Checkmate, it’s Only the Beginning
In this month’s Final Blend, Anthony Gismondi reports on Checkmate, a new, ultra-premium winery with an innovative and exclusive sales strategy, unique in Canada. How does one grape, planted in different terroir, differ? No expenses were spared to find out.
Gismondi’s Final Blend
by Anthony Gismondi
“By the time a player becomes a Grandmaster, almost all of his training time is dedicated to work on this first phase. The opening is the only phase that holds out the potential for true creativity and doing something entirely new.” Garry Kasparov
It has been said to be successful in chess, or wine for that matter, you must constantly be thinking several steps ahead in tactics and decision making. From deciding where a pawn can be sacrificed to gain better position, to pitching single vineyard chardonnays at super premium prices you have to think your way through from start to finish. There’s no rushing in chess or wine. The best moves are all well thought out.
Mission Hill Winery owner Anthony von Mandl has done just that with his newest venture in the south Okanagan, Checkmate Artisanal Winery. Like most Von Mandl Family (VFM) initiatives the winery has been quietly progressing under the radar for more than three years now “doing something entirely new.” Checkmate’s first move, this November, will be its unconventional debut – online only.
In a world where winemakers and owners often say it’s all about the wine, and then go out and build a huge winery and visitor centre and restaurant, it would appear the VFM folks mean it this time. There is a physical building, the old Domaine Combret winery that had morphed into Antelope Ridge over the years, but it won’t be open to visitors. The facility has had a light retrofit but it is merely a place to make and raise the wine.
If you want to interact with Checkmate you will have to do it as a club member, online, or in a restaurant. As they say, membership has its advantages, and in this case membership will give you access to a limited number of bottles that will be made available to the public. There won’t be an endless supply.
To add to Checkmate’s mystique there will only be one grape in the mix, at least for now, and that is chardonnay. There will initially be five labels in all, with each boasting a different site selection or blend of sites, or in one case, wood treatment. By keeping the winemaking the same throughout, the aim is to express the individual site. Hardly revolutionary in the greater wine world but another step in the evolution of the Okanagan Valley where origin or site has played a secondary role to the grape and the producer.
I had a chance to taste through the first releases this summer and catch up with Anthony von Mandl, and winemaker and general manager Phil Mcgahan, the man charged with the Checkmate project.
Mcgahan, a transplanted Australian, grew up on a grain farm in the Darling Downs region of Queensland before obtaining a degree in law. After a short stint in the legal profession he caught the wine bug and returned to Charles Stuart University where he earned a Bachelor of Applied Science (Wine Science) degree and was Dux of his graduating class.
From school he ended up in the Hunter Valley but soon landed an important post as assistant winemaker at Sonoma-based Williams Selyem Winery, famous for its pinot noir and chardonnay, most of which sells for the equivalent of $80 to $125 a bottle. After several years in Sonoma, Mcgahan couldn’t resist the opportunity to come to British Columbia and run his own show at Checkmate. There is nothing brash about Mcgahan; in fact, his quiet, studious demeanour feels perfectly suited to the demanding, frenetic pace Von Mandl works at. They seem a perfect match.
Checkmate is situated on the Golden Mile Bench appellation, the newest and only recognised sub-appellation of the Okanagan Valley, but it will produce wines from sites around the valley. From the first five chardonnays released, three will be sourced from separate south Okanagan sites, one a blend of all sites and a final selection fermented and aged in a single large oval vat or foudre.
You can expect the Checkmate wines will spawn a minutia of details, from clones to rootstocks, to barrel makers, fermentation techniques and blending and ageing strategies. I’m not going to sugar coat it for the ‘keep-wine-simple crowd. This is a complex chardonnay project and it’s pushing a lot of boundaries.
Shoot thinning and positioning is key at Checkmate and it something the team has brought over from Viticulturist James Hopper’s work with pinot at Mission Hill Family Estates and Martin’s Lane. Once the thinning is done, and done early, the shoots can be further positioned. It’s a new architecture that spreads out the fruiting zone, produces uniform, open bunches and that results in higher quality fruit. It’s safe to say everyone involved is inspired by the great chardonnays of Burgundy, and there is a resemblance, but in the end the Checkmate style is neither Old World nor New World but rather Next World, Okanagan Valley.
Von Mandl admits at this stage “It is less about selling wine and more about making a statement and selling the valley,” and sell it he will from $80 to $125 a bottle. The mantra at Checkmate is to only release wines that are worth it and that can stand the price and I must say after tasting through the lineup the squat, ancient looking, artisanal-shaped bottles look the part and taste it too. It’s clear they have been rigourous and selective, discarding anything that doesn’t make the cut. The alcohol comes in just over 14 percent and seems fine although the long term goal would be to get it down under 14 percent.
The chess theme runs through the lineup starting with the 2013 Capture Chardonnay. The fruit is grown at the Border Vineyard, a single block planted in 1997 to the Dijon clone 76, in Osoyoos, not all that far from the Mission Hill Perpetua Chardonnay block. The final blend comes from a 50/50 mix of two barrel lots, one is fermented naturally and the other via inoculation with selected yeast. One hundred percent goes through malolactic fermentation with battonage. Mcgahan describe the style as “Running on the edge, it is not a safe wine but it encapsulates what we are trying to do.” The nose is lightly aromatic, the palate is spare and lean but with a fine citrus theme and minerality and just enough orange rind to suggest it might be richer than you think. The finish is long and persistent but understated. It’s barely showing its real face but will blossom in time in the bottle. It reminds me a bit of the Perpetua style. Captured has a double meaning here – it’s not just the chess. It speaks to the vineyard tucked up against the border – it can’t go anywhere. The wine is aged 18 months in oak (53 percent new) but is bottled unfiltered and unfined to keep it fresh. 190 cases.
The fruit for the 2013 Queen Taken Chardonnay comes off the Heritage Vineyard on the Golden Mile Bench, beneath Mt. Kobau and the Thompson Plateau. The vines are 35 years old and the earth a complex mix of Stemwinder, Ponderosa and Ratnip soils. Capture is a very different chardonnay; the aromatics are floral but there is a richer, peachy underpinning, perhaps as a result of the 35-year old vines. The 2013 was picked October 3rd and 15th almost a full month after Capture and no doubt benefitting from the cooler, late afternoon shadows of Mt. Kobau. The picks were kept separate as they went through the 50/50 stainless steel / oak barrel ferments and a 100 percent malolactic regime. The wine is more floral, less wild then the Capture with wet stone and exotic flecks of ginger. Citrus marks the flavours with apricot, melon and a touch of brioche in the creamy finish. Bigger and rounder than the Capture it’s also longer and more complex. It’s just beginning to show its stuff. 200 cases. A nice statement for Golden Mile Bench.
Label three, the 2013 Little Pawn Chardonnay, comes from the Barn Vineyard, planted in 1999 and situated on the west facing Black Sage Bench in southeast of Oliver. It’s a solitary micro‐terroir of fine‐grained sands with a very low capacity to hold moisture. The yields are low, the clusters small but the fruit beautiful. Little Pawn is a very feminine version of chardonnay with tightly wound floral notes and a lot of minerality. The fruit is green apple with perfectly supporting oak. In all, the wine spends 18 months in French barrels of which 57 percent are new. Elegance and restraint is the watchword. The site trumps the clones here. It’s only been in bottle for a couple of months so I expect even more form this label as it acquires some bottle age. Perfect for delicate fish dishes.
The only ‘blend’ of the initial quintuple Checkmate release is the 2013 Fool’s Mate Chardonnay. In this case winemaker Mcgahan decided to mix three different climates that form what the Checkmate team calls the golden triangle south of McIntyre Bluff, a prominent geological feature long thought to separate the southern Okanagan Valley from the north. Fool’s Mate is an 11/64/25 amalgam of Heritage Vineyard, Golden Mile Bench; the Barn Vineyard, Black Sage Bench; and the Border Vineyard in south Osoyoos. Clearly the most complex of the releases it has bit of all three vineyards, mostly different lots from the aforementioned single vineyard releases, but like most blends it is richer than the sum of its parts. Mcgahan says you lose some of the specificity of site but you can get more of true expression of the south Okanagan. The nose is a pleasant mix of brioche and spice with a hint of sagebrush. The palate is creamy with good acidity and peach/pear, hazelnut notes and a long creamy, leesy, textured finish. Power and elegance. The fruit was night picked by hand on the 11, 17, 18 and 19 of September. Some fifteen percent is wild fermented before all the wine was aged 17 to 18 months in French oak half of which was new. A great start.
The final release, the 2013 Attack Chardonnay is made from 100 percent Barn Vineyard fruit from Oliver’s Black Sage Bench. Attack is a single vineyard wine with a twist – It is fermented and aged sur lie in a 100 percent new French oak foudre. The effect is quite a spicy nose with flinty, stony, mineral notes. Three different clones combine to shape its flavours into citrus and sea salt with bright acidity and muted tropical fruit notes. I like this wine – the integration is amazing between the oak and fruit and I expect the next edition in the one year old vat will be even better as the oak moves into the background.
Checkmate appears to be off to an excellent start, something Mcgahan knows is important. “It’s not that we are setting benchmarks worldwide but more about what we can do with the natural resources,” says Mcgahan. All the wines are unfiltered and unfined. It is hardly revolutionary these days but necessary to present the essence of the site. The original back labels are spare but von Mandl suggest there will be more site specific information in future to better explain the story of the single vineyards.
It’s only one year, but if you count the three years of work that went into the first releases you sense Checkmate is on its way. There will need to be more vintages before the wines find their ultimate mojo but you can get in on the ground floor now if you want to get some of the initial releases. You can sign up at www.checkmatewinery.com and expect to receive your first bottles sometime in November.
It’s your move.