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B.C.'s little-winery-that-could makes a mean pinot noir Add to ...

It sounds like a wine version of Mission Impossible.

Can a tiny winery in its first year make a good red from the infamously tough-to-handle pinot noir grape in one of the world’s most marginal grape-growing climates? Clearly yes. Having opened this summer, 40 Knots, the newest estate on Vancouver Island, has done a splendid job with its inaugural 2009 pinot noir. It’s a delicate, berry-laced red that got me thinking of Burgundy, the French region against which all pinots are inevitably measured.

Located in Comox, a seaside town almost halfway up the eastern coast on the Strait of Georgia, 40 Knots is owned by Bill Montgomery, a retired tugboat captain. I don’t know why that puts a smile on my face. Tugboats have a way of doing that. The winery name is partly a tribute to his seafaring career and partly to the brisk wind, which keeps the grapes relatively dry in the humid climate.

Montgomery owned and operated his own fleet, towing barges and other cargo from Seattle to Alaska and everywhere in between. Now, the Prince Rupert native is firmly planted on land, though he can still see coastal ferries from his kitchen window and shares the joy with swallows, eagles and the barking sound of sea lions.

“In a tugboat, you’re not dealing one on one with people,” he said. “I’m learning, but it’s quite a different mindset for me.”

Island-born Natasha Ponich, from Duncan, is the winemaker. This is her first job in that role, which makes the wine that much more impressive. She had good help, working with ex- Montrealer and B.C.-based consultant Christine Leroux, whose credits include studies at the University of Bordeaux and a stint at Bordeaux’s respected Château La Fleur Petrus.

Though Vancouver Island enjoys moderate winters, summers can be cruelly short for grape vines. The 2009 pinot managed to achieve good ripeness while retaining brisk acidity and floral and earthy overtones, hallmarks of many fine Burgundies costing much more than $25. I also like the winery’s subtly off-dry 2010 rosé, less so the herbal pinot gris and lean, Muscadet-like chardonnay from 2009.

Ponich made just 150 cases of the pinot with vineyard manager Matt Rademakers, though that type of quantity is not unheard of in Burgundy, where some wines are crafted from a few rows’ worth of vines. Like I said, it’s a tiny winery. But it deserves a toot of the horn for this excellent maiden voyage.

40 Knots Pinot Noir 2009 (British Columbia)

SCORE: 90 PRICE: $25

The intensely floral, fruity and herbal perfume is echoed on the palate, complemented by baking spices and a hint of chocolate. It’s lean and crisp, as can be expected from pinot noir and the short 2009 summer, but the texture is supple and polished. Try it with grilled salmon. Available in B.C. direct from the winery (250-941-8810).

Quails’ Gate Pinot Noir Dijon Clone Selection 2008 (B.C.)

SCORE: 91 PRICE: $55

It has become the fashion of sorts among highend producers, notably in California, to bottle wines from specific clones of the pinot noir grape.

A clone is a family of genetically related plants originally propagated from a single vine that performed well in certain growing conditions. Most of the best pinot clones come from Burgundy, as is the case here: a blend of two famous ones simply dubbed 115 and 667. I’m guessing the cherry-like fruit owes its presence largely to 115 and the cinnamon-like spice to 667, but that’s getting nerdy (unless you’re a Burgundy nut).

This is a sumptuous red – balanced and earthy with a lightly tannic finish. Lamb chops would be a fine match. Available only at the winery.

Iron Horse Wedding Cuvée 2007 (California)

SCORE: 91 PRICE: $21.95

Iron Horse is a sparkling-wine specialist and the Wedding Cuvée is a popular offering. The pinkish hue lands somewhere between salmon and copper. Bone-dry and fruity at first, the flavour carries through beautifully with notes of bread and slate. It’s a bargain.

Henry of Pelham Pinot Noir Reserve 2007 (Ontario)

SCORE: 90 PRICE: $24.95

With intense flavour for a mid-weight red, this wine shows pure berry fruit with a pronounced toasted quality as well as notes of roasted game and bitter chocolate, finishing with fine, mouthcoating tannins. It’s a good partner for seared duck breast. Available at www.henryofpelham.com, www.winerytohome.com and www.wineonline.com.

Vila Regia Douro Reserva 2008 (Portugal)

SCORE: 90 PRICE: $12.95

It’s hard not to admire this wine: European pedigree, layers of flavour, crowd-pleasingly smooth oak – and a fetching price. Full-bodied and velvety, with a rich, dark-fruit-and-vanilla core, it really comes to life as notes of spice and tobacco appear in the second half, climaxing with a lightly juicy finish. Pair it with steak or braised red meats, though it’s delectable on its own.

Trinity Hill Sauvignon Blanc 2010 (New Zealand)

SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.95

Most familiar New Zealand sauvignon blancs come from the cool South Island region of Marlborough. This one’s from Hawke’s Bay on the North Island and delivers a smoother experience, with a honeyed character and oily texture along with notes of peach and zesty citrus. It would be great with pan-seared fish or scallops.

Henry of Pelham Family Tree White 2009 (Ontario)

SCORE: 88 PRICE: $17.95

There are four grapes here, part of the recently launched Family Tree line from Henry of Pelham based on both estate-grown and purchased fruit. Viognier, chardonnay, gewürztraminer and chardonnay musqué combine to make a medium full-bodied wine with a rounded texture and attractively floral quality. Silky and peach-like, it’s ideal for Indian curries.

Château de la Saule Montagny 1er Cru 2009 (France)

SCORE: 87 PRICE: $24.95

Here’s a premier cru white Burgundy – serious stuff – which makes the price attractive on the face of it. I suspect the long finish and caramellike character will appeal to many people. My score would be higher were it not for the confected, candy-store essence of the underlying fruit. I could see it complementing roast chicken or butternut-squash soup.

Baracchi Smeriglio Syrah 2008 (Italy)

SCORE: 85 PRICE: $24.95

An American critic loved this Tuscan wine. I’d like it more if it had been labelled primitivo (because it tastes more like that jammy red grape than syrah) and had cost less than it does. But it’s rich, ripe and probably a crowd-pleaser

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