Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Wine Blogging Wednesday 75 - Single's Night

It's that time of the month again. It's the third Wednesday of month - time for Wine Blogging Wednesday - and I get to discover that, yet again, I'm still lagging behind in my posts. Do I add another bottle to The List even though I'll be out of sync - after all that's the raison d'être of the blog - or do I skip a month of WBW? As tempting as "skipping class" might be, I'm hoping that WBW can get on a roll again and build on its participation rate. If I really want that to happen, I pretty much have to play my part and get that post in.

There's that - and then there's the fact that this month's host, 1WineDude, has proposed a great theme for WBW75: "Single's Night." As Joe Roberts, our host, points out the theme "does not mean that you should be drinking alone (not that there's anything necessarily wrong if you do...we're not judging you here) {Editor's note - "phew!"}; it means we're going to taste and talk about wines that come from single vineyards."

My choice of wineries for this post was a bit of a no-brainer. When it comes to BC wines, I think it's safe to say that single vineyard designations start and end with Sandhill. I don't think anyone in the BC wine industry could be more passionate about single vineyard wines than Howard Soon - Sandhill's Master Winemaker and all-around great guy. Heck, the headplate on the home page of their website proclaims "Single Vineyard Wines - One Distinct Vineyard. One Distinct Wine Experience."

Indeed, my problem was going to be what wine would I actually choose to write about. I took a quick look back on The List and I've added just over 20 Sandhill bottles to The List since I started. That may be the most wines added from any one winery. I think it clearly speaks to the quality of the wines Howard and company continuously produce at Sandhill. We wouldn't keep going back for more if he didn't keep delivering.

A native son of Vancouver, Howard actually started out as a brewmaster at Labatt's, one of Canada's big two national breweries. Apparently, it was a wine appreciation class - and cold Prairie winters - that prompted his crossing the dancefloor to the wine cellar. That was back in 1980 when Howard started with Calona Wines. During those 30-plus intervening years, Howard has seen a cataclysmic change in the BC wine industry - from the days of Canadian jug wine to one where a bottle of his 1994 Chardonnay became the first BC wine to win Gold at the Chardonnay du Monde competition in Paris.

Since Sandhill's first release in 1997, when Howard was the first BC winemaker to release a series of single vineyard wines, he has offered nothing but single vineyard wines. He has been quoted as stating that his goal has been to capture the "unique combination of geography, microclimate and human touch" and that the "commitment to purity of place is more difficult than blending." That "commitment" has resulted in a fine collection of awards and medals for his wines. Indeed, Howard and Sandhill experienced a banner year in 2009 when Wine Access magazine named Sandhill Winery of the Year at the Canadian Wine Awards - and, oh yeah, Sandhill also won Red Wine of the Year with its Small Lots Syrah and White Wine of the Year for its Viognier - both single vineyard wines, naturally.

The Sandhill estate vineyard was only planted between 1993 and 1994. Accordingly, winemakers and growers alike are still striving to detect specific vineyard expressions of terroir but Howard and his viticulturists have tweaked growing practices enough - from more water here and less water there to canopy maintenance and the yield of fruit - that they now feel that they have enough of an understanding of the vineyard subtleties to venture into single block wines. And that's where I transition to today's wine...

(# on The List to be determined) 2009 Sandhill Block C8 Merlot (VQA - Okanagan Valley)

Since the 2007 vintage, Howard and Sandhill have released a Merlot and a Chardonnay - as part of their Small Lots Program - sourced from single blocks in the estate's home vineyard that Howard has consistently identified as being notable for rich, concentrated and intensely flavoured grapes. Limited to a production of only five barrels, I was lucky enough to nab a couple of bottles at the recent Vancouver Playhouse Wine Festival. Howard was serving the Single Block Merlot as one of his wines and it immediately grabbed my attention with its intense nose and incredible integration of young tannins and bright fruit. The Merlot was a definite standout among the 800 some-odd wines that were available for tasting from around the world.

The Playhouse Festival is rather unique in that a winery is not invited to participate unless it is prepared to send along one of the winery principals - be it owner, winemaker or head of sales - to interact with Joe and Jane Public. Accordingly, I had an opportunity to chat briefly with Howard. I told him that I was befuddled as to how winemakers are able to differentiate one grape from another in order to determine which fruit should be destined for the more premium wines. Despite facing a small crowd of folks anxiously awaiting a pour of wine at the Sandhill table, he took time to explain that he separately vinifies the grapes from each block from each vineyard and that, as they age, he can identify particular barrels of wine - from particular blocks - that are just that much more intense. He added that, over the years, you notice that certain sections of many vineyards tend to consistently deliver premium fruit - and, in some instances, those unique profiles merit a unique bottling of their own.

All this goodness can come with a price though. At $40 a bottle, the Block C8 Merlot is the most expensive wine released by Sandhill (along with the Small Lots Syrah). However, when you compare that to the $85 charged by La Stella, one of Sandhill's neighbours down the road, for its icon Merlot - Maestoso - the price seems a whole lot more palatable. Particularly when I believe this is truly one of the best expressions of Okanagan Valley Merlot you can find. That is, if you can find it.

With this 2009 vintage being a new release, I've probably opened it earlier than is optimal but I simply thought that this was the perfect choice for Single's Night at Wine Blogging Wednesday. Having tried it only a couple of weeks ago, however, I knew it was already drinking beautifully. I'm certainly glad we've still got one more bottle. I only wish we had even more.

I'll end with a big shout out to Joe and 1WineDude and for the effort he's put into hosting WBW75. I look forward to checking out the wines and stories that are being posted simultaneously - and to a rocking topic for Wine Blogging Wednesday 76.

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