Just a few years into its relatively short life, CheckMate Artisanal Winery in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley was the first Canadian winery to earn perfect 100-point scores in back to back vintages for one of its Chardonnays. How do they meet the immense expectations from critics and wine consumers as a result? Like any good chess player, it starts with a plan to ensure your always thinking a few steps ahead.
While CheckMate was only established in 2013, its history is long in the Okanagan Valley through its vines and ownership.
Anthony von Mandl of the Mark Anthony Group purchased the former Domaine Combret in Oliver, BC with the explicit goal of making terroir-specific Chardonnay and Merlot. No stranger to producing world-class Chardonnay, von Mandl is the owner of Mission Hill Winery which helped put Canada on the world wine map when it took the International Wine & Spirits Competition’s award for ‘Top Chardonnay in the World’ in 1994.
The most important move owner von Mandl made was putting Phil McGahan at the helm of his new special winemaking project at CheckMate. Originally a lawyer, the transition to becoming a winemaker doesn’t seem unusual once you learn about Phil’s upbringing on a farm in Australia’s wheat belt. “My dad was a farmer in Western Queensland, an area called Darling Downs. I was part of a big family there and it was a great childhood. My mom was a teacher and wanted all of us to go to University, so we all got packed off to boarding school in Brisbane for Year 11 and 12.”
Phil ended up becoming a lawyer, but he didn’t enjoy practicing law. He and his wife moved to Sydney where he worked in legal publishing. He started out as an editor, worked his way up to publisher, but still there was a yearning to do something else and the countryside kept calling. “I started to feel hemmed in living in the city and wanted to get back to living in the country somehow. I didn’t really want to go back to practicing law and my parents had long retired from the farm by then. I headed down the idea of wine, which both my wife and I had a passion for, and looked to see if there was a way I could make a career out of it.”
He enrolled at Charles Sturt University and studied by distance while continuing to work in publishing.
Despite studying and working full-time, he graduated top of his class then promptly moved to the Hunter Valley to start working his way up, again, this time in the world of wine. In 2007, he was successful in getting a coveted role as Assistant Winemaker at Sonoma’s Williams Selyem winery in the Russian River Valley, renowned for its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. After several years there, the opportunity with CheckMate presented itself and he made the move to the Okanagan Valley.
Checkmate sits in the Golden Mile Bench, a sub GI (Geographical Indication) within the Okanagan Valley where they produce wines from 5 different sites at 5 different locations that also include Black Sage Bench, and Osoyoos East Bench.
As we walk to the front of the winery, Phil points out some older blocks of vines that are part of the Combret Vineyard originally planted in 1973. It’s a warm September morning and he’s clearly happy with how the month is shaping up during this critical ripening period. There’s a 25-degree diurnal shift at this time of year with lows overnight in the single digits and the hottest time of day reaching close to 30 degrees Celsius. “It’s perfect. It means the fruit won’t accumulate sugars as fast and the acid doesn’t drop too quick which allows the flavours to really develop.”
Standing in front of some vines planted in 2000, we discuss yields and how this year’s crop is looking, “3 to 3.5 tonnes per acre is pretty much perfect for Merlot. For Chardonnay, we aim for 3.5 to 4 tonnes per acre.” But this year they’re coming in low at about 3 tonnes per acre. “It’s the lowest Chardonnay yield I’ve seen since I’ve been here, but the fruit is beautiful. It’s great quality, there’s just not much of it!”
As we continue walking through the vineyard, he shows us several new plantings made up of 10 blocks on the two properties.
All of them are planted to Chardonnay except for one block of Merlot on a south-facing slope. He has planted several clones that have never been planted in Canada before that he’s had experience working with in California, “It’s solely been Dijon clones up here until this point so hopefully it will bring some diversity to the Valley. Some will do better than others, time will tell.” Among the clones planted are Calera, Wente, Mount Eden, and some Prosser from Washington State. The Wente is now 5 years old and he believes it’s already some of the best fruit they grow.
The emphasis is primarily on Chardonnay going forward despite the accolades that their Merlot gets and the fact that many people believe Merlot is one of the varieties that also does really well in the Okanagan. While the latter may be true, Phil’s strategy seemingly remains a move ahead and is hard to argue with, “I think we get a lot of consistency in the Chardonnays year to year because it’s an early ripening variety and ripens very consistently. We get a bit more vintage variation from Merlot because if you look at the climatic envelope of what variety will grow here, we’re right on the edge with Merlot. We’re inside the envelope now but 50 years ago we would have been outside it. Whereas with Chardonnay, 50 years ago we were inside the envelope and now we’re comfortably inside it.”
The process in the winery is very simple. The only time they pump is to pump the juice to the tank, otherwise it’s completely gravity fed. Phil also doesn’t worry about press fractions, “a lot of winemakers will tell you that the best part of the juice is between 20L/tonne and 500L/tonne or something like that. So they’ll do different fractions and cut it off. But I’m a big believer that the solids that we get actually help feed the ferment and also help give the wine texture because the wines age on the solids. In that way we’re pretty straightforward so we put it all to tank and then we homogenize it and then we barrel it the same day.”
Phil has adopted traditional techniques and uses all French oak.
A trip to Burgundy in 2015 had a strong influence on how he works to counter premature oxidation or “premox” (a flaw that can occur in white wine as it ages). “The French usually have the wine in barrel for 9 months followed by 6 months in stainless steel tank before they bottle. Since the 2014 vintage I now do a couple of months in tank before I bottle…usually 16 months in oak followed by 2 months in tank. I find that really tightens the wine back up and gives it restraint.”
There was a throng of activity at the winery while we were there, not only because harvest had commenced, but the construction of their new tasting room was also well underway. As we toured through the future hospitality area, wine storage, catering kitchen and retail area, it was easy to visualize what a stunning place to enjoy wine it was shaping up to be. Expected to be complete by the start of next season, its beautiful glass room juts out over the vineyard taking full advantage of the uninterrupted views (reminding us of the stunning Waterkloof Wines in South Africa).
We sat upstairs in a private room and tasted through their lineup of 5 Chardonnays and 2 Merlots. The prices range from $80 to $125. The obvious question becomes ‘Are they worth it?’. As our tasting notes will show below, the answer is a decisive yes. Definitely higher on the spectrum than we would typically pay for Chardonnay outside of Burgundy or for Merlot outside of Pomerol, but there is no question the quality is there, and the accolades are deserved.
The master behind these wines is a perfect hybrid of his upbringing: the work ethic of a farmer combined with the intellect of a scholar.
His love for the work is clear, evidenced by his need to step away from our interview from time to time to check the press so he could jump behind the wheel of the forklift and load the fruit himself. After years of working his way up in two polar opposite careers, he has finally found his calling. He recalls with a laugh, “There were some years I certainly felt like I was banging my head against a brick wall…all you have to do is persevere I guess.” Thankfully for us, he did.
2015 CheckMate Knight’s Challenge Chardonnay
This wine shows gorgeous notes of orchard fruit on the attack. We were immediately struck by the body of this wine: it has a beautiful viscous texture. We get notes of white peach as the wine opens up and hints of other stone fruits. The acidity is very well-judged and allows the fullness of the texture to take centre-stage while providing just the right amount of backbone. A full 17 months in French oak barrels, half of which were new. All Dijon clones from Sunset Vineyard on Black Sage Bench.
Excellent ($85 at the winery)
2016 CheckMate Queen Taken Chardonnay
Stonefruit flavours and aromas are delivered with extra intensity in this wonderfully balanced, powerful wine. The minerality on this wine is gorgeous, evoking wet stones that add lots of character and complexity. We also get hints of melon and subtle notes of marzipan on the finish. Plenty of barrel notes provide a counter-point to the fruit and bring out caramel and almond extract. The Okanagan version of a Mersault.
Excellent+ ($125 at the winery)
2014 CheckMate Little Pawn Chardonnay
Very intense with notes of apple, honey dew melon and baking spices all swirling together and taking turns at being centre stage. The body is medium+, a little dialed back from the first two wines, but the intensity is off the charts! Citrus notes are found on the long finish. An Okanagan version of a Montrachet.
Excellent+ ($110 at the winery)
2013 CheckMate Fool’s Mate Chardonnay
If the previous two wines were Okanagan versions of Burgundy, this would be the Okanagan’s answer to the Sonoma Coast! Full body with notes of nectarine and melon. With some air we detect guava and other tropical nuances. Gorgeous texture, no doubt aided by stirring of the lees. From a blend of 3 South Okanagan vineyards, this wine has terrific complexity as well as power.
Excellent+ ($80 at the winery)
2015 CheckMate Attack Chardonnay
With the attack, a slightly different approach is taken in the winemaking. Rather than being aged in new and used oak barrels, this wine is aged in foudre, an oak vat many times larger than the traditional 225 litre barrel. The result is a wine that is a little more dialed back than the rest of the line up. Here the emphasis is more on finesse than power, on freshness over flavour. This wine is very much on-point with the current trend toward fresher, less power-driven wines and will no doubt find many fans among the hipster somm crowd. The finish showed a lovely saline quality that stepped up the complexity.
Excellent ($80 at the winery)
2014 CheckMate Black Rook Merlot
Powerful and intense, this is as full throttle as it gets in BC. Black cherry flavours dominate and get support from secondary nuances of plum and baking spice. The fruit is very ripe giving an almost stewed fruit quality to the wine. Medium body with medium+ tannin, this red cries out for a grilled steak!
Excellent ($85 at the winery)
2015 Checkmate Opening Gambit
Black cherry, blueberry and black currant flavours get support from cinnamon and spice cake notes on the backend. This wine is wonderfully complex! Big and powerful, but equally matched with its finesse. If the Black Rock was the linebacker, this is the gymnast. Great sophistication here, a real showpiece for the winery.
Excellent+ ($85 at the winery)
4799 Wild Rose St
CANADA V0H 1T0
Tastings by appointment only can be reserved online.