Could Burrowing Owl be Canada's Screaming Eagle? Consider the similarities: They're both birds of prey. They've both been on the endangered list. They're both … wait, who am I kidding? Let's leave the avian taxonomy to ornithologists. My question is about cabernet sauvignon anyway.
Screaming Eagle is California's most recherché cabernet. Some might call it the best. Certainly, it's one of the most expensive, at $1,200-plus on the open market for a recent vintage. No billionaire's basement is complete without a spotlighted, three-bottle wooden case of the iconic Napa red.
Burrowing Owl Cabernet Sauvignon, on the other hand, sells for roughly one thirtieth the price. At $38, it's not even Canada's most expensive cab, though it comes close when available in Ontario, at $56.96. But it would not be a big stretch to say Burrowing Owl makes this country's best cabernet (as well as some fine pinot gris, syrah and cabernet franc, meritage and chardonnay).
I just tasted the new Burrowing Owl Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 and had one of those I-can't-believe-it's-Canadian moments. If it was not the best cab in the land produced in 2006, it's close. Certainly, it's better than some Napa cabs costing twice as much, though maybe not 30 times as much.
Please note I did not say best wine in the country. There are other great cult Okanagan reds out there, of course. Nota Bene from Black Hills Estate, "Pentage" from Pentage and Oculus from Mission Hill, to name just three of the most prominent. But most are not cabernets; they're Bordeaux-style blends with a lot of merlot in them and only some cabernet. That's also the case with Niagara's newest trophy red, La Brunante from Hidden Bench.
Many readers, particularly regular visitors to B.C.'s Okanagan Valley, will be familiar with Burrowing Owl. Owned by Jim Wyse, his family and partners, it's one of the more prominent and beautifully situated estates in the valley. In appearance, it could hardly be farther from Screaming Eagle. There's a wine shop, fine-dining restaurant and guest house with pool. Screaming Eagle, which makes just 500 cases of wine a year, is closed to visitors.
Amid the touristy bustle at Burrowing Owl in the summer, it's easy to forget Wyse is passionate about farming, with access to some of the best red-wine vineyards in the country. But then you taste the wines. The showstopper for me recently was the 2006 cab, which I'm sorry to report is currently available only at the winery ($38 through www.bovwine.ca) because only 1,355 cases were made. The purity of flavour here is what strikes me initially. You could say it screams cabernet, delivering textbook flavours of cassis, cherry, black olive, leather, cedar and cigar, among others. The balance, too, is impressive, ripe fruit and savoury notes getting structural support from fine-grained tannins, fresh acidity and creamy suppleness from oak-barrel aging.
The wine, which just won double gold at the All Canadian Wine Championships, comes from one of the best wine-growing years on record in the Okanagan. September and October, the key ripening months, saw near-ideal growing conditions in 2006. The fruit was left to ripen long on the vine, harvested on the exceptionally late date of Nov. 4 in four inches of snow. You've heard of icewine? This is a cabernet snowvignon. You can't get more Canadian than that.
Burrowing Owl cab may not be Screaming Eagle, but, at the price, it's a pretty decent cult wine for recessionary times.
Two other current releases from the winery are also worth a shout-out: Burrowing Owl Chardonnay 2007 ($25) and Burrowing Owl Pinot Noir 200 7 ($30), both from the excellent 2007 harvest.
While my head is still in the Okanagan, let me mention Cedar Creek Gewürztraminer 2008 ($18 through www.cedarcreek.bc.ca). Less opulent than a classic Alsatian gewürztraminer, it still shows substantial alcohol (13.8 per cent) and the grape's classic flavours of peach, lychee and rose. It's for those who like their gewürz very dry.
This next wine recommendation almost deserves a drum roll. Fuzion Chenin Blanc Chardonnay 2008 from Argentina ($7.45, No. 119800), the anticipated white version of the No. 1 selling red in Ontario, has just been launched in the province. Like its red counterpart, it's not Chateau Haut-Brion, so don't expect to be blown away. But it's a remarkable value. I like the white better than the red. The official launch date was yesterday, so it may take a few days to get to your local store.
Ontario readers interested in today's spotlight on New Zealand at Vintages stores might, if they missed it, want to check out my column from Wednesday, which is available online at globeandmail.com/life.
Turning now to some of the other selections from today's Vintages release, I want to rave about one of the better rosés I've sampled this year. But before I do, here's a question: Are many purportedly dry rosés getting insidiously sweeter, delivering something of a white-zinfandel experience without the training-wine stigma? That's been my impression of late, certainly in terms of what's on the market here (and what's trendy in England). Then there's Mas Belles Eaux Rosé 2008 from France's southern Languedoc region ($14.95, No. 117358). It's classically bone-dry and delicate, a blend of mostly syrah with some mourvèdre, with hints of strawberry, citrus and herbs. The colour, too, is seductive: a warm salmon pink rather than bright electric red.
The under-$20 reds worthy of interest include Tommasi Valpolicella Ripasso 2006 ($19.95, No. 910430) and Spadina Una Rosa Signature Nero d'Avola 2003 ($19.95, No. 10330), both from Italy, and Kilkanoon Killerman's Run Shiraz from Australia ($19.95, No. 925453).
And my top splurge-worthy pick: Domaine Grand Veneur Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2006 ($47.95, No. 989061). This is a rich, dense Châteauneuf, with lots of wild-herb and licorice flavour intermingled with ripe fruit, spice and fine but considerable tannins.
Pick of the Week
Mas Belles Eaux Rosé 2008 from France's southern Languedoc region ($14.95, No. 117358) is classically bone dry and delicate with hints of strawberry, citrus and herbs.