Noble Ridge’s Threepeat Perfect for Holiday Adventures

I love seeing people take chances. I’ve always loved watching drummers in bands try to do crazy stuff. (Is he going to drop the sticks? Is that fill going to finish on time? Will anything break??) Things can go off the rails quickly but watching and hearing music that is so close to that tipping point is pretty exciting. It’s the same in any art when the artist pushes boundaries or demonstrates such a high degree of control, with either going well beyond what everyone else does.

When wineries take chances with things, there is also a possibility that things can go sideways, perhaps more so. The fun part is taking the risk because one never knows what will happen until they try. If, over the history of humanity, nobody tried anything, we would all still be living in caves and swinging clubs at each other.  Unfortunately, there are so few wineries that take these kinds of risks. Even though there are more wineries in BC each year, it seems that a declining percentage of them are willing to experiment a little. Of course simply starting a winery is already fraught with enough of a financial risk that most owners understandably want to mitigate against disaster as much as possible.

Noble Ridge has taken chances with their sparking program and the results have been really cool to watch.  It is pretty clear that they can produce wines of profundity, nuance, and complexity across their whole portfolio. But is there consistency across these vintages of their sparkling wines? I recently had a chance to taste 3 consecutive vintages of “The One” sparkling wine (technically the 2013 was The Wild One” – more on that later) and the experience was truly memorable.

The One 2012

This is the big One. The One that won all of those awards. After popping the cork and taking the first sips, it was pretty clear as to why this wine stood out. It had a beautiful light golden colour and I found that the nose was full of bready-yeasty aromas, baked pear, caramel, delicate floral notes (daisies), and green apple skin. The wine appeared relatively dry, crisp acidity, light alcohol, and I noticed flavours of bright pears, brioche, and ripe lemon rind. The finish was medium in length and completely pleasant to the last.

This wine was a cogent, complete statement and set the bar rather high for the two wines that were going to follow it. The One 2012 had everything – complexity, nuance, appealing flavours, balance, texture, and beautiful bubbles throughout. This is one instance where the judges at the various competitions (The Lieutenant Governor’s Awards, All Canadians, Wine Align, etc…) were all on the same page and got it right by giving this wine top marks.

Did it set the bar too high for the following wines? It certainly made the task a little more difficult…

The Wild One 2013

This wine intrigued me from the start and, of the three wines, this was the one that I was the most eager to taste. They took a big risk with producing this wine in this way and for me, as a semi-professional wine nerd, I was looking forward to it.

How exactly does one do a second fermentation using wild yeasts?

Wild yeast fermentations are done using the yeasts that are present on the grape skins. The fermentation started spontaneously in barrels or in tanks. The whole process is maddeningly slow and can go off the rails in many different ways. For this reason, most wineries prefer to use cultured yeasts which can perform more consistently and predictably.

Sparkling wine made with the traditional method goes through two fermentations – one (the primary fermentation) happens normally in a large vessel (tank, vat,  or barrel) and the secondary fermentation happens in the bottle. The secondary fermentation is what gives the wine its bubbles because the carbon dioxide that the yeast produces is trapped in the bottle so it dissolves into the wine. A wild yeast fermentation is easy enough to accomplish for the primary fermentation because the skins are there and it an easy environment for yeast to survive. But how can it happen once the wine is securely locked away in a bottle and surrounded by alcohol that make it hard for the yeast to survive?

This is where the real risk comes in. Noble Ridge’s winemaker Benoit Gauthier informed me that the wines were bottled with the regular dosage that included sugar and yeast nutrients, but no yeast at all! Instead, he relied on the yeasts present in the air of the winery and that may have survived through the primary fermentation. It was incredibly risky to do this because there was a real possibility that no fermentation would occur at all (something that did happen with more than a few bottles).

So what’s in the glass? Well, it was pale yellow in colour and had very tiny bubbles. I found the wine to be extremely aromatic with a strong yeast / autolytic character, concrete dust, lemon rind, dried bitter herbs, dried flowers, and wet straw.

The next part was what I was waiting for – how much sugar was there going to be in this one? The spec sheet for this wine states that there will be significant bottle variations in residual sugar because of the unpredictability of the wild yeasts present in each bottle. The range that they stated went from 5 to 15g/l, which is a not a small variation. Even people with casual tasting abilities would be able to tell the difference between a wine with 5g or 15g of sugar. My particular wine sample appeared to be dry. Very dry, in fact. Desert-like is another way of putting it. It made me think of the Okanagan in the summer kind of dry. I like that but some people might not. I left a small glass of it out to get flat and tasted it again the following day which confirmed to me that my wine was absolutely on the drier end of the spec sheet’s range. While it gives the wine a cool, adventurous, and unpredictable attitude (dare I say, “wild”), food pairings could be a bit difficult with this wide a spectrum to play with. Some chefs or sommeliers might think twice before listing this on their menu for that reason however it is unlikely that this wine will appear in any restaurant as I am told that Noble Ridge is only selling it to the wine club and in the wine shop.

Beyond that, the wine was medium in acidity and body and had a delicate, creamy mousse. I found flavours of this wine to be slightly bitter with lemons, bitter herbs, and lemon cough drops / medicinal flavours, which was followed by a very long and pleasant finish.

The Wild One 2013 seemed to raise more questions than anything else. The bitterness on the palate was a bit off-putting at first and I wonder if that might have been lessened with a sweeter version of the wine. Giving it the “Wild” name is certainly an appropriate moniker. This wine will appeal to those who look for unpredictable styles from their wines. I am one of those people and for me, a good part of this wine’s enjoyment was the anticipation of the experience in tasting it. Unfortunately, the only preconceived notion that I’d had about it was that it had to compete against the 2012 from the previous evening. That is a position that would be difficult for any wine to live up. Given the choice between the three of these to purchase again, The Wild One would make my list every time just because of the anticipated adventure with every bottle.

The One 2014

The third wine in the flight was a return to The One, but without the Wild things from the previous vintage. This wine was again in the unfortunate situation of having to live up to the 2012 with inevitable comparisons. Could this wine cruise at the same level?

This wine was a pale gold colour with a light tinge of salmon colour and was almost like one would expect from a Pinot Gris. There was a persistent mousse with tiny bubbles. I found the nose to have aromas of fresh-baked French bread, lemons, green apple skins, thyme, mandarin peel, Orange Julius, pears, and minerals.

On the palate, this wine was the sweetest of the trio although, at a stated 7.6g/l residual sugar, it isn’t going to be winning any sweetness competitions. There was some good acidity to balance it and a soft mousse. I found flavours of ripe tangerines, tropical fruits / mango, flowers, soft wet minerals, and some medicinal flavours. There was no bitterness on this wine at all like there had been on the Wild One 2013. The wine had a medium-length finish but I found that the bubbles subsided rather quickly. Over the course of the meal that accompanied it, the wine kind of lost it’s mojo the longer it sat in the glass. Bubbles got fewer and farther between.

The contrast between The One 2014 and The Wild One 2013 was huge, almost like they were from two different wineries. I see the 2014 as a crowd-pleasing sparkler that will appeal to many different palates without offending anyone whereas the 2013 will be more polarizing and have definite friends and enemies.

Conclusions

For people looking for absolute consistency in style or flavour from year to year, Noble Ridge’s sparkling wines may not be for you. For adventurous, small-batch, boutique, sparkling wine lovers who look for new taste sensations with every bottle, you should really add Noble Ridge to your list. They are clearly capable of making some top-drawer wines like the 2012 and are able to handle adventures and experiments like the 2013.

One thing that did stick out for me is purely visual – the packaging. I have a friend (and Wine Country BC podcast co-host) who collects sparkling wine caps. Some of them are beautifully designed and branded. For a $40 sparkling wine, I expected to see some additional visual elements to these wines beyond a plain silver cap under the wire cage. Yes, it does match the silver colour scheme, but for a wine in this price point, a simple, branded top would make the presentation a little more elegant.

In sum, if you are an adventure-seeking sparkling wine enthusiast, Noble Ridge’s sparkling wine program is waiting for you to discover.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

Vertical Party – Nota Bene 05-12

DSC_7450These are the bottles from my Nota Bene vertical tasting this past weekend. I’m happy to report that there were no corked bottles and that everything was showing brilliantly. As my regular readers will know, I hate writing (and reading) wine reviews but I was asked a few times on twitter if there were any of these wines that stood out. There were, but Twitter is a difficult place to explain things that require more than a half-baked thought. With only one exception, I was also amazed at how contiguous the whole collection was and thought that this in itself merited a summary here.

If you’ve never heard of a vertical tasting, it is tasting the same wine from many different vintages on one occasion. I would suggest that it requires a minimum of at least 3 vintages to get a fair idea of the wines’ characteristics. The point is not just to have a ton of wine at a party (a nice side-effect) but rather to have lots of wine with slight variations due to the different vintages. All wines will show slight differences although I believe that larger, commercially manufactured wines are by nature designed to minimize these differences. It is an illuminating experience.

As I had worked regularly with the 4 most recent vintages of this wine for 7 months this past year, I became very familiar with its moods. I had tried every vintage here before although never all in one sitting. I’d been building and saving this collection since 2006 with the intention of having it for a special event or occasion and it seemed to me that the time was right.

Nota Bene is always made with only 3 grape varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. With three exceptions since 1999, they have always been in that order. 1999 and 2012 were Merlot-dominant and 2000 was Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, and then Merlot. The only outlier in this particular set was the Merlot-dominant 2012.

For me, the stand outs were the ’07 and the ’10. Here are my thoughts on all of the vintages in the order that I tasted them from oldest to youngest.

2005 – One word – yum. Still got some years left in it if you dare. I can’t because that was my last bottle but I would hold onto at least one for another year or two. It had softened beautifully without getting flabby. It was noticeably more delicate than the others and was covered by some of the more robust food items. Even still, the flavours were beautiful and complex which made this wine a joy to sip.

2006 – The one sore thumb for me was the ’06. It had far more oxidized, prune aromas than any of the other vintages. It wasn’t just that this particular bottle was off because of a failing cork, this is the consistent direction that the wine has been progressing since 2013. This is the vintage that I had the most bottles – a case – that was purchased in the infamous 47-minute online sell-out in 2008. It was brilliant in its youth, a little closed from 3-5 years old, and then it blossomed after that. But it kept blossoming and kind of went over the edge, in a way. The last 3 bottles that I’d opened over the past year indicated that it was headed for an early demise which made me concerned for the condition of the ’05 (needlessly, as it turned out). Let me clear though – it’s not that I didn’t like it, I did. Erin from Vines and Designs tweeted this as one of her 3 preferred vintages that evening. I enjoyed it as well but it stood out because of this very different flavour profile.

20150118-093305.jpg2007 – At just over 7 years of age now, the ’07 was right in that prime target area for where I think NB is most expressive. I think NB shines in the range from 6-9 years of age but that is entirely subjective on my part. It’s what I enjoy most out of it and nothing else. The aromas and flavours were complex and tannins and acidity were present but smooth and rounded. It really was the stand-out for me in this set.

2008 – This wine was the next car in the NB train that is going to get there but isn’t due to pull into the station yet. It’s showing well and is consistent with NB but hasn’t arrived yet. After 24 more hours in a decanter, it was showing beautifully.

2009 – See 2008 above. In the vertical tastings that I lead at Black Hills last year, this was usually the wine favoured by customers. But in my opinion is still only starting on its trip. Like the ’08, it showed better after 24 hours.

2010 – The ’10 was like a more youthful ’07. I thought it had the same complexity and range but was just a little more aggressive. With 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, this was the roughest wine of the 4 that we offered in the Black Hills Wine Experience Centre last summer. No other vintage of NB has ever had that much Cab Sauv. Last summer it was hidden, rough, and was rarely the vintage favoured by customers. I enjoyed its potential though and was really looking forward to trying it in this vertical. It didn’t disappoint at all. This was the only wine that I went back for seconds.

2011 – More closed than a coffee shop in Vancouver at 9pm.

The spread.

The spread.

2012 – Still has the freshness and vigour of a youthful wine but will probably loose that over the next year if it stays consistent with the previous 8 vintages of NB that I’ve experienced. This is only the second Merlot-dominated vintage so it could clear its own path away from the norm. Either way, it will be a fascinating vintage to follow. There is still a little of it left which I plan on trying tonight or tomorrow.

For the wine-nerd record, the bottles were all opened 1-2 hours before being served. The vintages ’05-’08 were decanted, ’09 had a Nuance wine finer, and ’10 and up were not decanted at all.

Overall, it was a thoroughly enjoyable flight in its proper setting – a dinner party featuring many foods that pair well with a meritage. We had lamb skewers, beef stew, pork ribs, and charcuterie along with an overwhelming set of accompanying tasty dishes. I’ve done vertical tastings before many times before and the clinical nature of the settings tends to focus on aspects of the wine that frankly I find irrelevant. A big part of what I enjoyed about presenting wines at Black Hills last year was that it was a more natural terroir for enjoying wine, a topic that I’ve covered previously on this blog. I’ve never been to a party where everyone sits down with 8 different pizza slices in front them, takes notes, and then compares their thoughts on each one after tasting them in silence. Honestly, I’m not sure I’d want to go to one.

If you haven’t done a vertical tasting at a party, I highly recommend it. Most everyone at my party were involved in the wine industry in some way but it is something that can still be enjoyed by anyone at all. Find a wine you like, save a few years’ worth of it (I suggest a minimum of 3 vintages), find some good food to pair, and away you go. It’s really not that more complicated than that and nor should it be. The point isn’t to show off your wines to your friends, it’s to share it and enjoy it all together.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

TINAWR Forbidden Fruit Merlot 2010

TINAWR – This Is Not A Wine Review – As loyal listeners / readers of my podcast / blog know, I’m really not big on wine reviews and tasting notes. Yes, they might be useful for learning about particular wines and perhaps they might be interesting to read in magazines now and then. But as a method of critical evaluation (usually concluding with a ‘ranking’ of some kind) I find they always fall short and reflect only how close or far a particular wine comes to the personal preferences of the reviewer. I can’t say that my own preferences won’t intrude on these either but my goal is to simply tell you about wines, wineries, and people that I discover on my journey while working and living in wine country. Even if you never get to visit these places, I hope that you can at least gain a little insight into what makes them tick and perhaps make them a part of your next journey in wine country. At the very least, maybe it will bring out another dimension in the wine that you may have not been aware. As always for me, I am always amazed at the memories that can come back when I taste of bottle of wine that I might have purchased years previously and perhaps that will make for some interesting reading. So here goes…

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Bright red fruit, sour cherry candy, violets, brick dust, and cocoa are the big aromas and flavors I get on this wine. It is a thousand watt merlot that blended from Similkameen and Okanagan fruit, all sustainably and/or organically grown. Forbidden Fruit Winery, through owners Steve Venables and Kim Brind’Amour, are very aware of the way farming practices can influence the wines that they produce as well as the environment. It’s something that they’ve been doing way back before buzzwords like ‘organic’ and ‘sustainable’ were cool. They’ve been growing fruit on their property, Ven’Amour Organic Farms, since the 70’s and have made a name for themselves with fruit wines until recently when they began to dabble with grape wine that they release under their Earth Series brand. As Steve has told me before, “Grapes are actually just fruit!”

I’ve been fortunate to visit Steve at the winery on more than a few occasions over the last few years for interviews for local wine publications as well as a feature podcast here on Wine Country BC. From our conversations it is clear that Steve is committed to growing fruit, crafting wines, and building his business in ways that take into account the needs and ecological capacity of the land on which he lives along with the impact his business may have on the world at large. He has an awareness of the world that I admire and it is reflected in the business decisions he makes. Somehow he is able to create this little oasis of calm and tranquility that I absolutely love to visit whenever I can. It’s such a quiet and peaceful wine tasting experience and it’s something that I think I can taste when I drink Forbidden Fruit wines.

When I recorded the podcast with Steve a while ago, it was a beautiful sunny and warm day in February. The wine shop is right on the Similkameen River with a picnic spot between shop and the first row of apple trees to the north. Usually when I record podcasts on location, I’ll use the tasting bar to set up my recorder because they are at a good height for capturing the conversation. Some wine shops have very good sounding ambiance which makes for an interesting recording. In speaking with Steve about Forbidden Fruit and organics, it seemed silly not to capture that conversation without making use of the natural soundscape of their location. As a result, I was able to capture our conversation with the sounds of the the wind, eagles hunting overhead, and the Similkameen River flowing in the background.

They have expanded the Earth Series wines to include other varieties (including a wonderfully aromatic Sauvignon Blanc) and have a large selection of fruit wines (from dry table wines, sweet and fortified dessert wines) which makes for a most challenging tasting bar experience. After a day of tasting grape wines, the refreshing qualities of the fruit wines seem to cleanse the pallet and challenge my vocabulary at the same time. Spend a day tasting everyone’s Pinot Gris, Chardonnays, Merlots, and Cabernet Sauvignons, and the same descriptors will keep creeping in. Taste a sample of the Plum Noir and suddenly all of those words you’ve been leaning on until then will simply not apply. I’ve probably made up more words with Forbidden Fruit’s wines just to describe some of the new tastes that I was expeiencing.

I purchased this bottle of 2010 Merlot on one of my visits to Forbidden Fruit WInery in the Similkameen Valley and these are some of the thoughts that I recall from this bottle. Cheers from wine country!

~Luke