July 03, 2013

Burrowing Owl - A World Class Winery in A World Class Valley

Recently, we visited the incredibly beautiful Okanagan Valley, home to about 120 wineries, and thousands of fantastic wines. With so many great wineries, it was difficult to whittle it down to a manageable number to visit in three days. Besides excellent wines, the region boasts beautiful mountainous, lake studded scenery, terrific restaurants, great tasting facilities and a wide range of accommodations. In my opinion, it should be a must see, top destination for any wine lover.
Of the dozen or so wineries I visited, my top picks for across the board, fabulous wines were Burrowing Owl, Laughing Stock, Painted Rock and Le Vieux Pin, but there were many great wines elsewhere. I'll mention them in subsequent stories, but now I want to profile Burrowing Owl Estate Winery. What a gem!
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In May  of this year, The 74th annual Los Angeles International Wine Competition took place. 74 years - that's a long time to get an event right. With dozens of international and renowned judges and thousands of wines from all over the world, this is not a local wine competition held between apple pie judging  and the biggest pumpkin. The LA event is a big one, by any standards.
So, when I tell you that Burrowing Owl  picked up the Best in Class Gold Medal with 97/100 for its 2009 Merlot, that's a really big deal. On top of that, earlier this month, the winery won the Lieutenant Governor's  award of excellence, one of 12 awarded out of 400 entries, for its 2010 Cabernet Franc. In the last 2 years alone, Burrowing Owl has won over 100 awards.
So what do the wines taste like?
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In a word - excellent. I tasted 16 different wines and, after a while, I stopped taking detailed notes - for two reasons. First, the wines were consistently very good, and great examples of the varietals and blends. Second, I was supplied with tasting notes on each of them, which were spot on in the descriptions. I agreed so wholeheartedly with the notes provided that I felt like an eager student sucking up to the Prof. The Prof in question is Master of Wine, Rhys Pender. In 2010, Rhys became Canada's youngest Master of Wine and is a much sought after wine educator, writer, consultant and judge. I have it on good authority that he is also a brilliant baker and sells his bread at Penticton market on weekends.
I mentioned the Merlot 2009, the Best in Class Gold Medal winner from LA. Since much of my audience is in Ontario, I am thrilled to relay that, according to the online system, there are close to 500 bottles available across Ontario, for $39.95, which is only $4.95 more than the winery price. It sneaked onto the shelves in January before it became a big cheese in the wine world, so to speak. My advice would be to go buy a bottle or two.

The grapes were hand-picked from the estate, lovingly handled all the way through the intricate fermentation process and cellared in various oaks for 16 months, with periodic racking, before being bottled unfiltered. I'm certain that neither Burrowing Owl nor the Prof will mind if I provide the full  tasting notes on this particular wine................
"A deep, youthful purple appearance with powerful, ripe and intense fruit aromas of black cherry, raspberry, plum and mulberry. The fruit overlays subtle oak notes, coffee, marzipan, chocolate, vanilla and a hint of fresh tobacco. The palate is full of mixed brambly berries, licorice, clove, cedar, graphite and sage with a long persistent finish. Approachable now with its ripe and integrated tannins, there is also the flavour intensity and structure to mature well in bottle. Try this with coq au vin or your favourite grilled red meat with a red wine demi-glace. – Rhys Pender, Master of Wine."
See what I mean? Isn't that eloquent? Don't you just want some?

The LCBO has stock of nine different Burrowing Owl wines, including a couple of their Calliope label wines. Along with other ornithological trivia, I learned, at the winery, that a Calliope is a type of hummingbird. The 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, is available at the LCBO for under $20. Look for the bird on the label.  It's a wonderful,  refreshing example, with lovely aromas of citrus and tropical fruits, excellent minerality, crisp citrus and gooseberry flavours and a long satisfying finish. If you have some friends or family at the table, try opening this one and a bottle of your favourite New Zealand Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. You'll be charmed by both.
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Other wines in the Calliope range include an excellent rosé blend of Syrah and Viognier, two great Northern Rhône varieties that invariably work very well in a rosé. There's a tasty white blend called Figure Eight, reflecting the motion of the Calliope's wings, a lovely dry Riesling, and a red blend of Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, also called Figure Eight, which is available in quantity at Rideau and King Edward in Ottawa for $22.95, and ready to drink now.
Tasting notes are available on the website for everything, and orders can be placed online.

The wines I tasted under the Burrowing Owl label were all very good to excellent. The last time I  was so charmed by so many wines at one winery was at Clos de Gat, in Israel, one of that country's top wineries. It's rare for me to like all the wines from a single winery. That's a sign of good vineyard management and wine-making. Bertus Albertyn is the Senior Winemaker at Burrowing Owl. Interestingly, he's South African. I'm sure it must be coincidence, but I  keep finding myself in wineries with great wines, made by South African winemakers. In Virginia, where I generally didn't like the wines, I really loved the wines at Keswick Vineyards. In Israel, the wines at Tzuba were excellent. In South Africa, there were too many great wines to mention, many at the hand of South African winemakers.
It is not uncommon in the Okanagan Valley for wineries to engage wine consultants from outside the area. This is a relatively young wine region - Burrowing Owl, for example, had its first vintage in 1997 - and the costs and complexities involved in making great wines are substantial. So why not bring in specialized knowledge if available. For their Meritage, Burrowing Owl engaged the services of accomplished French wine consultant Alain Sutre, who also consulted at Painted Rock, another winery with superb wines, which I'll mention in a later post.

Back at Burrowing Owl, here are some thoughts on the wines under the main label....................
2012 Pinot Gris. $20 at the winery. Perfect; beautifully balanced; food friendly; aromatic, flavorsome and refreshing. The luscious quality of an Alsace Pinot Gris with lashings of crisp, more-ish palate pleasing flavours.
2010 and 2011 Chardonnay. Both $25 at the winery.  Each different, reflecting the growing conditions; both wonderful. Seemingly perfect maturation, resulting in full-bodied wines with the right balance of  fruit and toasty notes. Great food wines. Try them both.
2010 Merlot. The 2010 growing season was quite different from the 2009, with a cooler summer, but a warm Fall. I've already described the terrific 2009 Merlot. The 2010 is more subtle on the nose, but with lots of complexity and wonderful flavours on the palate. Beautiful now, especially with flavorsome food, it will cellar and develop well for the next several years. 2009 $35, 2010 $30 at the winery.
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2010 Cabernet Franc, 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2010 Syrah 
$33, $38, $33 respectively at the winery.
Brilliant examples, all three. I'd like to ship bottles of all of them to my knowledgeable wine family in France. They would have to agree that these hold their own with great examples from the Loire, Bordeaux and Northern Rhône.

2010 Athene $35 at the winery. A co-fermented blend of 60% Syrah and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, carefully made and aged for 18 months with periodic racking. According to Donna Watson, our gracious host for the tasting, this is the favourite of Jim Wyse, the founder of the winery. This is a full-bodied wine with lots going on. I'm not a fan of  Syrah Cab Sauv blends - clash of the Titans, I think - and this one didn't change my mind, but it's a well made wine, with masses of flavour, and is hugely popular. The name Athene refers to the belief that the owl was sacred to Athena, the Greek Goddess of Wisdom.
2010 Meritage $45 at the winery. A brilliant blend of all five grape varieties grown in Bordeaux. 55% Cabernet Franc, 25% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and equal parts Malbec and Petit Verdot. This one is a keeper but is also drinking deliciously now. I'm thinking of  boned, butterflied leg of lamb, marinated for ages in rosemary, garlic, black pepper and buttermilk, then seared and grilled on the BBQ, with a dark fruit glaze. Served with decadently rich dauphinoise potatoes. The uneven shape of the lamb will guarantee perfect cooking for all tastes from rare to well done.
On a final wine note, our tasting at the winery was led by Sophie Laurent, a relatively recent addition to the winery team. Sophie moved to the Okanagan, with her husband, from Southern France and clearly brings a wealth of additional wine knowledge and expertise to an already talented team.
Bravo Burrowing Owl!

Sonora Room Restaurant

The restaurant at Burrowing Owl is beautiful and serves brilliant food. We ate dinner there and drank some 2008 Merlot. They have a range of wines from different vintages, so if you go there with a crowd, you can have fun with a vertical tasting. Alternatively, you can buy a few and take the rest home.

The Guest House at Burrowing Owl is luxurious. If you're in the area and your budget can handle it, this is the place to stay. Take a look online. Fabulous!
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Cheers! Check back soon for more wine and BC stories.