We first visited CheckMate in September 2020 while the new tasting room was under construction. The wines were brilliant and we made sure that a repeat visit was in order to taste through the current releases, and, almost as important, see how the finished tasting room turned out.
CheckMate sits high above the Okanagan Valley near Oliver, in southern British Columbia, in the recently established Golden Mile Bench sub-Geographic Indication. This region is getting plenty of acclaim as 791 acres just south of Oliver on the west side of the valley are home to some top vineyards. One of the oldest vineyards in not just this GI, but in all of Canada, is the Domaine Combret Vineyard which was planted in 1973.
In 2013, Domaine Combret was purchased by Anthony von Mandl who has amassed a serious collection of 6 of the finest estates in the Okanagan Valley. He renamed the winery CheckMate and set about making arguably Canada’s finest Chardonnay and Merlot.
After acquiring the vineyard, the next step was to get a winemaker that was up to the task.We think von Mandl struck gold when he hired Phil McGahan to come to Canada as CheckMate’s winemaker.
Phil hails originally from Australia but came to North America and made the wines at the highly regarded Williams Seylem Winery in Sonoma. His 1996 Olivet Lane Pinot Noir stands out in our minds as one of the best Pinots we have ever had.
Checkmate sits at the top of the Combret Vineyard. It is a beautiful drive up the poplar lined road with views of the vineyard and the valley below. The winery is a west coast modern style of building that was designed by Tom Kundig out of Seattle. Kundig also designed the winery at another von Mandl property, Martin’s Lane Winery. The black and white colour scheme is very much in keeping with the chessboard theme. The abundant use of glass takes full advantage of the valley views and the clean lines, use of concrete and steel are all very much in keeping with current trends in BC architecture. The indoor/outdoor tasting area is cantilevered out over the vineyard creating a feeling of being suspended in air.
We sat at a table next to the floor to ceiling windows facing the vineyard and drank in the view as we waited for our tasting to begin.
Another bank of windows provides a view directly down into the winery below. The interior regions of BC are rugged, arid, steep valleys so the clean simple lines of this building make a nice contrast to its surroundings. The use of interior trees and plants adds life and keeps the clean lines from becoming too stark.
The inside is beautiful; luxurious but not too luxurious. There is a trend towards creating ultra high-end tasting areas that in our view become over the top and seem a distraction to, rather than an enhancement of, the main event: the wine tasting experience.
CheckMate avoids falling prey to this trend and we say bravo! Black teak tables are surrounded by plush black chairs and couches. Comfort without distraction. When we taste, we want to focus on what is in our glass, and this is the right environment for doing just that.
As we began our tasting, Assistant Winemaker Kaylee Barrs stopped by for a chat about the wines and we got a chance to get an inside track on the upcoming 2021 and 2022 vintages.
We started the conversation wondering about the effect of last year’s forest fires on the vintage. (This has become a topic we have to discuss too often as our changing climate is bring this type of destruction all too frequently.) Kaylee told us “We’re pretty optimistic about 2021 in the South [Okanagan Valley]; up north, some of the vineyards were hit a little harder.” 2022 got off to a start quite different to the record heat of 2021. Much cooler than average temperatures have been the norm in BC so far.
“At this point we are thinking the harvest could be about 25% down in terms of yield, but we are hoping it could be a bit better than that.” As of June when we spoke with her, she told us “We are a couple of weeks behind on flowering but we could catch up with our usual July and August heat. But things have a way of balancing out and we usually end up with really consistent picking dates.”
“All the blocks have come in the same order over the last 5 years. I think that comes down to the type of farming we are doing. Because we are doing such precision planning, we can decide to pull more leaves to allow that ripening to speed up or we can slow it down by leaving a bit more canopy to shade the fruit, depending on the vintage characteristics. We are lucky to not have to deal with a lot of different growers but can make our own decisions and put that extra level of care and attention to our blocks. It keeps us really stable.”
Our tasting was a “horizontal tasting” where all of the wines were from the same vintage, in this case, the 2018s. Horizontal tastings like this are a really great way to assess the character of a vintage. As the following tasting notes will show, CheckMate continues to produce top quality wines, by any standard. And now it has a tasting room at the same level of quality as its wines!
2018 CheckMate Fool’s Mate Chardonnay
This years Fool’s Mate continues past traditions of producing an intensely flavoured wine that possesses texture and purity. Medium+ in body, we think this vintage might be a little fresher than preceding ones. Ripe apple, pear and orchard fruit with definition coming from acidity. Already complex, this wine has a future for those who cellar their whites. We recently had a 2014 Fool’s Mate that was still in fine shape.
Excellent ($95 at the winery)
2018 CheckMate Attack Chardonnay
Fruit comes from Jagged Rock and Border Vista vineyards, both in the southern (warmer) end of the valley. Medium body and medium acid, the dominant fruit note is apple. There are appealing secondary notes of almond and a slightly saline quality as well, something akin to oyster shell. The finish is long and mineral infused.
Excellent ($95 at the winery)
2018 CheckMate Capture Chardonnay
We were really excited about this year’s Capture. There is a terrific juxtaposition of rich texture with freshness and vibrancy; a rare treat in New World Chardonnay where we often find it is one or the other. Citrus fruit, green apple and mineral notes create a complex wine with a long finish. There is purity and precision. The oak is very well judged, providing texture as opposed to flavour. Delicious!
Excellent+ ($95 at the winery)
2018 CheckMate Queen’s Advantage Chardonnay
Terrific intensity on this wine with more barrel influence than the others we tasted. Orchard fruits (apricot) combine with mineral notes come across on a medium+ frame that is quite mouth-filling. The medium+ acidity keeps everything well defined and brings precision to the long finish.
Excellent+ ($95at the winery)
2018 CheckMate Queen Taken Chardonnay
Lots of complexity with a mixture of orchard fruits that move and shift as the wine opens up with air. Very intense with a particularly strong mineral note that is very attractive. Hints of green apple appear on the finish. The acid is medium+ and the body has a seductive richness to it.
Excellent+ ($125 at the winery)
2018 CheckMate Silent Bishop Merlot
Medium to dark red in colour. We get notes of plum with supporting hints of tomato, mineral and spice cake. Very complex! The body is medium and provides just the right amount of fullness to the mouthfeel. The tannin is present but silky and shows this wines potential for further development over the coming decade.
Excellent ($105 at the winery)
2018 CheckMate End Game Merlot
This was the more structured, more serious if you will, of their Merlots. Lots of black cherry fruit is delivered on a medium body with medium+ tannin. This is a youthful Merlot that is delicious now but is destined to develop further in cool cellars of patient drinkers who can manage to keep their hands of these bottles. The finish is long and spice infused. Mocha and espresso notes add complexity to the dark fruit flavours. A reference point for Merlot in British Columbia.
Excellent+ ($105 at the winery)
4799 Wild Rose St
CANADA V0H 1T0
Tastings by appointment only can be reserved online.