Mission Hill Family Estate Winery – Drilling Down in the Okanagan
A WineAlign Winery Profile
By David Lawrason
As 2016 dawns Mission Hill Family Estate is by now no stranger to anyone who has pulled a cork in Canada. Mission Hill wines have been available since the 1970s, although profoundly evolved since then. They are available in every province and territory in the country, from a store in Haines Junction in the Yukon to Carbonear in Newfoundland.
What’s remarkable is that the wines are not only very good quality and thus good value at the lower price range, but also often exceptionally good in the upper ranges. And if you don’t want to take my word for it, consider that Mission Hill, in blind tastings judged by Canada’s top critics, has been named Winery of the Year four times since 2001. The latest victory – over 200+ wineries entered – came in 2015 at the WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada.
I will get to the many reasons for that, but I want to talk first about perceptions. A winery that has been around so long, and that is so widely available, is a natural target of some consumer apathy and cynicism, especially when hundreds of other smaller wineries have built their followings in direct competition in the meantime. Yet Mission Hill persists, prospers and continues to try to perfect.
That impetus and wherewithal must come from the top down, and it is by now well known that owner Anthony von Mandl is the man behind this mission. Vancouver-born, Europe-raised and back in B.C. to cut his teeth as a wine merchant in the 1970s – when BC wine was in its infancy – Von Mandl has parlayed it all into an impressive domain.
His mountain-perched, neo-monastic winery is the symbol of Mission Hill’s aspiration and ascendancy. And it is a grand and awe-some place (in the truest sense of the word). But the winery is in its way a one-point-in-time statement, and the real challenge has been to maintain and elevate quality in the vineyards and the bottle – over many years, over many price points. Von Mandl has succeeded by careful selection of people, by careful winemaking and careful marketing and messaging. It has allowed Mission Hill to succeed as a business in many different price and quality arenas.
The Winemakers and Vineyards
I don’t want to dwell on history that is available elsewhere, but you must know that since 1991 winemaking has been in the hands of New Zealander John Simes, who has brought a sense of brightness, best possible ripeness, tension and layering to the wines. Over a decade ago his focus turned to the vineyards as Mission Hill put together five distinct sites, with the two largest in the warmer southern Okanagan. Yet Simes remained the winemaking overseer.
Until six months ago when Australia-born, educated and trained Darryl Brooker was appointed head winemaker, taking over the production of the 2015 vintage. He came into the Mission Hill fold with the acquisition of CedarCreek Winery in 2014, but prior to that he worked in Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula, first at Flat Rock Cellars, then at Andrew Peller-owned Trius. I have known Brooker since his arrival in Canada, and I can tell you that he is smart, open-minded, amiable and very good at his job. And he is excited about taking Mission Hill down the inevitable path of terroir-driven wines.
“The biggest thing for me is to go out into the vineyards with John and absorb what he knows about all these sites, and blocks and rows” said Brooker in a recent interview. “John continues and will continue to be deeply involved with the vineyards.”
Of the five vineyards, two in the north Okanagan are smaller and focused on riesling, pinot noir and chardonnay. Naramata Ranch in the central Okanagan is a gem producing a wide range of white varieties plus pinot and merlot. While the two much larger sites on the warmer, drier Black Sage Bench and Osoyoos regions are more proficient with merlot, cab franc, cab sauvignon and syrah – and yes some chardonnay, the grape that made Mission Hill famous when their chardonnay stunned the world by capturing the Avery Trophy for World’s Best Chardonnay in 1994 in London, England.
Brooker’s arrival and the focus on vineyards comes at an interesting time in B.C.; when serious discussions about sub-appellations are entering the ‘brass tacks’ phase. With its vineyards up and down the Okanagan, Mission Hill is not only poised to contribute to the sub-app discussion in all the main Okanagan regions, but to demonstrate it in the bottle.
But the Terroir Series wines – which are only available direct from the winery drill down even deeper than that. “We are sourcing from our very best plots within these five vineyards”, said Brooker. “They tend to be older blocks between 15 and 30 years of age”.
Brooker was candid about the challenge of drilling down. “Look, Mission Hill is historically known for large production and blending from different sites” (eg the Five Vineyard varietals) he explained. “It is more difficult to narrow down into small batch winemaking that terroir wines demand. So I was very surprised when I walked in here and found so many small batch tanks”.
This year Mission Hill added some concrete eggs to its vessel repertoire, and is considering larger concrete tanks in the immediate future. They are also experimenting with stainless steel barrels. “We are dialling into everything to see what works” Brooker explained.
There are five price/quality Mission hill tiers. (They do not include the recently acquired Von Mandl Estates properties that include CedarCreek, Checkmate and Martins Lane). In recent weeks WineAlign has reviewed wines from across the portfolio – many being included in the National Wine Awards. Below we present links to some of the better buys and most representative wines but we urge you to look beyond.
Five Vineyards Series
These are moderately priced, fruit first varietals blended from any of the five family owned sites. They are available Canada-wide.
Also sourced and blended from any of the five estate vineyards, these varietal wines are from selected blocks of grapes. They spend longer time in barrel with more lees stirring. They are mid-priced and some are widely available across the Canada.
This new range of varietally labelled wines express distinct viticultural aspects of the vineyard estates driven by soil, clone, climate, and precision farming. The back labels explain the source. They are gradually replacing the SLC (Small Lot Collection) range. The reds are premium priced and currently only available direct from the winery.
There are four wines in this pinnacle series: Compendium, Quatrain, Perpetua and Oculus. They are branded blends rather than labeled by varietal or vineyard. They are high priced and available at fine wine shops and restaurants in many Canadian markets.
As a regular feature WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery. Our critics independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines – good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted to WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the winery profile. Wineries pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, if any, is entirely up to WineAlign. See below for more details provided by the winery.
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