Blasted Church: Canada’s least stuffy winery?

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If there were a prize for being British Columbia’s — maybe even all of Canada’s — least stuffy winery, surely Blasted Church Vineyards would be a shoe-in for the honour.

From the names they give to their wines (Swear to God, Mixed Blessings, OMG) to their distinctly un-winery-like website and their plugged-ing Twitter account, Blasted Church is the sort of wine company that can do something that would paralyse many others with confusion: communicate to the casual wine drinker who doesn’t buy into the snobbery game.

My journey to Blasted Church was spearheaded by a British friend’s request for a bottle of wine. A bottle of Big Bang Theory, to be precise. While travelling western Canada a couple of years back, he tried the wine and decided he liked it — but sadly it isn’t available in the UK. So when he heard I was going to be in the area, he asked me to bring some back.

Now, any wine drinker will know that carrying a bottle back in your suitcase is a big commitment. This space comes at a premium in my life and I normally only reserve it for wines that *really* want to bring home with me. But considering this friend did the noble act of lugging a bottle of shiraz back from Australia for me earlier this year, it would have been churlish of me not to oblige.

Sitting on the slopes of Skaha Lake, Blasted Church is in the sort of location you wish you could live. Just look at the view from the tasting room:

IMG_0211And some more photos of the tasting room, featuring me…

IMG_0221And more shots of the vineyard…

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If  you thought branding suggested poor wines, you will have to think again. It has won over plenty of critics for its white blend, Hatfield’s Fuse, and seems to do well with its red, too.

Hatfield’s Fuse was a bit of a surprise. Looking at the packaging and the price tag, I had few expectations. In the same way I am sceptical of all critter label wines,  I don’t really have high hopes for cheeky branding or silly labels. More often than not, the branding makes up for serious deficiencies in quality (Yellowtail, anyone?), but in the case of Blasted Church, there are some real gems at fair prices.

Hatfield’s Fuse is loaded with peaches, pears, limes, apples and other fruits. This is because it is a blend of at least nine grape varieties. Nine you ask? Yes, nine: chardonnay, ehrenfelser, gewürztraminer, pinot blan, pinot gris, sauvignon blanc, riesling, optima and viognier. We’re in the Okanagan, after all, and the growers here still think they can grow everything under the sun. At least when it comes to this wine, it has worked for the best.

Meanwhile, its light and simple Big Bang Theory is another confusing blend of several varieties, including pinot noir, merlot, lemberger, cabernet franc, malbec and syrah, and produces a fruity, enjoyable wine that is perfect for unfussy occasions.

Nevertheless, I wasn’t blown over by all of this winery’s offerings. Hatfield’s Fuse is a bright spot, mixing more grapes varieties than can be remembered into fairly priced bottle. But I was let down by their Syrah, which seemed too smooth and safe for a region that needs wines to be daring and different.

Their Sauvignon Blanc 2012 was in the style of the Loire, offering a simple and fresh palate at a good price, but it wasn’t a revelation. Meanwhile, the Mixed Blessings 2012, a blend of viognier, chardonnay musqué, chardonnay and ehrenfelser had a musky note of gasoline, stone fruits and a floral, peachy note, as well as that buzzword we’re mentioning these days: minerality. It was particularly enjoyable.

For the red wines, I believe the Cabernet Merlot 2010 was one of the better offerings, certainly superior to the Syrah I drank. It had vegetal notes, dark fruits, a nice hint of vanilla/oak and an overall pleasantness. Another strong contender for my preferred red was the straight Merlot 2010, which was full of red fruits, warm stones, oak, mild tannins and two other phrases that I can’t decipher from my notes. Wait, now, I figured out what that says: “Rough around the edges.”

I was also given the chance to try the rather expensive but interesting Amen Port-de-Merlot NV. This was a nutty, oxidised sweet wine that was loaded with toffee/caramel on the nose and red fruits on the palate. It had a mouth-coating effect, but it was fairly light overall. It  was sweet and the finish was long.

Overall, Blasted Church’s wines are fairly decent, but they have their limitations. To an extent, this winery is more about being unstuffy than producing incredible icons, which means it might be a good idea to look elsewhere if you want something special for the table on Christmas Day. Despite their theological theme, this is not a pious outfit. For the most part they make wines that bring a bring a smile to your face at a reasonable price, rather than fleece you on something that has been dressed up as something it is not. And that, in itself, is a virtue.

For more on Blasted Church and an assessment of its 2011 vintage, check out John Schreiner’s wine blog.

And finally, if you want more topics that take the stuffiness out of the wine market, head over to the 12×75.com blog.

Church & State Wines: The tasting that never was

Nothing satisfies a former journalist like me more than checking back over my notes and discovering that I did, indeed, write down that nugget of information that forms the crux of my argument.

That nugget happens to be about a bottle of syrah and the price tag that was attached to it. Or, rather, the price tag that, to me, seemed just a little bit high.

Continuing with my theme of documenting my trip to the wineries of British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, today I am discussing Church & State Wines. I have wanted to try this producer’s wines for quite some time but for years I was put off because of a run of mediocre reviews.

This is a winery that was founded in 2003 just minutes from where I grew up in Victoria, B.C. Originally known as Victoria Estates, it was given the usual assessment that people from Vancouver Island attach to such venture: ambitious, but in the wrong location. It was sold in 2005, the name was changed and the operation became much more serious. For starters, they started making wine in the Okanagan. That was a good decision. However, by that time I have moved to the UK and had access to their wines only when I returned to Canada for a visit.

When I planned my visit to the Okanagan, I did a little research and discovered that, according to the now-defunct Wine Access magazine, Church & State makes the ‘best red wine’ in Canada. That wine, the Coyote Bowl Syrah 2009, was what I was after.

The Church & State tasting room sits off the beaten path among the winery’s vineyards in Oliver, a small town between Osoyoos and Penticton. There isn’t much there other than a small modern winery and tasting room with few frills. The main entrance isn’t even signposted. I give them credit for keeping things simple and without too much pomp and circumstance.

IMG_0208This is pretty much the only photo I have from the winery, so brief was my visit…

When I visited, I had the benefit of being the only person there. Excellent, I thought, because this meant I could have a proper chat with the staff. But when I said I wanted to do a tasting my heart sank. Before my lay a laminated sheet upon which circular place markers had been printed for each of the wines they were going to let me try (for a purported $10, although this might not be correct).

Missing from this tasting was the Coyote Bowl syrah I wanted to try. So I made a point of saying that I really only came for the syrah and could I please try it?

To which the reply was: No.

My notes tell me that this was because the wine was in high demand and they could not possibly open a bottle for tasting when quantities are so small. This isn’t entirely abnormal, but I recall the wines that they were offering to open for me were their more mundane offerings. This was not enough to entice me to stay.

And so I walked out without tasting anything and, crucially, without buying anything.

I appreciate that it can be difficult to open bottles for tastings when commercial pressures require them to be sold. However, I was even more aghast when I discovered how much the price had risen after the award was given.

When Wine Access magazine said the Church & State Coyote Bowl Syrah 2009 was the best wine in B.C., they reported that the retail price was $26. That’s a reasonable price for such a highly acclaimed wine.

When I asked the woman at the tasting room for a price on the 2009, I was told it was $50 per bottle (although the website currently says it was $35). If I wanted the 2010, it was $35. That’s a hefty jump on the original price of $26. I guess this is the effect of being an award-winning wine and being high in demand. Although I note that other wineries with great wines, such as Sandhill, tend not to raise their prices as demand increases.

Even better, if I wanted the 2009 and the 2010 together in a special edition wooden box, the price would have been $90 for the pair.

Bargain.

To this day I still have not knowingly tasted a wine from Church & State.