“This did not happen overnight.” Before we go further, let’s take a moment to reflect on these five words. They hold significant weight in this narrative and provide a substantial lens through which to consider the offer ahead.
The British Columbia wine history is, commercially, young. Production of any serious consequence didn’t take hold until the 1970s/1980s when our wine landscape was sweeter red wines and something called a loganberry. When the von Mandl family directed their attention to BC and the Okanagan as a place to grow vinifera grapes to produce premium wines, it was early days with an uncertain future. The Mission Hill Family Estate facility was arguably early out of the gate with an enormous winery built in tribute to a region yet to prove itself, and von Mandl’s vision was at times viewed with some scepticism. However, great things take time – and this did not happen overnight.
As of 2012, Checkmate Artisanal Winery has a singular focus on producing top quality chardonnay and merlot. The impetus could have been in 1994 when Mission Hill Chardonnay was awarded the Avery Trophy for Best Chardonnay In The World at the International Wine & Spirit Competition in London, UK. Whatever seed was planted, the trajectory today for Checkmate is to achieve excellence with each vintage under the direction of winemaker Philip McGahan. Originally from Australia, McGahan was lured to the Okanagan Valley from Williams Selyem in the Russian River Valley, Sonoma.
The small Checkmate facility is keeping the scale reflective of the term artisanal. McGahan estimates they produce around 2,500 cases annually: 1,500 chardonnay (16-18 months in barrel) and 1,000 merlot (21 months in barrel). Even with these lower numbers the cellar and barrel aging program means a hefty investment of time and resources, not to mention capital investment, before a bottle makes its way into someone’s home. This is where the reach and depth of von Mandl’s holdings comes into play; one requires big pockets to create what’s happening here.
The Checkmate portfolio asks consumers respect a commitment to quality, and those willing do so with their wallets.
What: facility visit and complimentary (partial) portfolio tasting
Where: Oliver, BC
When: September 9, 2017
Portfolio standouts: 2014 Little Pawn Chardonnay and 2013 End Game Merlot
2014 Little Pawn Chardonnay portfolio standout
clones: Dijon 76 & Dekleva from The Barn Vineyard on Black Sage Bench | alcohol 14.3% | RS not listed | TA 5.73 | pH 3.32 | 19 barrels
50% native (wild) yeast fermentation in barrel, 100% malolactic with bâtonnage, unfined and unfiltered, 16 months 100% French oak (53% new). Site, clone selection, and cellar treatment speak the loudest in this wine, which is in fact the quietest and most restrained of the chardonnay portfolio. Orchard, spring, and stone fruit. Sipping brings softly persistent aforementioned flavours with a creamy viscosity across the palate, and offers a lengthy finish. Generous on minerality, citrus, and acid with an underlying cradle of softness to hold it all together. Simply brilliant.
2013 End Game Merlot portfolio standout
Osoyoos East Bench and Black Sage Bench vineyards | alcohol 14.5% | RS not listed | TA 6.0 | pH 3.68 | 12 barrels
100% native (wild) yeast fermentation, extended skin contact, 21 months in 100% French oak, unfined and unfiltered. Like its Little Pawn peer, this more restrained and layered example of Okanagan merlot is most indicative of the complexity and richness that can be found in this often over-represented grape. Expressive in the glass with spiced dark fruits that gently remind you it comes from a hot site in cool climate growing. Sipping brings dusty, chalky tannins with subtlety and finesse, more spiced fruit, and savoury elements. This wine is fresh and youthful, long and deep, with maturity, all in one. No shouting over here, please.
clones: Dijon 76, Border Vista Vineyard in Osoyoos | alcohol 14.5% | RS not listed | TA 5.44 | pH 3.2 | 6 barrels
100% native (wild) yeast fermentation in barrel, 100% malolactic with bâtonnage, unfined and unfiltered, 16 months in 100% French oak (49% new). Comprised of 8 rows in this vineyard block where the vines end at the US border. Pineapple, both grilled and fresh, with melon and some spice. Sipping brings a softness in tension with just enough acid to remind you this is cool climate growing. Creamy mid-palate, bright citrus finish. Big easy.
clones: Deklevea, Dekleva Vineyard, Golden Mile Bench DVA | alcohol 14.1% | RS not listed | TA 3.45 | pH 5.76 | 6 barrels
88% native (wild) yeast fermentation in barrel, 100% malolactic with bâtonnage, 16 months in 100% French oak (49% new). Savoury with stone fruit, opulent. That malolactic is evident on first presentation, in a good way. Sipping brings a creaminess with pith and lime zest that carries through a longer finish. There’s a richness here with some weight, and acid that lifts it up up up. Just keeps going.
clones: Dijon 76 & 95, Dekleva, Combret (multiple vineyards) | alcohol 14.3% | RS not listed | TA 5.57 | pH 3.35 | 32 barrels & 2 concrete eggs
67% native (wild) yeast fermentation in barrel, 100% malolactic with bâtonnage, unfined and unfiltered, 16 months in oak and concrete (85% French oak [42% new] and 15% concrete). Melon, musk melon, and stone fruit in complex harmony. Peaches and cream meets seashore brine and seashell. Some graphite. Sipping brings a host of layered flavours including the aforementioned plus peach, more melon (so many melons), with a richness and brightness that remain in tension throughout. One cool chard that defies explanation.
Black Sage Vineyard | alcohol 14.4% | RS not listed | TA 5.2 | pH 3.59 | 9 barrels
100% native (wild) yeast fermentation, extended skin contact, 21 months in 100% French oak, unfined and unfiltered. This is quintessential Black Sage Road, south Okanagan merlot. Lower yield in the vineyard with smaller berries, there’s a flavour concentration without extraction that’s so very welcome. Bigger and darker, black ripe fruits, savoury, sage, earth, spice. Sipping brings a richness of texture and flavour without overreaching, something I’ve looked for but struggled to find in most. Still not shouting, but an urgent and intense whisper. I hear you.