Saturday, January 7, 2012


One of the Okanagan wineries - or should I say two - that I've been wanting to learn more about are LaStella and Le Vieux Pin, sister wineries that started up around five years ago. Although I've tried some of their wines at various tastings, I've only added one bottle from either winery to The List so far (Le Vieux Pin's entry level white blend, Petit Blanc at #778). Until now.

Back in September, I finally joined up with the BC Wine Appreciation Society's annual Bus Tour and, during one of the extra days I managed to fit in, I made it a priority to drop in to the two wineries. Both LaStella and Le Vieux Pin are boutique operations - each producing only 3000 to 3500 cases of wine. The Salem family is the driving force behind both of the wineries and the wineries are located more-or-less just down the road from each other. Le Vieux Pin is on the Black Sage Road and LaStella is just below the Golden Mile on the shore of Lake Osoyoos.

One looks to produce wines in more of a French style, while the other looks to Italy for inspiration. I think you can determine which is which.

With their various vineyards being found on the northern tip of the Sonoran Desert, the annual rainfall averages around 8 inches a year. LaStella still chooses to primarily dry farm its established vines. This results in production levels that can be substantially less than those of the neighbouring vineyards. The yield for LaStella icon wine, Maestoso, is under one ton of grapes an acre. I generally think a winery is aiming for high quality, low cropped fruit when they look at two to three tons an acre. That's LaStella's average yield.

Intensely farmed grapes, not surprisingly, lend themselves to the creation of more powerful wines. But, fewer grapes also means a lower volume of finished wine which, itself, results in higher prices. Hence, the primary reason it's taken awhile to get around to adding some LaStella to The List. $35 for a "premium" wine is pretty standard for BC pricing, but it makes it a little more difficult to pop a cork on a Tuesday night - particularly when that premium wine is the winery's entry level red. No one says that passion comes cheap though.

1041. 2008 La Stella Fortissimo (VQA Okanagan Valley)

Intense Merlot wines are the stars at LaStella but the winery is capitalizing on the lure of La Dolce Vita with a homegrown version of a Super Tuscan. Equal portions of Merlot and Cab Sauv (at 42% each) are blended with 8% each of Cab Franc and Sangiovese Grosso. This is the first vintage that the Sangiovese is included as part of the blend - but that's simply because that most Tuscan of grapes was planted after the winery purchased its vineyards and the vines are only just starting to yield fruit that is ready to be made into wine.

Vintages of Fortissimo to come may see a higher percentage of Sangiovese as the vines mature; however, there are many who think that the viability of growing Sangiovese in the Okanagan is tenuous at best. The length of the Okanagan growing season is questioned when one considers the varietal's need for a later harvest date if it's going to fully ripen. Perhaps the folks at LaStella are thinking that a little more global warming might come in handy. The winery has stated that it isn't their intent to produce a 100% varietal Sangiovese wine though. Rather, the starting premise is to use the higher acidity and structure of the Sangiovese to frame the Merlot and to add another level of complexity to the wine.

On a different front, La Stella looks to engage the wine drinker with names that evoke the romance of the wine in the bottle. There are no simple "Merlot's" or "Meritage's;" the wines are named after Italian musical notes. Fortissimo was chosen to capture the boisterous nature of the Super Tuscan wine.

In my desire to try some LaStella, I might have opened this bottle a little bit early as it could easily handle some ageing. I think, with a year or two, all the components might integrate a little more cohesively, but that's where big, old meatballs and tomato sauce can assist the present day. And a boy can only wait so long.

As a definite tip of the hat to the wine and winery, Fortissimo was chosen as the "mystery wine" at the 2011 Canadian Culinary Championships for the opening night competition that saw the eight Gold Medal Plates winners from across the country be given an unlabelled, anonymous bottle of wine and $500 to shop and prepare a dish (for 350 folks) to pair up with the wine. Chef Jeremy Charles from Raymonds in St. John's, Newfoundland, won this challenge by assembling a "composition of creamy polenta, finely chopped bittersweet rapini with lemon, chili and garlic nuances, braised beef short rib, a potato ravioli topped with tomato concassé and a dab of a profound, almost offaly jus."

Thoughts of Tuscany, music, Okanagan sun, great food. What more can you ask of from a glass of wine? I'm going to look forward to some more LaStella down the road.

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