My first taste of a great new Chardonnay from Canada was in April 2015, at dinner after Wine Spectator's Grand Tour in Chicago. Ingo Grady, then director of wine education for Mission Hill Winery in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley, brought the newly bottled CheckMate Queen Taken 2013 to share with me and Thomas Francioni, Rocca delle Macìe's marketing and communication manager.
Since then, I reviewed this wine and several more very exciting wines from CheckMate Artisanal Winery. They are mostly vineyard-designated Chardonnays and Merlots, produced in very small quantities from the estate in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia.
The Chardonnays are opulent, full of citrus, peach, floral, spice and pastry flavors, balanced by lively acidity and mineral elements. The Merlots are plush, well-oaked and packed with ripe black cherry, blackberry and black currant fruit. Far from being over the top, they are fresh, complex and long, with accents of violet, spice and herbs. Think New World style, yet with Old World restraint.
I tasted both the 2013s and 2014s. As good as the '13s were, the '14s are even better, thanks to an excellent vintage in the Okanagan Valley. Of the 19 total wines tasted, 16 fell into the 90- to 93-point score range. These are some of the best young wines coming out of Canada today.
The highlights were three 2014 Okanagan Valley Merlots: End Game, Opening Gambit and Silent Bishop. All are $75 and rated 93 points. The top-scoring Chardonnay was the Capture 2013 (93, $90). The downside is that the wines are expensive and very limited. Production ranges from 150 to 750 cases, depending on the vineyard; the number of cases imported into the United States ranges from just 10 to 20.
Both the winery and range of wines are named for chess strategies and pieces, chess being a passion of CheckMate owner Anthony von Mandl. Von Mandl also owns Mission Hill, Martin's Lane and CedarCreek Estate wineries in the Okanagan Valley.
The CheckMate story goes back to a 1992 Misson Hill Chardonnay made from purchased grapes by then-winemaker John Simes. The backbone of the blend came from Chardonnay planted in 1975 to an obscure clone of unknown origin called Dekleva, after the former owner of the vineyard.
Encouraged by the success, von Mandl began purchasing vineyards. In 2012, he acquired the Dekleva vineyard and the adjacent property, the former Antelope Ridge Estate Winery, now the upgraded facility for CheckMate.
All the Chardonnays are a mix of single-vineyard cuvées and blends, all from estate-owned parcels. Fool's Mate is a blend of three sites and Knight's Challenge a multi-vineyard blend that was added to the lineup with the 2014 vintage. Attack is from The Barn and Border Vista vineyards, the juice cofermented in a 1,700-liter foudre. The idea is for winemaker Phil McGahan to pick the best lots from the vineyards for the CheckMate series. Nick Goldschmidt of Sonoma Valley's Goldschmidt Vineyards consults on the project.
The 2013s were roughly 50/50 indigenous and inoculated yeast. For the 2014 vintage, the spontaneous fermentation increased to about 70 percent. The wines undergo full malolactic conversion. They are aged 16 to 18 months in 50 percent new oak, with the exception of Fool's Mate, of which 25 percent is aged in concrete egg and Attack, discussed above.
The Merlots showcase the eastern and western sides of the lake, the eastern side being warmer, resulting in wines that are ripe, lush, even meaty and brooding. The cooler western side shows its influence with vibrant acidity.
The Merlots are fermented and macerated on the skins for about 50 to 55 days, then spend 21 months in 80 to 100 percent new oak.
The CheckMate wines demonstrate the quality of the Okanagan terroir when the focus is on good vineyard management and simple, but meticulous micro-vinifications. They are expensive and rare, but worth the search. Kudos to Anthony von Mandl for his vision and Phil McGahan and his team for the execution.