Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Painted Rock winery, Okanagan Valley, BC, Canada

One of the great advantages to being first in line for anything is that you get to say "I discovered this!" as opposed to saying "I followed others"

I was fortunate enough to be one of the first wine writers in BC to write about Painted Rock winery, back in the Olden Days... I interviewed John Skinner (proprietor) in late 2010 and then the article came out online in January 2011.

I re-read that article recently, and found myself smiling at the precocious notion of buying Painted Rock Chardonnay for a measley $30 CAD (a price which, at the time, I thought mildly inflated). These days the Chardonnay positively bursts with expression and is a steal at $30 from the cellar-door or $35-$40 at most private liquor stores. Yes, the times have changed for both John and myself over the course of only two years and I couldn't be happier for the success that the Skinner family and the Painted Rock team have garnered.

Earned I should say~! John Skinner may be one of the hardest working people in the industry that I know of; He's on the road, he's at events, he's pouring at stores, he's coordinating at the winery... and in the midst of it all John invites me over to his home so that we can chat about wine... gracious host, he even made me espresso! Now how many winery owners have done that for you recently?? And so we sat on the deck, overlooking the ocean, sipped on espresso and had a great conversation about the incredibly deft and diligent work of the Painted Rock team:

Kristof:   John, thank-you so much for having me over - it's always a treat to share some time with you.
John:    A pleasure Kristof, the feeling is mutual.
Kristof:   One of the ideas that we've spoken of before is the use of oak; how much it's changed/evolved over the years and the new approaches in "modern" winemaking. What's developed for Painted Rock in terms of this recently?
John:   To use the Chardonnay as an example, this year's vintage (2011) was in new French oak barrel for about 6 months - and this is what we're finding is a real sweet-spot for our Chardonnay... it's respectful, integrated, and allows for the expressions that we're becoming known for...
Kristof:   -I'm sensing there's more to the story...
John:   Yes, it's quite interesting the way it unfolded; Alain Sutre, our consultant ( ) asked me "John, if you could do anything with this wine, what would you change?" I told him that I loved the bright acidity, but if I had my druthers I would love a bit more mouth-feel. Alain smiled and replied that we had an opportunity to do some extra work in the vineyard that would make our efforts in the cellar be rewarded multiple-fold. That's when Alain introduced our winery to the genuine French practice of triage in the vineyard; harvesting from the vines multiple times to ensure that only the perfectly ripe fruit is picked - and at the optimal time. What we're doing in essence is picking for specific attributes... characteristics that will become building blocks when we get to the blending stage. This increased our labor cost hugely, but the results show in the glass and I couldn't be any more proud of what we've created.
aerial shot of Painted Rock vineyard
At this point, John was drowned out by the sounds of gulls cawing, wings flapping and speedboats passing close by... and so we, as civilized men, paused out conversation to sip our espresso. A moment passed, then back to the vineyard John marched me *(with his words) as he continued his explanation with the unabashed joy of an 8-year old with a new bike!

... The really exciting part of all of this is that we're making a single vineyard Chardonnay, but we're making several different wines to make one wine!
Kristof:   John, you know I'm a simple man. Explain it like I'm 5-years old.
John:   Alain took me into the vineyard a week or so before optimal harvest and showed me how the grape had gone a brilliantly amber/honey/golden color and he said "We pick 20%". And so we did! We picked only those golden grapes (and they were so easy to recognize); we fermented it, put it through malo-lactic, then matured it separately in oak. This first wine we made for the mouth-feel, for the pure viscosity and generous nature with its big aromas.
Kristof:   Ok - I'm with you so far.
John:   Then it was only a week after we picked that first wine that we picked another 60% of the vineyard. This was not put through malo and this was the bulk of our wine. This was going be our brightly acidic backbone and so once again, fermented separately, matured separately.
             And then there was the remaining 20% that we let hang for at least another week - and that's all about super-ripe fruit... all of these wines had separate yeasts, separate fermentation, separate maturation and we end up with these vastly different building blocks. We get this rare opportunity to craft a genuinely layered and textured single-vineyard wine.
Kristof:   It's a very unique winemaker, and winery owner to be honest, who has this kind of commitment to quality in any part of the world, much less in the New World. My hat is off to you sir.

It was at this point that we began a long and somewhat rambling diatribe on the state of current affairs in the BC wine industry. I had always recognized and respected the quality of Painted Rock wines, but it was a completely new level of humble awe to listen to John's rendition of how a truly world-class consultant like Alain was out on the slopes and teaching centuries of technique here. I didn't mean to blow smoke up John's ass, but I told him unequivocally how impressed I was.

We here in BC have experienced over 600% growth in our wine production in a generation, but beyond that we have experienced a growth in quality that most regions can still scarce believe. How is it possible that a winery less then 10 years old, is producing Chardonnay with precision and concentration to rival Pouilly-Fuisse? And at a reasonable price?

It must be because of the dogged determination of a few. A few winemakers, vineyard managers, cellar-hands, distributors... perhaps even because of the writers who try to tell their story. My only regret right now? That the Chardonnay in question wasn't finished yet and so I didn't get the chance to write about it. But I did get to taste these beauties and, just maybe, you'll be able to get your hands on a few bottles as well. Worth the price??? The proof is in the glass my friends - just ask John!

2010 Syrah
91+ points
$40 CAD
Skaha Bench, Okanagan
18 months on 80% new oak (60% French, remainder American)
  • visual:   clear; deep bruised plum core with slightest bright cherry rim
  • nose:   clean; medium+ to fully intense and youthful aromas of bright red cherries, raspberries, dark cocoa tones, black peppercorns and intense white pepper, slight Thai chili finish mixed with savory herbaceousness (south Okanagan sous-bois)
  • palate:   clean; dry, medium+ red raspberry/currant acid, medium+ to full chewy/meaty tannin, medium+ body, medium+ to full alcohol (14.8% ABV), fully intense and developing flavors in-sync with the nose; awash in red berry tones the palate gives way to warm oak and savory cocoa with a lightly spiced pepper finish. Very good balance, excellent structure and long length
  • conclusion:   an excellent example of Syrah/Shiraz, this wine drinks well with serious decanting now, and will reward cellaring with moderated tannin structure. Drink 2013-2020++
  • FOOD PAIRING:   I have several good friends/colleagues in the wine industry in Australia (hello McLaren Vale~!!!) and all I want to do is invite them to over for BC Shiraz and BC steak: grilled Pemberton ribeye steak with coarse seasalt rub, charred leeks, BC vinegar brushed portobello mushrooms and steamed new potatoes in Island Farms whole butter #HellYeah

2009 Merlot
92+ points
*unofficial score from the 2013 International Wine Bloggers Conference in Penticton, BC ranging from 91+ to 93 points
$40 CAD18 months, 95% new French oak
  • visual:   clear; solid garnet core with slight cherry/brick rim
  • nose:   clean; fully intense and youthful aromas developing with bright raspberry jam, red currants, hints of menthol and pine, savor sous-bois underbrush, distinct blackberry mineral finish
  • palate:   clean; dry, full red currant acid, full grippy tannin, medium body, medium+ alcohol (14% ABV), full intense and youthful flavors developing much the same as the nose; bright red berries burst on the palate, followed by a dense concentration of wood/earth/savory underbrush characteristics... darker berries follow with some dark tea notes. Excellent balance and structure with long length
  • conclusion:   only just coming into it's own, this is really a food wine at present but will develop into a "thinking man's wine" with another half-dozen years of patience. Enjoy 2013-2023 and possibly beyond
  • FOOD PAIRING:   the crisp young acids crave fat and the tightly wound tannin crave substance; pull out all the stops for this!! spinach, wild mushroom and blue cheese stuffed beef tenderloin; slow roast, finished with wild thyme butter. Charred eggplant stuffed with tomato compote and caramelized onions. Fresh country bread...   

2009 Red Icon
92+ points

18 months in 95% new French oak
Merlot 30%,  Cabernet Franc 29%, Cabernet Sauvignon 25%
Petit Verdot 15%, Syrah 1%
  • visual:   clear; solid garnet core with slightest cherry rim, ruby highlights
  • palate:  clean; medium+ youthful yet developing aromas; Okanagan sous-bois savory herbaceousness (think wild sage, thyme, rosemary), an array of red and black berries, warm leather, old wood, cedar tones, black tea
  • palate:   clean; dry, medium+ black currant acid, medium++ chewy/chalky tannin, medium+ body, medium alcohol (14.3% ABV), medium+ youthful yet developing flavors much in-line with the aromas; a touch of greenness to the fruit as it washes the palate in apple, cherry and plum notes, followed by rich black tea, warm wood and that omnipresent savory herb compound... developing on the palate the longer it sits... excellent balance and structure with long length
  • conclusion:   a babe; if you must drink this now, then do it the honor of a double-run through the aerator or a 1-hour decant. Enjoy 2015-2022 and possibly beyond
  • FOOD PAIRING:   tonight I came home from a long day, I spent time with my wife, then put my daughter to bed and relaxed with this wine and some country pate, fresh bread, spicy plum compote... to be honest, it may have been one of the best pairings I've ever made.

And so I came to the end of a great chat with a colleague, and a brilliant showcasing of BC terroir (and winemaking skill). I had had my eyes opened to the possibilities that exist when someone genuinely passionate and tenaciously driven decides to accomplish a goal, seemingly impossible though it may be. If someone had said in a professional wine-circle 10 years ago that BC wines would be competitive on a global level.... well, that person probably would have faced a fair amount of derision.

Today the derision would only be directed at those who don't know that that is exactly what the leaders in our industry are doing. But one thing especially stuck with me as I was leaving John's house; the ardor of our wine-geek-chat still making my mind race with dreams of future vintages:

Wine is a business. Wine is a business like any other in that the producer produces a product that hopes to gain acceptance in the market, and the consumer hopes to find a product worthy of consumer-dollars.

But it's also an industry unlike any other in that there can be such fanatical devotion to a label, winery, winemaker, and all due to an incredibly volatile and subjective sensory perception called Taste.

the Skinner family
Very few wineries (in the grand scheme of things) are producing on both levels. Few and far between are the business-people who aspire to creative genius, and few of our most artistic visionaries are savvy business-people. I can say with pride that Painted Rock winery is one of those examples. I say "with pride" because even when I was less then a year into my wine-education, I had figured out as much.... first tasting of the wine, first meeting with John, and I knew that this was a class-act. What I didn't count on what the Skinner sense of propriety:

Painted Rock could sell their wines for more money. Much more. Need an example?? Check out Napa Valley Chards or Bordeaux blends and then tell me that $55 is too much for an award-winning wine from BC~! I asked John about this before I left and, in essence, he said

"Kristof, we put the quality there - that's what wins awards. It's putting the value there that creates a great winery."


As always, I welcome your thoughts here or on Twitter @AStudentOfWine

CINCIN~!!!     SLAINTE~!!!     CHEERS~!!!!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

After-Dark Whiskey, Gluten-Free

A few weeks ago, a friend and colleague who manages one of the best private liquor stores in the Lower Mainland of BC sent me a quick email. It read:

"Kristof, I have a sample of whiskey for you."

I responded to Crystal (the person in question) "Crystal, many thanks, but I'm allergic to whiskey (being a celiac). That's besides the fact that I live a 90-minute drive from your store."

This was followed by a subsequent email of

"It's gluten-free."


"I'm on my way."

Ok - I must admit to be more then a little dubious. In my heyday - long before I knew that drinking it was creating an allergic reaction, I was a loyal whisk(e)y drinker. Scotch, Irish-Whiskey, Bourbon... ah the joys of pot-distilled grain alcohol~! I had my preferences; from Tullamore Dew with my pint of Harp, to an Oban or Glenmorangie to pair with a cigar, to Booker's "Old Rare" just for sippin'

So, then, gluten-free?? I couldn't imagine how it could be done, much less done well - but I was keen to try. I almost stayed within the speed-limits as I chased this idea up to Edgemont Village and the oh-so-special den of iniquity there-in. I wandered into the store ( ) and was confronted by walls of world-class wines and spirits reaching to the heavens (or at least 12'...) "Help.." I pleaded

Thank goodness Crystal has procured not only great products, but great people to share their knowledge as well. A kind man pulled out the last few drops from the sample bottle, poured it into a proper spirit glass (many thanks - it does make a difference), and left me in peace to analyze....

I was flummoxed! My poor palate, which hadn't had a sip of whiskey in about 5 years, was now being inundated with nuanced flavors and aromas unlike any other. It was soft on the nose, needing some coaxing, but opened on the palate... well... you can read the review later!

So I called the importer that very day, told him that I had to write about this, and arranged to receive a sample bottle (a perk of the trade). And then - then I went to work!

On ice, straight up, chilled bottle, room temp, with water, with soda, etc etc etc. Oh it's a hard life being a writer! But it occurred to me, doing all of my little experiments, that for all that I knew many flavors of whiskey - I don't actually know much about whiskey itself. And so I did some research:

I knew the basics: that in Western Europe it's considered to have been created by the Celts long before the first recorded distillations in the 14th century.... no, by that time the water of life as it was known had been around for centuries. But what of it? And what's really changed since then?

Well several components are known to truly create flavor in Whisk(e)y: the still, the water, the malt and the maturation. Let's examine them more closely.

I know a fellow, great guy, who is madly passionate about single-malts. He and I have bantered over the years and I'm proud to be able to call him a friend. For his day-job he's currently head barman at a prosperous piece of plank on Granville Street, slinging pints to some of the cities finest. By night he's building his own cider-house and is set to change the world of cider/cyder one apple at a time :)

Well he and I have talked about stills and he helped me to understand that column-stills deliver fast results and continuous production. The downside? Lack of flavor... purists (pardon the play on words) much prefer the older style of pot-still which has been used for centuries. These stills leave a little bit of flavor behind; a little impurity. This is what most whiskey lovers would say produces the best quality, the best flavored spirits.

Most world-class businesses understand that it takes great components to create a terrific end product. In Scotland, distilleries guard fiercely the wells, springs, creeks and glens from whence their magical water flows. There's even a vodka company that brags about melting icebergs for their spirit! This is a common theme in the finest producers of beverages.

Just as every distillery has it's own vista, so too it looks onto a different land. It's from this land that distilleries find their grain to toast and the where-withal to toast it. For example, Highland distilleries still burn peat to toast the malt. The result? Very smokey malt, hence smokey flavors in the distillate.

And then there's the last piece of the puzzle. A spirit, you see, doesn't evolve (arguably) as it ages in bottle. Most experts agree whole-heartedly that spirits only develop as they age in cask. The biggest revolution in the world of Whisk(e)y may be in this last crucial step!

In days of yore, maturation was only in French or American oak barrels (to the best of my knowledge). These days? Sherry casks, wine casks, port casks, rum casks... you name it and there's probably a distiller somewhere who it toying with how to extract flavors from another type of barrel. All of these previous residents (of the barrel) have left behind something of themselves - and they add that bit of themselves to the Whisk(e)y.

I for one was especially fond of the Glenmorangie when they developed their Sherry cask finish; slightly floral, almondy, toasty notes added great dimension to one of my all-time favorite spirits.

And so that brings us to the fellow in question, the star of today's article: After Dark gluten-free whisky from Radico Khaitan Ltd of Rampur, India ( ). Their importer into Canada is Distiller's Pride ( ) and you can read more about their products on the website.

After Dark
$40 (BC)
91+ points
Silver Medal at the Monde Selection Quality Award 2011

*adding a few drops of water opens the palate and aromas immensely, and was done for the purpose of the following notes

  • visual:   clear; medium golden-amber core, copper highlights
  • nose:   clean; medium+ spicy chili, honey, ripe stonefruit, white flowers, musky background, cedar tones
  • palate:   clean; fully intense flavors that are perfectly in-sync with the aromas; a heady concentration of honeyed floral tones, soft stonefruit glazed with Thai chili honey and a truly rich woodsy/musky backdrop. Excellently crafted, this is superb at room temperature!
  • conclusion:   a world-class spirit; to me, one of the great markers of any spirit is: Can I enjoy it straight, and at room temperature. This spirit can do both. I found that a few drops of water really does open the nose and palate immensely, and would recommend this to anyone purchasing a bottle.
  • pairing:   tonight I'm going with the Don Lino cigar of Dominican Republic... rich mocha-tones will enjoy and balance the spice in the Whisky!

And so, a delightful end to many trials and experiments with several guest judges in my home... all agreed that the spirit was immaculately crafted - more Speyside in it's approach then Highland, it must be judged on it's own merits. I am glad to be shown that the world is changing, and a door that was once closed to me - and to millions of others - is now re-opened. But one last word~!

This is not just a Whisky for celiacs! When I think of the blended Scotch that we here in BC can purchase for the low $40's, I am reminded that the market is rather sparse. The quality of most is decent, if not great, and the flavors are good, if not fully developed... those are the Scotches we drink with an ice-cube, and on a Tuesday night, not a Friday with a good friend.

Do yourself a favor. Give this a try and if you really, sincerely, believe your blended Scotch of similar price is better - I'll buy the rest of the bottle from you and drink it myself. You doubt my word??? The proof - my friend - is in the glass!

As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments here or on Twitter @AStudentOfWine

CINCIN~!!!     SLAINTE~!!!     CHEERS~!!!