Anthony Gismondi: B.C. Merlots are knocking it out of the park

Anthony Gismondi is prepared to put B.C.’s Merlots up against any in the world

Article content

We have chronicled the rise of Merlot in B.C. for several years despite fierce opposition from hard-core wine freaks who often can’t bring themselves to drink wine that doesn’t torture them.


Article content

Merlot’s No. 1 attraction is its soft, generous fruit, or what its detractors detest most. All that said, vines in the ground in B.C. might suggest Merlot is winning the game with regular consumers.

The latest survey counting the vast majority of B.C. vines and vineyards in place ranks Merlot as the No. 1 grape in the ground. With 1618.85 planted acres, it represents 27.50 per cent of all red grapes and 14.64 per cent of all the grapes grown across the province. Merlot is also No. 1 in plantings Oliver, Osoyoos, and the Similkameen Valley. Compared to Washington, Oregon, California and Ontario, B.C. is the only region where Merlot is the leading variety.

The even more encouraging news regarding B.C. Merlot is that we are learning how to grow it better to represent its origin rather than a barrel of oak. As a result, it is now possible to ripen Merlot without becoming a monster black fruit wine loaded with alcohol and new oak, as mentioned above. In many ways, it’s the perfect red grape for B.C. because it can be ripened with ease most years, and it thrives in our dry, desert atmosphere. Best of all, it somehow assimilates the savoury-scented warm afternoon air returning a complex, equally savoury undercurrent to the finished wine.


Article content

Those who scoff at B.C. Merlot would do well to taste it double-blind against some of the best examples around the world.

The question of whether we make a Pomerol/St Emilion-style Merlot or blend as is done in Bordeaux, France or Bolgheri, Italy, or Washington State is now moot. We can easily meet the challenge, and as the years go by, there is no reason to think that we couldn’t make a Massetto or Petrus-style Merlot long considered at the top of the game.

This summer, I have worked my way through many local Merlots, and they are more than promising. Some of the brightest lights are coming out of the south end of the Okanagan and the Similkameen valleys, but we also see some gifted bottles in Naramata and points further north.


Article content

Of course, the best is not cheap, but we have also uncovered some quality offerings at would I would call modest pricing for B.C. wine. As winemakers and viticulturists dial in the regions, the blocks, the irrigation, and the farming, the wines will only get better.

Value Merlot to look for this season would include:

• Painted Rock Merlot 2018 ($35) from the Skaha Bench. It has always been a bit hedonistic, even given its Bordeaux tilt, but it has another level of elegance that belies the variety.

• Bartier Bros. 2018 Merlot Cerqueira Vineyard ($23) is always a pure expression.

• Burrowing Owl Merlot 2017 ($32) is consistently good.

• Corselettes Merlot 2019 ($28.99) is a fine introduction to the Similkameen stony reds.


Article content

• Upper Bench Merlot 2018 ($28) is a young rambunctious red.

• Roche Merlot 2018 ($25) offers perhaps the most Bordelais style of the bunch.

It’s at the higher end where the world notices what is happening in B.C. We can pitch some impressive bottles such as:

• CheckMate Artisanal Winery Opening Gambit Merlot 2017 ($95), a very interesting Bolgheri style red.

• Le Vieux Pin 2017 Equinoxe Merlot ($90) is a multi-layered red that comes off a single vineyard block of 20-year-old vines at the south end of the Golden Mile.

• LVP’s sister winery LaStella offers similarly impressive LaStella Maestoso Solo Merlot 2017 ($90).

• The classy Phantom Creek Estate Kobau Vineyard Merlot ($65) boasting Golden Mile and Black sage fruit that delivers an elegant, stylish red, a new addition to the mix.


Article content

• Speaking of elegant and stylish, the Hillside Vineyards Dickinson Vineyard Merlot 2018 ($40) is the best we have seen from this very fine Naramata Vineyard.

The future is bright for this variety. While Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc are getting all the current attention, interest in Merlot is going nowhere but up in B.C., pleasing the many folks who grow it and the many who drink it.

Weekend Wine Picks

CheckMate Artisanal Winery Opening Gambit Merlot 2017, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada

$95 I 94/100

UPC: 776545802194

Opening Gambit 2017 opens with an expressive and inviting nose of savoury black fruit from an 87/11/2 blend of Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc, the latter two bringing an extra dimension to the texture and aromas of this wine. It seems as if each iteration of this wine improves in the mouth, and this one is simply delicious. Again the nose is fragrant and savoury, à la Bolgheri, with even more improvement in the silky textures and liveliness of the palate that is delicate yet persistent.


Article content

Painted Rock Merlot 2018, Skaha Bench, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada

$34.99 I 92/100

UPC: 00626990105848

This wine has always been a bit hedonistic, even given its Bordeaux tilt, but it has another level of elegance that belies the variety. In this case, the secret sauce might be the Okanagan and its combination of freshness and savoury notes. Many will love the rich, showy notes and, frankly, the alcohol, but others will focus on its charm and mouth appeal. Drink or hold it will serve you well in either case.

Hillside Merlot Dickinson Vineyard 2016, Naramata Bench, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada

$40. I 92/100

UPC: 626990154174

Dickinson Vineyard is part of a trio of Hillside single-vineyard Merlots available to buy most years. Dickinson sits above the main road as you drive the main road, north, toward the village of Naramata. It is the warmest and most luxurious style of the three Merlots, and in 2016 it stays true to form but with an even better structure and acidity. The nose is inviting and fragrant, offering a hint of mint and black cherries mixed with sweet pipe tobacco notes and even some dark chocolate. The tannins are dense and sweet, with more brown spice in a finish that remains elegantly Naramata. What a treat to drink this now, but it will age effortlessly through 2026 and beyond — back up the truck, you won’t be disappointed.


Article content

Phantom Creek Estates Merlot 2018, Osoyoos, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada

$42 I 91/100

UPC: 626990457411

The estate Merlot is made with a selection of blocks from the Black Sage and Golden Mile Bench. In 2018 it opened with floral (violet) notes and rich dark plums, all covered in a fragrant mist of vanilla and spice. The attack is fruity with elegant textures and long layered savoury flavours throughout the finish. The wine will have little problem aging through 2028 and beyond and only get better. Classy. The wine is aged 18 months in 36 per cent new French oak. My advice is to lay some away for seven to 10 years and then pat yourself on the back.

Corselettes Merlot 2019, Keremeos, Similkameen Valley, British Columbia, Canada


Article content

$28.99 I 90/100

UPC: 626990231097

Corselettes Estate Vineyard works with three separate Merlot blocks, each pushed up against a stone wall of Black Rock Mountain along the property’s Northern edge. The vines are self-rooted in Similkameen Stemwinder soils, giving them a unique, direct connection to the soil, something most B.C. grafted Merlot vines do not. The key here is freshness and balance that hits you immediately upon sipping the bright black and blue fruits. Add in tobacco and a stony, mineral, dusty Similkameen signature, and you have an impressive bottle of Merlot. The tannin perfectly managed to shape the palate but not overwhelm it. You can drink this now, but it will only get better through 2025 and beyond.


Article content

Recipe: Baked cauliflower tots

Get grilling with this vegetarian-friendly recipe created by the team at Traeger Grills. The dish sees cauliflower turned into irresistibly crispy tots. Serve with your favourite dipping sauce or enjoy as a side with your preferred protein, cooked on the grill of course.

1 tsp (5 mL) kosher salt,

1 head cauliflower, cut into florets

2 eggs,

1/2 cup (125 mL) Panko breadcrumbs,

3/4 cup (177 mL) cheddar cheese,

1/4 cup (60 mL) Parmesan cheese,

3 tbsp (45 mL) chopped chives,

1/2 tbsp (7.5 mL) garlic powder,

1/2 tbsp (7.5 mL) onion Powder,

Canola oil

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Place cauliflower florets into boiling water and cook 5 to 7 minutes until tender.

Strain and place florets directly into an ice bath until cool. Strain again when cool and place florets into the bowl of a food processor and pulse until the cauliflower resembles rice. Process the florets in batches to get an even texture.


Article content

Place cauliflower rice on a double layer of cheesecloth and twist it up into a ball. Squeeze excess water (make sure you remove as much as possible) and transfer cauliflower rice to a large bowl.

Add remaining ingredients and mix to combine. If mixture seems too wet or dry, adjust with an additional egg or more panko breadcrumbs until the mixture stays together.

Form the cauliflower mixture into desired shape and place on a sheet tray. Transfer the sheet tray to the fridge and let the tots rest for 30 minutes (this will help them keep their shape and stay together).

When ready to cook, set Traeger temperature to 375℉ and preheat, lid closed for 15 minutes.

Clean the hot grill grate with a grill brush then brush the grate with canola oil. Place the tots directly on the grill grate along the edges.


Article content

Cook the tots for 10 to 15 minutes or until lightly browned. Resist the temptation to move them around too much or too early. For the best results, remove them one at a time as they finish.

Serve with your favourite dipping sauces. Enjoy!

Serves six. 

Recipe match

Baked cauliflower tots are wine-friendly, and you can feel free to experiment with red or white.

Penfolds Bin 311 Chardonnay 2018, South Australia, Australia $49.99

Lemony acidity is at the core, joined by tight pear, cashew, and spice that should easily lift the tots to another level.

Blue Mountain Estate Cuvée Gamay Noir 2019, Okanagan Falls, Okanagan Valley, B.C. $30

A bright, fruity red with a savoury, saline undercurrent makes a good match for the cauliflower.



Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.