Incomprehensible vineyard name: Nk’Mip Cellars

Wine could very well be one of the few products that can have a confusing name and still sell well.

This goes against the ethos of most branding experts. Our supermarkets and department stores are bursting with products whose creators went to great lengths to find the easiest, most recognisable names. Nike. Arm & Hammer. Apple. Google. Tesco. You get me.

But look at most French, Italian or Spanish wines. Unless you are fluent in all three of those languages, there is a strong chance you have been flummoxed by a winery name, the name of the wine itself, the name of the region where it came from or the name of the grape used to make the wine. And if you hit the jackpot, you were confused by the lot.

Yet you still bought it. Why? Because it’s wine. Because no one can pronounce most Italian words anyway. Because no one really knows where the Cotes de Blaye appellation is but they know it’s probably drinkable. And that’s all that matters.

Now, for us Anglophones you would have thought most of the English-speaking New World would offer us a welcome respite from the confusion all those foreign labels have created.

Then the Canadians come along and decide to screw with our minds…

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Ignore my bald head for a moment and focus on the sign in the background.

Nk’Mip.

Now try to pronounce it. Think you got it right? Probably not.

It goes like this: In-ka-meep.

Nk’Mip is a First Nations word from the Okanagan language that means ‘bottomland’ and refers to the area where British Columbia’s Okanagan River flows into the north end of Osyoos Lake (where you’ll also find the town of Osoyoos). Founded by the Osoyoos Indian Band, Nk’Mip Cellars was the first aboriginal-owned and operated winery in North America. And they’re no slouches. The winery is part of the greater Nk’Mip resort project, which includes a golf course, resort and spa, as well as a desert cultural centre. It’s a serious business.

The winery/cellar door is in a modern building that on one hand is impressive and new, but on the other seems a little soulless:

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But there’s no denying that this is in a beautiful setting. Here we see the rolling hills just outside Osoyoos:

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And here we see views of Osoyoos Lake from the winery looking over the vineyards:

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Like any good winery, they have a restaurant and patio. It turns out this is how you make big money in wine country:

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Not to be outdone, their tasting room is large and spacious. And if you’ve ever watched Sideways or been to Santa Barbara County, you might find it to be in the same spirit as the Fess Parker winery (known as Frass Canyon in the film), complete with cheesy souvenirs that fit in with the vineyard’s theme:

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Yes, that’s me looking a little bit lost in the cavernous tasting room:

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Now to the wine. I managed to work my way through quite a few of Nk’Mip’s wines and overall I found them to be fairly pleasing. They arguably make the best chardonnay in Canada and, being that it’s the only wine of theirs I’ve actually bought and dragged back to London with me, you could say it gets my seal of approval. It is Burgundian in style but not too oaky or flabby like so many New World examples.

Anyway, to the tasting notes, which had to be fished out of my recycling bin a few weeks ago. If the little stars that I drew on my tasting sheet are to be trusted, I was particularly fond of the winery’s Winemakers Series Riesling 2011 and Chardonnay 2011, as well as the Qwam Qwmt Series (Kwem Kwimt) Chardonnay 210, Pinot Noir 2010, Syrah 2008 and Meritage 2008.

The Winemakers Series Riesling 2011 is from their basic range of wines and sells for $17.99 Canadian. But it isn’t a slouch. It has a classic gasoline/petrol nose, has plenty of citrus and has a grassy, chalky palate with a pleasing minerality. For the price, you probably can’t go wrong, although I accept that there might be better examples from Australia and of course Germany and Austria – albeit for more money.

The basic Chardonnay 2011 is predominantly aged in steel (60%) but it also sees (40%) French oak to give it some much-needed depth. It had hints of vanilla from the oak, was medium-bodied and also had a mild creaminess. Not at all bad for the price, but it left me wanting more.

My favourite wine of the tasting might have been the Qwam Qwmt Chardonnay 2010 ($24.99). This sees 10 months of new French oak and extended ageing on the lees. It is a nutty wine of medium body and acidity with just enough hints of vanilla to be pleasing without going overboard. I found it to be aromatic, full of citrus fruits and minerality, as well as a long-lasting finish.

Other wines on offer included a fabulous Qwam Qwmt Pinot Noir 2010 ($29.99) that reminded me of a pinot from New Zealand’s Central Otago region. Plenty of red berries, mild oak, caramel, along spices and earthiness. It was quite a bold pinot, but also enjoyable.

The Qwam Qwmt Syrah 2008 was also a top wine and, if I’m not mistaken, earns high scores from critics. It seemed reductive on the nose, but I could have just been imagining things. It displayed the classic pepper and spice you’d expect from a syrah, but also seemed to have some sort of scent of tree sap or pine, which many people in the Oakanagan believe is a characteristic of some wines there. Whether or not this is truth or fiction remains to be seen.

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Wine shop Where’s Waldo? (Wally if you’re British)

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I don’t like to admit it, but I’m a stereotypical man when it comes to shopping. Confronted by myriad options, I panic and try to rush the process, usually to my own detriment.

I have a long-running track record of coming home with bags full of new clothes only to discover they are all the wrong size.

Plus I am easily swayed by salespeople. If I tell them I want to buy product X, somehow I walk out with product Y instead – and then regret it later.

Twice now I have walked into a wine shop to buy a bottle of Au Bon Climat (they have a terrible website, by the way) only to walk out with something I probably didn’t want.

For me it seems bottles of ABC are as elusive as the Holy Grail was to Monty Python’s Graham Chapman.

It’s safe to say the buying process can be a struggle for me, so I find it unhelpful if the bottles of wine are arranged though the shop is managed by Rob Gordon from High Fidelity. Imagine if the bottles were arranged autobiographically rather than by country, region or colour.

These shops exist. Because I’ve been to them.

Finding what you want in these places is impossible without seeking help an employee. And I think that is part of the tactic, because whenever I’ve come in looking for X, they always seem to steer me, through subterfuge and sensory overload, to something else. Something more expensive. Something that, in my cynical mind, probably isn’t selling fast enough.

Now, you would think arranging a few bottles on a wine shop’s shelves is straightforward.

All you need to do, really, is have a different shelf for each country and then separate the white wines from the red wines. Then on other shelves you have space for Champagnes and sparkling wines, dessert wines, Ports, sherries and anything else.

Simple. So simple, in fact, wine shops up and down the country do exactly this, from the cavernous Majestic Wine Warehouse to the neighbourhood vintner and even the fusty merchants like Berry Bros & Rudd and so on.

Even the supermarkets – known for their efficiency at delivering products to customers’ hands – dare not meddle with this system. They know what’s best.

Yet there is always someone who thinks there must be a Better Way™ to do things.

I can think of two shops within shouting distance of my home that have shunned the conventional layout.

Offender number one has no signs on the shelves at all. It simply has all the whites on one side and all the reds on the other. After a few confused minutes of staring blankly at all the bottles, it eventually occurred to me which ones were white and which were red.

Then a few minutes later I figured out they were, in fact, arranged by country – but not in anything that resembled alphabetical order.

Last I checked Germany comes before Spain in the alphabet. Unless they’re referring to the country as Espana. But if you’re going to use Espana on the one hand, you had better be using  Deutschland on the other.

The other shop I visit takes it a step further and arranges everything by grape. Yes – by grape.

If you want to tell prospective customers they’re really not welcome in the shop unless they are knowledgeable to identify what they want by its constituent grapes (and it better not be any fucking merlot), you know you’re dealing at the higher end of the market.

But how helpful is this for the average consumer? Think back to a time before you knew much about wine. Think back to when you knew the wine only as St Emilion or Saumur, as Rioja and Chianti. A time when you couldn’t name the grapes used to make them.

Merlot? Cabernet franc? Tempranillo? Sangiovese? Would you have thought to head for the shelf with those grapes labelled at the top? Handy for those of us who wake up and say, “Today I’d like to buy a bottle of chenin blanc and I want the shop to arrange all of the world’s chenin blancs together in one place so I can compare and contrast.”

But not so handy if you wake up and say, “I just want a bottle of Vouvray, whatever the hell it’s made of.”

And don’t even get me started on some of the blends I’ve seen. Cabernet-shiraz. Chenin blanc-chardonnay-viognier. Or how about Olaszrizling-furmint-hárslevelü-juhfark?

Do they have a shelf for that?

On not drinking a wine before its time (And how to do it cheaply)

Okay, so I’ve been admonished.

Friends and readers who say they just want to buy a modest bottle of wine and not have to endure wade through my ramblings about posh wines have spoken their minds.

“Write about wine I can actually afford,” people have said.

And I will, but not before I say something important about wine that just happens to involve bottles costing a lot of money.

Here goes: I’d say it’s safe very few of us actually get to drink wine of any significant age. Wine we see in specialist shops – and particularly supermarkets – tends to be released at a relatively young age for early drinking. That is a fact.

It is widely known that most bottles sold are opened on the same day they are bought; only true wine nerds care to mess about with any of that cellaring faff (people like me, I suppose). Most of the world lives bottle to bottle.

Add to this the fact producers sell a lot of wine young because they need the revenue and you have a society full of wine drinkers who have never tried something truly mature.

This is a shame. And I will tell you why.

Never a wine before its time

Orson Welles famously said in advertisements for wine brand Paul Masson (ironically not one you would *ever* age in a cellar), “We will sell no wine before its time.”

Even if Paul Masson wasn’t the sort of wine you would brag about drinking, the message was at least right.

A couple weeks ago this mantra was reinforced in my mind when I attended a wine tasting of the 2003 and 2004 vintages of Bordeaux estates Chateau Calon-Segur and Chateau Phelan-Segur at an event hosted by Schroders for personal finance journalists (full disclosure: Schroders organised and paid for the wines). First, we started the night with Joh. Jos. Prüm’s Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese 2003, which itself was an education in drinking medium-term aged riesling.

The aroma of gasoline/petroleum was almost off-putting at first, hitting your olfactory centre with a pungent rush that might have turned off shy wine drinkers. This was a far cry from your father’s bottle of Black Tower.

After this, we sat down for the main event, where we compared the 2003/04 Calon-Segur with the 2003/04 Phelan-Segur. The Calon-Segur, known for being the bigger, better and more expensive of the two, was still tight and closed at nearly a decade old.

Meanwhile, the 2003 Phelan was starting to show its age a little more and, arguably, was more mature and closer to being ready for drinking.

A few days later the Segur’s youth was driven home when I drank something truly mature – a bottle of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 1978.

I can’t really help myself but transform into Miles from Sideways and bore you to tears with the way the wine was showing its age by bricking at the edge, how the tannins were full integrated into the wine, or how it had aromas of leather, cedar and tobacco.

But I will say the exercise illustrated just how much potential the wine would have had if it had been, well, not opened so soon.

This point was re-affirmed the day after the Lafite experience when, armed with a bottle of Calon-Segur 2004 that had been opened but not used at the tasting earlier in the week (I pushed the cork back into the bottle, to keep it perfectly fresh for a few more days), I opened again it for a friend at dinner.

And it was…still tighter than a rusted nut and loaded with tannin.

If all this wasn’t enough, yet more mature wine came my way. The following evening we cracked open a bottle of Dom Perignon 1996.

You know how a lot of Champagne is very acidic, bright, bubbly and seems to cut through everything you might have eaten, including your gums?

You see, you don’t get that with properly mature Champagne. Everything just…sings in harmony.

Now to the money-saving bit

So here it is. If you want something with more maturity and a decent dose of bottle age, Rioja is a good bet. I am always blown away by how cheap and well-made the wines of Rioja are. Something like a gran reserva will have spent a lot of time in barrel and yet more in bottle before being released, quite often for a fraction of what you’ll pay for equally fine wines from Bordeaux or Burgundy. Same with Port, Madeira and Sherry.

If you want to drink something grown up and complex, I’d look south to the Iberian peninsula.

Recently I bought a bottle of Rioja from the 1996 vintage for less than £15. In general, unloved wine regions can be a source of wonderful wine bargains. I bought a bottle of Chateau Calon Montagne-St Emilion 1996 for €8 when I was in Bordeaux. Why was it so cheap? Because the Montagne-St Emilion appellation is a lesser cousin to St Emilion and, therefore, is not as popular among wine drinkers.

And there you go; something affordable to consider.

Sara Benwell: The ABC club might still be going strong, but they are just plain wrong

“I love every wine except chardonnay….
I’ll have the Chablis please”

Mythbusters 2: Why you should ignore the chardonnay haters

Last time I guest-blogged for Geordie, I wrote about how I thought rosé got a bad press and why you shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand.

Continuing in the same vein, today I’m going to talk about chardonnay and tell you why the people who say “I never drink chardonnay” are idiots who should immediately be ignored.

But first I’m going to tell you a story.

A good friend of mine (he works in sales) had taken a prospect out to lunch. The prospect, whilst perusing the wine list, said:

“I’m pretty flexible about wine, I’ll drink almost anything, but I won’t touch Chardonnay”

My friend, very sensibly, handed over the wine list and suggested that since the prospect knew what they liked, perhaps they would like to choose the wine. (First rule of any client-facing industry, always let them choose the wine).

The prospect quickly agreed and made their selection – they chose a Chablis.

Now this kind of sums up the entire point I’m going to make. Some people are snobby and dismissive of chardonnay without even fully understanding what it actually is. And even amongst those who should know better, the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) Club is still going strong.

Why do people hate chardonnay?

I think there are three main reasons that people say they hate chardonnay, one of which I can sort of understand, but should be corrected, one of which is a bit depressing and the third of which is downright unacceptable.

1. “I don’t like oak”

Okay, so a lot of people say they don’t like chardonnay because they don’t like oak. Now, on the one hand this is sort of acceptable; a lot of Chardonnay out there is heavily oaked and if you don’t like that style, some might tell you not to take the risk. But this is also very misguided, narrow thinking.

White Burgundy is widely acknowledged as being one of the greatest white wines in the world. But it’s made from the chardonnay grape.

What’s more, white Burgundy is often aged in oak barrels before being bottled, meaning that it will have a degree of oak flavours. Of course, the amount of oak detectable in the wine depends how much new oak was used and how much time it spent in barrel.

Conversely, if the wine comes from Chablis it might not have touched any oak at all and will therefore not have those vanilla flavours caused by oak.  Side note – many of your ABCs will drink white Burgundy, particularly Chablis, not realising it is made with chardonnay grapes.

So why is oak considered to be such a bad thing?

The main reason (I think) is that in the 1990s, when the chardonnay grape was (gasp!) extremely fashionable, everyone wanted a piece of the action. Unfortunately going against all the principles that made white Burgundy great, this wine was produced on an industrial scale, often from huge vineyards in hot climates (California) where the grapes ripened easily but lacked character.

Instead of ageing their chardonnay in oak barrels (or even tank) over a long period of time, winemakers who wanted to add oak flavours had to fine another way to do this at a lower cost.

The answer they came up with was to use wooden planks or shavings that are dropped into the wine while it is fermenting. This can often overpower the wine and produces the horrible, cheap, cloying, sawdust-y wine that so often pops into an ABC’s head when you say the word chardonnay.

Another problem is the use of malolactic fermentation, a point referenced in the film Sideways. This is what produces much of that buttery flavour ABCs detest in chardonnay. It takes the harsh malic acid and converts it into softer lactic acid, and in turn makes the wine seem softer and buttery.

So yes, there are some terribly made and awful tasting Chardonnays out there, but if you think that’s a reason to avoid them altogether then you are kind of missing the point! SOME chardonnays are rubbish, but some are exquisite.

2. “I know what I like and chardonnay isn’t it”

These people are the ones who are afraid to go outside their comfort zone and don’t like to try new things.  Now obviously you shouldn’t listen to these fools because taking wine advice from someone who is afraid to step outside one variety is like asking for directions from a blind and deaf Englishman who finds himself in France for the first time.

Aside from the obvious reasons not to listen to these people, it’s also a bit baffling. If there is any grape they’re willing to go outside their comfort zone for it’s a chardonnay.

Chardonnays done well are light, subtle, unassuming with neutral flavours like citrus and melon, and the oakiness can produce those amazing (but not necessarily overbearing) creamy vanilla flavours. Hardly something that should scare the pants off of anyone really (unless you’re a lover of sweet wine perhaps).

3. “I wouldn’t be seen dead with a glass of Chardonnay”

Now these people are the really awful ones. The ones who have decided that chardonnay just isn’t that fashionable any more, and that the ‘cool’ thing to do is to steer clear. Fortunately these people are easy to fox, buy them Chablis, tell them they’re drinking White Burgundy, offer them a glass of Champers – and then laugh at their utter stupidity.

So what is there to love about it?

I’ve already touched on this a little, but just in case you aren’t already sold I’ll sell it some more. The best thing about chardonnay in my mind is its versatility. Because it’s naturally subtle and smooth, winemakers can develop a whole host of different flavours, textures and styles.

More than this though, they can take the grape and imprint their personality on to it, and as long as their personality isn’t wood planks then you are going to get an interesting wine that tells you a lot about the person who made it. It is also the kind of grape that can be grown in a variety of regions and climates which further adds to its versatility.

The second thing I love about it is it’s dryness. Chardonnay tends to be much drier than sauvignon blanc, though for some reason people often assume the opposite, and if you know me even a little you’ll know that in my book – the drier the better!

The third thing I love about chardonnay is that its grapes are almost always used when Champagne is made, and a life without Champagne would be a far poorer life.

In fact next time you hear someone saying “Anything but chardonnay!” order a bottle of fizz and then calmly inform them that they aren’t allowed any.

Sara Benwell works in the world of PR for a London firm specialising in finance. She blogs about politics, digital, social, finance and wine. You can follow her on Twitter @SaraBenwell

Photo: Freedigitalphotos.net

Don’t hate me for loving Californian wine

YOU KNOW THAT perfume-like scent of long, dry grass baking in the sun at the height of summer? It has a floral hint to it, along with something…earthy?

That, to me, sums up what I can smell when drinking (decent) wine from California. It’s a smell of all the good things in the Golden State – dried grass, hot air, stone, earth, sea and foliage – coming together in the bottle.

To me, it could very well be that expression of ‘terroir’ the likes of Michel Chapoutier or Randall Grahm bleat about endlessly.

They’re probably right.

But I know what you’re going to say to me here: Californian wine is, for the most part, terrible, isn’t it?

Look no further than the sea of cheap chardonnay and other abysmal wines coming out of California’s sun-broiled valleys, all made to fly off supermarket shelves and satisfy distinctly – ahem – downmarket tastes.

Well, okay, sure. Unfortunately, much of the wine coming out of California suffers from excessively high alcohol levels, too much oak (I drank a Central Coast pinot noir the other day that would have been much more enjoyable had it not tasted as though it was fermented from the oak tree itself), too much sugar resulting in jammy flavours and any number of other faults.

But the state isn’t a sea of stinkers. There are some incredible wines there – unfortunately you’ll have to pay a lot for them because this isn’t a cheap place to make wine.

When done well, I can’t get enough of good Californian wine. When done horribly, I usually have no choice but to seek solace in an Old World Medoc claret so dry and tannic it could knock my teeth out of their sockets.

Any Worlders…

This brings me to a thought I have been trying to develop, although perhaps not very successfully (yet) but bear with me.

When it comes to wine drinkers, there are three types of people: Old Worlders, New Worlders and Any Worlders.

The nomenclature I’ve chosen leaves a lot to be desired (feel free to send me your ideas for a better word), but leaving that aside, these three categories tend to work. There are those who will only drink wine from places like France or Italy; those who can’t stand the acidic, tannic wines of the Old World and prefer only to  drink ‘fruity, oaky chardonnay‘ from Australia or South Africa; then there are those who are agnostic to geography and just want to drink great wine no matter its origin.

I’d fall into the final category. Even though many of my favourite wines come from France these days and I actually like drinking wines that have tannins strong enough to bring down elephant, I have to confess my love affair with Californian wine – when executed properly.

I’m thinking of examples like Ridge, Clos du Val, Sean Thackrey, Tablas Creek, Au Bon Climat, Chateau Montelena and so many more. Yes, plenty are – eep – on the expensive side, but this is not always true.

The best way to explain why I can continue to love wine from California despite its many letdowns comes from this quote from the film Sideways when Miles and Jack were headed to a vineyard known for its chardonnay:

Jack: “I thought you hated chardonnay.”
Miles (to Jack): “I like all varietals. I just don’t generally like the way they manipulate chardonnay in California. Too much oak and secondary malolactic fermentation.”
Jack: “Huh.”

Photo: Porbital