In terms of the Okanagan wine industry, 1980 may as well be 1880. That is how far, how quickly, it has come in just a few decades. Among the pioneers who stood fast and planted vinifera grapes in the wake of NAFTA—when most were expecting to precipitously lose market share to the Western United States wine industry—Anthony von Mandl has, from the outset of his wine business, had a grand vision. Thankfully, and borne out over time, he has put in the hard work and made incredibly savvy hiring practices, of such people as winemaker John Simes. Von Mandl’s Mission Hill Family Estate winery stands alone atop Mount Boucherie, and acts as a kind of beacon for visitors from all around the world. But his newest venture is in some ways his boldest, and that is saying something.
CheckMate Artisanal Winery, located in very modest digs not far from Oliver, in the southern reaches of the Okanagan, is led by winemaker Phil McGahan, originally from Australia, and most recently at Williams Selyem winery in Sonoma, California. The initial releases are five distinctive chardonnays, all named in keeping with the chess conceit: Capture; Queen Taken; Attack; Fool’s Mate; Little Pawn. The grapes are taken from selected parcels, and sometimes even individual rows, within three estate vineyards: The Barn Vineyard, Border Vista Vineyard, and Heritage Vineyard. “The whole point of CheckMate is to show, within the context of climate change, that the Okanagan can grow some of the very finest wines on the planet,” says von Mandl. He is not afraid to make a grand gesture to emphasize an important point, which is why he is saying this in the bar at New York’s Vaucluse restaurant, where the five wines had their world premiere. “I have believed from the very beginning that this region would belong on the world stage,” he says. “CheckMate is a reiteration of that.”
McGahan for his part is completely on board. “The quality of this region, the resources we have to work with, the amazing specificity of terroir—this is a special place,” he says. McGahan’s philosophy and practice is to let the vines speak for themselves, so there is not a lot of intervention in the winemaking, even using indigenous wild yeasts for fermentation. “We want the wines to be as real as they can be,” he notes simply. As for von Mandl, he acknowledges that he loves “a great white Burgundy. The grace of a Grand Cru Meursault is unique. But I think our region can produce, not Burgundy, but wines of similar distinction, with nuance, finesse, and some power.”
“The whole point of CheckMate is to show, within the context of climate change, that the Okanagan can grow some of the very finest wines on the planet.”
The climate change issue is not to be understated. It is taking hold in all the world’s wine regions, which is why so-called cool-climate, and often high-altitude, wines are becoming not only buzzwords, but actual investments in vineyards. Von Mandl found a climate change scientist at Southern Oregon University and invited him to the Okanagan, with the intent of recruiting him as a consultant. That is how Dr. Gregory V. Jones arrived in the Okanagan where, as he says, “I could not believe the diversity, the high quality of this place I had never even heard of.” Climate change and how it affects the wine industry is, he says, “a global concern, and it is causing change in such interesting ways. And it does seem to be happening much more quickly than most people thought.” This was a point of inspiration for von Mandl. “We see this as a great opportunity. The climate, the soils here, all make it possible for us to do truly cool climate wines that are distinctive, elegant, wines that belong on the world stage.” From the inception of Mission Hill, through winning best chardonnay at the prestigious International Wine and Spirits Competition in London with John Simes’s first vintage in 1992, to acquiring CedarCreek Estate Winery, and with another boutique winery called Martin’s Lane Winery poised to open in Spring 2017, von Mandl still has a soft spot for CheckMate. “It really is special parcels of grapes, like squares on a chessboard, and when we get it right the results are quite magical,” he says. McGahan agrees, and after spending nearly three years in the vineyards, doing research, tasting wines, he affirms: “We are still learning, but I have been amazed at how distinctive these individual parcels are, and what fine character we can achieve with the wines. Still a long way to go, but virtually unlimited potential for quality.”
The five wines are each distinct from one another, and do not emulate wines from Burgundy, or Australia, or California, or anywhere else. Complexity, good acidity, bracing citrus, and long finish they tend to all have in common. But, where Fool’s Mate boasts fresh peach and melon notes, Attack, fermented and aged in a cement foudre, has more flint, stone fruit, and even spicy characteristics; Little Pawn shows some floral notes, while Capture features a creamy involvedness giving way to a bright, balanced acidity and lingering finish. At this early stage of development, Queen Taken is perhaps showing the most intricacy, with fresh brioche, peach, and rose petal notes wrapped into a bracing, lengthy palate. The in-bottle aging potential for all five wines can be five to eight years, though it is hard to imagine being able to hold them that long. It will take will power.
Von Mandl’s vision from 1980 has been, if anything, surpassed, but that does not mean he is kicking back and resting on his many laurels. “It is good to see our region maturing. With all the fine restaurants, great accommodations, the entire Okanagan has the potential to become the ‘Napa of the North’ and a true destination for world travellers,” he says, looking around the space at various patrons readying to leave the bar and enter the dining room proper. “The reason we launch in New York is simple: it symbolizes our belief that our wines belong in the discussion with the world’s best. But now, what I want is to continue to get even better, year after year.” Given nearly four decades of gradually accrued success, there is no reason to doubt that von Mandl and his hand-picked team will do just that.
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