Tuesday, January 27, 2015

An Evening of Oculus - BCWAS's 10th Anniversary Bash

I don't often add bottles to The List from the various tastings that I attend throughout the year; however, I'm making an exception with this one. Throughout 2015, the BC Wine Appreciation Society is celebrating its 10th Anniversary and my favourite gang of guzzlers is rejoicing with a line-up of exciting festivities. The first of those bashes is perhaps the most extravagant tasting that the society has ever offered - a twelve-year vertical tasting of one of the province's most iconic wines: Mission Hill's Oculus - in the lush surroundings of the Vancouver Club.

Society cellarmasters had accumulated nine vintages of Oculus over the years and Mission Hill graciously provided some of the 1999 - one of the earliest vintages produced - as well as the 2011 and 2012 vintages that haven't even been released yet. Ingo Grady, the winery's director of wine education, joined Society members for the tasting and he regaled the assembled wine lovers with stories of the winery's goals, trials and tribulations as Mission Hill strives to achieve its goal of making a wine that can rank with the finest of Bordeaux wines.

I think everyone in attendance knew that they were lucky to participate but the prestige of the tasting became even more evident as, shortly after the tasting, articles were published by both John Schreiner and Anthony Gismondi - two of the most notable wine scribes in BC. Indeed, even Ingo stated that he wasn't sure that the tasting would ever be held again. Private collections of the wine through the years will be few and far between and the winery itself - much to its surprise - found out that it no longer has any of the 2000 or 2001 vintages left in its own cellar.

We learned that the first vintage of Oculus was released in 1997 when approximately 500 cases was made. While production has increased over the years, the total number of cases is still likely to be less than two or three thousand. Along with increased production, a fairly dramatic change in the wine's make-up occurred in 2005 when the winery brought in renowned Bordeaux consultant, Michel Rolland, to help give some assistance and direction. Ingo pointed out that the winery's owner, Anthony von Mandl, and winemaker, John Simes, realized that achieving their goal would be a lengthy process and the winery readily acknowledges that the wine is still a work in progress as everyone behind the wine realizes that they are still learning about the make-up of the Okanagan soils, the growing season and cropping levels. The production of Oculus has seen the introduction of practically an entire "winery within the winery," the creation of dedicated cellar areas and the use of infra-red imaging of the vineyards to assist in the pinpointing of ripening patterns and of parts of the vineyard block that might need additional attention.

I found it interesting to hear that the assemblage of each vintage's final blend is overseen by 15 tasters - one of whom will be from outside the winery to ensure some independent input into the blending. The final wine is now primarily Merlot with Cab Sauv and Cab Franc making up the balance. Petit Verdot has been used in some vintages; however, the winery's Petit Verdot hasn't been up to the desired standard and it hasn't been included in the last four vintages that have been completed. Malbec has never been used in the blend as winemaker, Simes, doesn't feel that Okanagan Malbec is typical of the variety and isn't well-suited for the region.

Back in the day of those first bottles in 1997, they sold for $35 and the price was considered to be an extravagant ask. John Schreiner stated in his article that, at the time, the average price for a bottle of BC VQA wine was around $12. Oculus now retails for $100 - one of a very few BC wines that command a price in that lofty range - but Ingo stresses that the winery feels that they actually need to "over deliver" when they charge such a price.

Thus far, Mission Hill hasn't had any problems selling all the Oculus that they can produce though. The price might, however, give you an idea why I've only added the wine to The List on a couple of occasions: the first being back at the very beginning blog - a 2003 at #10 to be precise - and the other when I added both the 2000 and the 2005 vintages (at #819 and #820) to urge on the Canucks during their ill-fated 2011 Stanley Cup series with the Bruins. The Canucks won that game but I guess I should have opened more Oculus during the later playoff games.

1849.  2009 Mission Hill Oculus (VQA Okanagan Valley)

I think everyone had a difficult time picking a favourite vintage at the tasting. Some of the vintages, particularly the older ones, saw a profound change in profile over the course of the evening. Both Boo and I quite enjoyed the '09 though (as did most of our table companions and Gismondi and Schreiner). The wine was rich and received full marks for an abundance of dark, ripe fruit.

I wouldn't mind a few bottles of that wine in our cellar but I'm afraid I shall have to rely on the kindness of strangers if I'm to have another chance at this great vintage.

On top of the awesome selection of wines, the evening featured a few moments of wit and camaraderie as well. Ingo pointed out that a magnum is "the perfect size for three people so long as one is a non-drinker." Then, John Schreiner raised some laughs of his own when he remarked, "Good God, doesn't everybody do verticals at home?"

The Society also paid homage to Tim Ellison and Francis Dorsemaine, the brilliant minds behind the creation of BCWAS, and also gathered the four members in attendance who were actually among those present at the very first Society tasting those ten years ago.

And, of course, having enjoyed Tim's sartorial splendour at events over the Society's first decade, our past President was obliged to show the assembled gang that he cold still pull off a bit of colour - if only with his socks - all these years later. An even bigger chuckle was earned by Francis when he revealed that he could also sport some wild shades of his own when he lifted his pant leg to show a bit of brightness that even Tim could be proud of.

All in all, it was a great start to BCWAS's second decade. Here's toasting the rest of events to come and wines to be drunk in the year and years to come.

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