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  • Writer's pictureJacopo Mazzeo

Making fine Merlot in Canada's Okanagan Valley

Blame Sideways, blame a change in people’s taste, but Merlot isn’t as fashionable a grape as it used to be before the end of the last century. Of course, it is still widely planted across the globe, yet aside from Petrus, Masseto and the likes, varietal Merlot rarely dominates the world's greatest wine lists.

Checkmate's winemaker Phil McGahan

Which doesn't mean there aren't plenty of regions whose Merlots deserve a first-class ticket. One such example is Canada’s Okanagan Valley (British Columbia). Its warm days, cool nights and remarkably low rainfall make for the ideal climate for producing Merlots which are at the same time characterful and elegant.

Recently, I've been lucky enough to try two expressions from CheckMate, the winery responsible for Okanagan's finest. The estate specialises on the vinification of a number of separate microblocks, each considered “a pure expression of the soil and the unique microclimates that define the Okanagan Valley”.

Both wines were made with fruit from the 2014 harvest, currently the latest vintage on the market. Opening Gambit's first sip is clean, fragrant and fresh. Forest floor, wild berries and a little dark plum rounded up but an almost saline note and firm but elegant tannin on the palate. As it sits in the glass, the wine releases aromas of maraschino cherries, liquorice and blackcurrant, then cocoa beans, moka and even a hint of balsamic. On the finish, it reveals a gentle spiciness, mostly clove, which doesn't interfere with the overall fresh character. This is excellent now with food, but to have it on its own can do with a little more ageing.

Silent Bishop is a different animal. The fruit is sweeter, deeper and darker. Vanilla and toast come through immediately and the overall impression is of a rounder expression, freshened up by a pleasant savouriness and a herbal - not herbaceous - note. It's certainly a more generous interpretation although not overstated nor inelegant. No doubt this has got enough going on to withstand the test of time, probably another ten years, but Silent Bishop is one I'd rather savour right now.

Despite the differences, I must admit the two wines are some of the best Merlots I've tried in years, so I decided to catch up with CheckMate winemaker, Phil McGahan, to learn more about the wines and the challenges of growing Merlot in the Okanagan Valley.

Phil, can you summarise your winemaking philosophy?

I take great pride in crafting wines using time-honoured techniques to allow the vineyard sites and/or subregion to shine through. First and foremost, I place my emphasis on fastidious farming to produce the best fruit quality possible while giving back to the land via organic farming practices.

What are the challenges of growing Merlot in the Okanagan Valley, and how do you achieve good vinegrowing results?

The short growing season in the Okanagan (which means May budbreak and September/October picking) means timing is paramount and you have to be attentive with farming and be in cadence with the vineyards.

Sometimes you need to make decisions ahead of “the curve” so to speak. Good results are achieved by keeping yields low and attention to detail both in the vineyard and the winery.

The Okanagan Valley sits on the 49° parallel, which is generally considered borderline for winegrowing. Is the warming climate playing a role in the growing quality of the region’s wines?

The Okanagan is around 1° Fahrenheit warmer on average now than it was 60 years ago. Historically, the Okanagan was on the edge of the “climactic envelope” for Chardonnay and outside of it for Merlot; now though, it has become a remarkable new climatic region that is ideal for cool climate-varieties such as Chardonnay and Merlot. One of the great things about the Okanagan is that in summer we get 18 hours of sunlight per day, which is actually 3 hours more than Napa. This means the season is less protracted, and this also allows us to push Merlot to its limits in terms of a shorter growing season making it more interesting in terms of fruit, freshness, mouthfeel and complexity.

How do you make your Merlots?

All of the fruit is handpicked, sorted, de-stemmed, transferred to fermenter without being crushed. We then allow for natural ferments with extended skin contact for up to 55 days, barreled down by gravity for maturation in French Oak (from traditional Bordeaux coopers) for 21 months prior to bottling [unfined and unfiltered].

[After bottling we] then hold it for an additional two years prior to release to allow the wine to become more complex, harmonise and the tannins to become more approachable. We find they still display intense fruit characters upon release, along with traits of the subregions from which they are sourced and provide an insight into their ageing potential. Our preference is for consumers to be able to experience the wines upon release if they so desire but also to be able to put them aside for cellaring so the tannins become softer and secondary characters develop at the eight-ten year period.

There isn’t a huge deal of fine varietal Merlot, most wine drinkers would not consider it to have the same potential to make fine wine as for instance Cab or Pinot Noir. How do people react to your wine?

We are fortunate to have received tremendous praise from sommeliers and wine professionals around the world that embrace the complexity and freshness of our wines, often noting that CheckMate is on the leading edge of the movement towards [what we call] “Next World” Okanagan wines, as their distinctive style is somewhere in between the “Old” and “New” World.


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