are still in the early phases as a company and we aren’t shopping; but my gut tells me this would be a really interesting partnership to cement our foundation for the future, as our strategy is changing to become more focused on premium wines and investing in the Canadian wine industry.”

Adding premium wines to the portfolio is central to Arterra’s strategy. That contrasts with the Constellation Brands focus, which did not nurture all of the premium wine opportunities that Vincor had created.

“For many years, Constellation was just a distribution company in Canada,” says Jay (who worked with Constellation in the U.S.) “I am still disappointed that Osoyoos Larose left the fold. I am still disappointed that Le Clos Jordan has not continued.”

He refers to two joint ventures that Vincor had created with major French wine producers. The French partner in Osoyoos Larose took over Constellation’s 50% a few years ago. Le Clos Jordan, located in Ontario, made several vintages of premium Pinot Noir and even commissioned a spectacular winery design by Frank Gehry before Constellation shut it down.

Laughing Stock brings premium wines and a premium address to Arterra. “I have always been jealous that we did not have an opportunity to be involved in the Naramata Bench,” Jay says. “It is one of the top sub-appellations in the Okanagan.”

The new partners give David access to additional grapes and to more capacity. One of the elements that cemented the deal was a tour of Arterra vineyards.

“It helped seeing the vineyards with Troy, in the south Okanagan,” David says. “We know the south Okanagan really well because we have 22 acres there. The care and attention was good; it was solid. That makes all the difference to me, because that is the authenticity. We know what farming looks like, good, bad and indifferent – this was good farming. Cynthia and I were both impressed.”

David has been offered access to Arterra’s grapes. Jay says that the Arterra strategy is to direct the grapes to “the highest and best use.”

One of the first priorities likely will be addressing Laughing Stock’s capacity constraints. If David’s advice is taken, the production of Laughing Stock white wines will move to a facility dedicated to white wines. That would free up the capacity for almost 3,000 cases more of reds at the Naramata winery.

“That would be a logical next step,” David says. “We could build a retail space on it that had more tasting room capacity. We turn away so much business by having just five or six parking spots. We are open all the time but by appointment. We will probably still continue that, but it would be a much more expanded version. Now, we turn people away. Who turns people away in the wine business?”

Currently, three-quarter of Laughing Stock wines are red. They are made in a gravity-flow winery designed at the outset to make Portfolio, Laughing Stock’s flagship red blend, which sells for just under $50 a bottle.

“The challenge we have is we cannot even meet demand now [for Portfolio], and have not for five years,” David says. “Every year, we sell out sooner and sooner. We just released Portfolio 2015 in October and the warehouse is near empty.”

“Like in five weeks!” laments Jay Wright. “I can’t get any.”

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Laughing Stock Vineyards acquired by Arterra

Photo: Cynthia and David Enns (courtesy Laughing Stock Vineyards)

In what looks like another step in the consolidation of Okanagan wineries, Arterra Wines Canada has just announced the purchase of Laughing Stock Vineyards.

This comes two and a half months after Andrew Peller Ltd. spent $95 million to acquire  Gray Monk Estate Winery, Black Hills Estate Winery and Tinhorn Creek Vineyards.

Peller and Arterra are Canada’s two biggest national wine companies. Now owned by the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund, Arterra formerly was the Canadian arm of U.S.-based Constellation Brands and, prior to 2007, was Vincor International Ltd.

Arterra, which is headquartered in Mississauga, already operates a group of wineries and brands in British Columbia. These include Jackson-Triggs, Inniskillin Okanagan, Sumac Ridge, Black Sage Vineyards and See Ya Later Ranch. It also has a 50% interest in Nk’Mip Cellars. And it operates more than 1,000 acres of vineyard in the Okanagan.

Laughing Stock gives Arterra control of a boutique producer with a strong following for its premium wines, much as Peller’s purchase of Black Hills brought an iconic producer into that company.

Laughing Stock founders David and Cynthia Enns will continue to be involved with the winery. “We started Laughing Stock Vineyards to create a boutique Naramata Bench winery,” David said in a statement. “After a decade and a half, we have reached the tipping point both in terms of scale and demand. We made a decision to partner with Arterra because of their commitment to maintaining the quality and the integrity and quality of our wines and their solid history in the Okanagan.”

For background on Laughing Stock, here is an except from my recent book, Icon: Flagship Wines from British Columbia’s Best Wineries.

Before David Enns blended the 2003 debut vintage of Portfolio, he made what he calls “the pilgrimage” to Bordeaux. In two weeks, he tasted about 1,000 red wines to determine the style that would serve, to some degree, as the model for Portfolio. “When you start out, you have got to have a style,” David maintains. “You have to stick to it for a number of years.” That discipline worked for him, making Portfolio a widely collected Okanagan red blend.

David and his wife, Cynthia, were successful investment consultants in Vancouver when, in 2002, they bought a newly planted 2-hectare (5-acre) vineyard on Naramata Road for a future winery. They called it Laughing Stock, because they would embarrass themselves with their clients if it flopped. After all, David’s winemaking was limited to two vintages in his basement with Washington state grapes, when he processed one ton of Cabernet Sauvignon in 2001 and two tons of Syrah in 2002.

David and Cynthia made the debut 500 cases of Portfolio in 2003, after their viticulture consultant told them there might never be a better vintage with which to launch. It had been the hottest season in a decade. “The grapes were crazy ripe, which translated into quite high alcohol in the wines,” recalls Cynthia. The Portfolio 2003 had 15.1 percent alcohol, although due to a printing error, the label read 13.8 percent.

Because the Laughing Stock winery was not built until 2005, David crushed his grapes at the nearby Poplar Grove winery for two vintages. That enabled him to mentor under Poplar Grove’s Ian Sutherland. The skill transfer was invaluable even though the original Poplar Grove winery had rudimentary equipment. Soon, the well-equipped Laughing Stock winery enabled David to improve Portfolio.

The greatest improvements have come with Laughing Stock farming its own vineyards. “Our original business plan was that we were going to buy a lot of our fruit so we don’t have to become farmers,” David says. “Well, we quickly realized that if you want good wine, you need good fruit—and you have to grow it.” In 2007, the year after they sold their investment business, David and Cynthia, who now manages the vineyards, bought their Perfect Hedge Vineyard: 9 hectares (22 acres) on the Osoyoos East Bench. About half of Laughing Stock’s grapes are now from Osoyoos, while the other half are from Naramata. Perfect Hedge grapes—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec—have added flesh and rich flavours to Portfolio since the 2008 vintage.

Laughing Stock’s total production is limited to about 6,000 cases a year, so that David can practise detailed, hands-on winemaking. “When I am making Portfolio, I have four or five Merlot vineyards, two or three Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards, a couple of Cabernet Francs, a couple of Malbecs, and one source of Petit Verdot,” he says. Fermented as individual lots, these come together during the blending trials about 15 months after vintage. When the premium Portfolio blend has been decided, it spends at least three more months in barrel, all of it French oak. Wines that do not make it into Portfolio are blended for an early-drinking wine called Blind Trust Red.

Portfolio has seen continual improvement through additional  sources of grapes, better winemaking equipment, and refined selection of barrels. Vintage variations are less dramatic than might be expected, given growing conditions. In 2011, when the degree days[AG4]  were the lowest in Laughing Stock’s history, David made a wine good enough to win a Lieutenant Governor’s Award of Excellence. “My goal is to make better wine every year, based on what Mother Nature gives us,” he says.


Dilemma: Chardonnay by another name

Photo: Culmina's winery gate

Selling Chardonnay is one of the more perplexing challenges facing wineries. One Okanagan winery with an excellent Chardonnay in its portfolio has quietly reduced the production by two thirds in recent years.

The reference is not to Culmina Family Estate Winery. This Golden Mile producer, which is owned by Donald Triggs and his family, is in a position to increase production as the estate’s Chardonnay vines mature.

While the varietal is named on the label, a proprietary name – Dilemma – is more prominent. To be sure, that name was not chosen to forestall those consumers who have developed a closed mind against Chardonnay.

The explanation is that there was an old block of Chardonnay on the property when the Triggs family bought it in 2007. Their dilemma was whether those old vines would produce to quality Chardonnay; or whether they should plant better clones in a better location in the vineyard.

The first vintage of Chardonnay from the old block was good … but not good enough for Triggs family’s long-term objectives. Those vines eventually were pulled out. The 2015 Dilemma is made from the young block.

One of the benefits of giving the wine a proprietary name, however, is it might make consumers curious enough to try Chardonnay again.

Why was the “Anything but Chardonnay” attitude born? Most blame it on the over-oaked Chardonnays that were being produced in Australia and California in the 1990s and that were popular at the time. However, big, buttery Chardonnays – most are now history- are difficult to pair with a wide range of food.

Consumers also discovered unoaked white wines, especially light, simple Pinot Grigio or crisp, refreshing Pinot Gris. These are easier to drink at lunch, or in the afternoon by the pool, or with seafood. In recent years, Chardonnay producers have fought back with unoaked Chardonnay wines, with some success.

My own palate tells me that Chardonnay, unlike Pinot Gris, needs a little exposure to oak to unlock the variety’s complexity. That might be barrel fermentation, or barrel-aging for a short time, usually less than a year. The percentage of new oak barrels is strictly limited, so that the fruit remains the star.

Culmina has nailed that style. Wines like this are bringing consumers back to Chardonnay.

The other wine just released by Culmina is called R&D Red Blend. R and D refer to Ron and Don Triggs, who happen to be twins. Ron Triggs is not in the wine business but he has allowed his brother to create this catchy label, with a photo of the youthful brothers.

The wine is lower-priced and more accessible than Hypothesis, the winery’s flagship red. It is perfect for drinking while you wait for Hypothesis to mature in your cellar.

Here are notes on the wines.

Culmina Dilemma 2015 ($34). This elegant Chardonnay was carefully crafted so that oak is subtle, supporting the bright fruit and the voluptuous texture. The wine was aged  nine months in French oak barrels (35% new, 35% used), with the rest in stainless steel. The aroma is a mix of citrus lightly touched with vanilla. The palate is rich and intense, with flavours of tangerine, ripe apple and pear. A spine of minerality and also fresh acidity lead to a long, refreshing finish. The structure and acidity suggest the wine will cellar gracefully for several more years. 91.

Culmina R&D Red Blend 2015 ($34). This is a Meritage blend anchored with Merlot, supported with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and small quantities of Malbec and Petit Verdot. The wine shows the ripeness of the hot 2015 vintage. There are aromas of black cherry, blackberry and spice. On the palate, there are flavours of black currant, black olives and dark chocolate. Decanting allows the sweet dark fruit flavours to open on the palate. I would be inclined to cellar this as well for a few years. 91.