Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Luxury Lines of Wines

By Julianna Hayes

The packaging of a new Mission Hill Family Estate Chardonnay is minimalist yet undeniably upscale.

The Burgundy-style bottle is unadorned save for a band of real pewter on which the wine’s name – Perpetua – is embossed. Even without tasting it, you have the immediate impression that the wine must certainly be delicious.

Perpetua is part of a luxury line of wines called the Legacy Series introduced by the Westbank producer last week. Winemaker John Simes said the wine “gets the best of everything we can possibly do with a Chardonnay.” This includes coveted grapes from 10-year-old vines found in a single vineyard that is thinned aggressively to maximize ripeness and flavour. The wine spent about 10 months in “the best barrels that we know of.”

“I think this is close to being the best Chardonnay we’ve made. I’m really pleased with it,” said Simes. That bar was already impossibly high – the winery walked away one year with the trophy for the best Chardonnay in the world at a prestigious competition in the UK.

Perpetua is a beauty indeed – full and lush, loaded with ripe fruit, but without being annoyingly oaky. It’s the kind of wine that ruins you for all others unable to measure up.

But developing a taste for it will cost you. At $33 a pop, it’s by no means the priciest wine on the market, but it puts it out of reach for everyday quaffing.

Perpetua’s cellar mates in the Legacy Series are equally as rich in the glass and on the pocketbook. Quatrain, a four-grape red blend, is savoury, spicy and jammy and retails for $48. Oculus, a Bordeaux-style red blend – which has been part of the Mission Hill portfolio for some time, but will now be part of this line – is elegant and complex and sells for $70.

In today’s economy, when everyone seems to be clawing back spending on the non-necessities, it may not seem foolish to launch such top-of-the-line products. Simes acknowledged the timing might not be perfect, but the series was hardly a spur of the moment project.

“We’ve been working on it for quite a while,” he said, pointing out that the Quatrain and Oculus releases are both 2005 vintages. “We’ve been sitting on Quatrain for awhile. It’s nice to finally be able to talk about it.”

Even though the marketplace may seem volatile, Simes said the series has been well received at other launches in Vancouver and Calgary. And the wines are getting rave reviews – all three were awarded more than 90 points by renowned Canadian wine write Anthony Gismondi, a critic notoriously stingy with his marks.

And Mission Hill certainly isn’t the only B.C. producer targeting the high-end market. While a decade ago, a local wine selling for more than $25 was almost unthinkable – now that price-point is close to being average and “luxury lines” of wines are becoming more commonplace.

Some of the smaller Okanagan wineries don’t even bother to cater to the low- to mid-range consumer. The cheapest wine at Le Vieux Pin, for example, is a rosé for $25, while its priciest bottle is $65. Likewise, Black Hills Winery routinely sells out its wines in days, if not mere hours, even though nothing comes cheaper than $24.

Larger wineries like Mission Hill, CedarCreek and Jackson Triggs don’t really have that option, as they need broader consumer appeal to move their volumes of wines. Which is why their top of the line products must truly stand out.

Sandhill Estate, a spin-off of the Calona Vineyards portfolio, is marketed as a producer of “single vineyard” wines which come from carefully tended sites in the Okanagan. The Small Lots Program under the label goes even further by isolating “unique and distinctive barrels that deserve very special attention.” These bottlings are usually limited to a few hundred cases and are considered “finely crafted creations.”

At Quails’ Gate, the luxury line is the Stewart Family Reserve wines, which are produced from the “very best blocks of fruit the Quails' Gate vineyards have to offer.” The winery makes the series rare and exclusive by producing Reserve wines from vintages where the quality is exceptional – meaning some years the wines might not be available at all.

Jackson-Triggs already had Proprietor’s Reserve and Proprietor’s Grand Reserve lines when it launched its Sunrock Vineyard series three years ago. These wines narrowed the focus down to just one key vineyard in the very south, and arguable hottest, part of the Okanagan Valley. The emphasis is heavily on viticulture and wines made in limited quantities.

Among other wineries with specialty high-end bottlings are CedarCreek (Platinum Reserve), Road 13 ( Jackpot), Tinhorn Creek (Oldfield’s Collection), Summerhill Pyramid (Platinum Series), Sumac Ridge (Pinnacle) and Gray Monk (Odyssey).

Here are some notes on Mission Hill’s Legacy Series wines:

Mission Hill Perpetua 2006 Chardonnay $33
Luscious fruit aromas of orange, green apple, hints of lime, some buttery notes, a touch of toast and mineral and lovely vanilla. Very fresh on the palate with just enough roundness and creamy character without being overly woody. Citrus, apple skin, tree fruit flavours, a hint of nuttiness and a clean elegant finish. 91 points

Mission Hill Quatrain 2005 $48
Very jammy, blackberry pie aromas, fresh red berry fruit, black cherry, chocolate, spice and peppery notes with hints of tobacco and cedar. There is a distinct fresh dark fruit and earthy character on the palate, spice, pepper and a silky texture. Tannins are moderate, but the dryness on the finish will disappear with a bit more time in the bottle. This is a four-grape blend of Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. 90 points

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