High up into the Okanagan hills, tucked away behind a winding lane lined with poplar trees, their leaves dappling the dusty track with kisses of sunlight, lies a hidden treasure. CheckMate Artisanal Winery, Canada’s first 100 point wine, bespeaks a bounty of some of the most exceptional expressions of Chardonnay and Merlot in the world. This ‘Next World’ of fine wine, a new frontier forged by a unique combination of a changing, cooler climate, three decades of carefully cultivating old vines, and an artisanal attitude to the winemaking process, may well be what puts Canadian wine into the legendary ranks of Burgundy and Bordeaux. And with CheckMate Artisanal Wines now being distributed at ultra-luxury fine wine wholesaler Hedonism Wines in Mayfair, London, as well as premium on-trade venues like Annabel’s, it seems that the legend is already being created.
We came to CheckMate Artisanal Winery late on a Saturday morning from Vancouver, on our road trip up to Kelowna where we were spending the weekend. A mere 4-something hours drive through some surreally beautiful scenery, it makes for a very doable weekend visit both for local British Columbians trapped in quarantine and visitors from afar looking for a refined adventure. We had heard of CheckMate wines as being some of the most highly scored in Canada, consistently earning over 200 hundred +90 point scores, including the first ever back-to-back perfect 100-point scores. Being both wine aficionados from Europe, we were curious about how climate change, for all of its devastating horrors, is producing one positive – a democratization of the wine industry, where varietals like Chardonnay and Merlot can grow on a terroir in Canada that is ever increasingly coming to resemble the elegance and finesse of Burgundy and Bordeaux.
The 2015 Knight’s Challenge Chardonnay is handpicked from the sunset vineyard on the Black Sage Bench. On the nose, one is hit with bolder fruit and classic buttery notes. There is nothing overpowering but just enough that it would trigger one’s memory in a blind tasting. The palate has an excellent minerality and drier finish.
The 2017 Queen Taken Chardonnay came from the Dekleva vineyard on the golden mile bench. Fermented in 100% French oak (44% new oak) this chardonnay can only be described as delicate. Light in colour, with a subtle citrus, rose petal and white peach on the nose, the palate was equally refined with a peach, nectarine and mineral finish. A light saltiness invoked the freshness of looking out into the Mediterranean on a summer’s day, whilst the long finish delicately tiptoed across our palates like a ballerina across the stage. We left a little bit in the glass to come back to it later as we looked to our next wine.
2015 Little Pawn Chardonnay was the third chardonnay we tasted. As Canada’s first 100-point wine awarded by acclaimed critic John Schreiner, it came with eager anticipation. The colour, medium to deep gold, came with a nose that immediately triggered rose petal notes, shaven cinnamon and lemon zest. On the palate, the rich creamy oakiness brought hints of fruit. The flavours lingered mimicked a pawn outlasting a chest battle as it maneuvers the end of a board to become a Queen. A fantastic Chardonnay.
We left CheckMate in the afternoon to start our 2 hour drive up the beautiful Okanagan Valley to Kelowna, where we were due to spend our Sunday. Arriving into Kelowna at 5pm, we checked into our hotel before making our way slowly to dinner at Cedar Creek’s restaurant Home Block. Home Block, part of the Cedar Creek Estate Winery, pays homage to the beautiful Home Block Vineyard that surrounds it. The building, crafted by Meiklejohn Architects in collaboration with Arcanum Architects is made from fieldstone and 100-year old reclaimed barn wood, as soon as we entered our eyes darted to the panoramic view of the lake and then quickly to the bustling kitchen. Seeing the open fire grill stimulated a classic Pavlovian response, as our mouths began salivating. As we sat down, the natural materials gave a cosy intimate feel as we looked out onto the vineyard and scanned the wine list.
Given the challenging quarantine restrictions – a 10pm curfew and limited menu options – Home Block smartly devised a set menu that paired wine with multiple courses of food. We started with a shared bread board before moving to our individual starters. Between us, we had the crispy Squid with chili jam and creme fraiche, paired with the 2019 Estate Chardonnay, and a very generous portion of the Burrata with grilled focaccia, oozing juicy tomatoes and pesto paired with the 2019 Estate Pino Gris. Both exceptional, fresh, flavoursome and very, very moreish. For the mains, we had the Duck served with seasoned vegetables, crispy potatoes and the 2018 Estate Pinot Noir and the Flank Steak with the bold and juicy 2017 Meritage. Dessert was an indulgent affair of sticky toffee pudding, which we paired with a glass each of the 2017 Platinum Riesling Icewine, a stunningly elegant wine of apricot marmalade, tangerine, citrus, honey, and a bit of Canadian maple. With dinner over, we soaked in the late Summer air for a final few moments before making our way back to the hotel. Thank goodness, we thought, that we have some CheckMate wines to take with us and a lot of beautiful memories.
CheckMate wines have just been released in the UK and can also be found on www.iwbc.uk. We cannot recommend these wines more highly. You really must give them a try.
CheckMate is a statement winery. Still under construction, its looming, vast expanse of a minimalist space offers a spectacular view onto the Okanagan Valley with exposed windows extending that view from the patio into the winemaking room. At once elegant yet contemporary, the clean space suggests strongly that the focus should rest upon the wines. And so it did, as our host, the wonderful Assistant Winemaker Leandro met us upon arrival to walk us through the wines. Walking around the wine-making room, we learned that everything in the vineyard and at the winery is tended to by hand. From the canopy management, leaf-pulling, and cluster thinning, everything is done meticulously and painstakingly manually to ensure everything is kept intact. Interestingly, we learnt also that unlike many other wineries in the region, CheckMate Artisanal Winery chooses to keep the stems on the vines. The effect is truly unique, rustic, and earthy, which, when coupled with their use of wild yeast fermentation and lack of fining and filtration, creates a textured and nuanced expression of an elegant, complex wine.
This costly and labour intensive process is the brainchild of CheckMate’s brilliant winemaker, Australian-born intellectual Philip McGahan. He relentlessly studied and researched viticulture, looking at family-owned and farmed estate vineyards, and examining the rows within them to understand excellence. With this level of intensity, he directs CheckMate’s winemaking to create the stellar wines they make today.
Leaving the wine-making room, we learnt of the private dining room that is available for hire and patio restaurant that is due to be open in 2021, before making our way to the tasting room with its magnificent lookout windows. The wines laid out to try were four Chardonnay’s – the 2017 Queen Taken, 2015 Knight’s Challenge, 2015 Little Pawn and two Merlots – 2015 Black Rock and 2016 Opening Gambit.
2015 Fool’s Mate Chardonnay was the last of our whites. This wine started with marked aromas of citrus, caramel and a hint of baked apple pie. On the palate there was a nice complexity of herbal tones, oak spice, citrus notes with a long finish that forced us to quickly taste again to discover more flavours that were not picked up the first time. An excellent finish to our whites and much like the name, we could have been fooled that these chardonnays came from Canada.
On to the reds we start with the 2016 Black Rook Merlot. We loved the sexy mystique of the label depicting a fallen Rook on the bottle. The wine poured a deep ruby in colour into the glass. On the nose you get raspberry and black Okanagan cherries with a hint of vanilla forming from the French Oak. On the palate, the cherry’s continue accompanied by sage spice, licorice and noticeably light hits of tannins.
2015 Opening Gambit Merlot was the last of the wines. This rich and bold wine gave a nose of blackcurrant, black fruits and a hint of florals, similar to walking by a flower shop. We loved the ongoing flavours of black cherry and blackcurrant with a nice long finish. A wine that can be enjoyed on its own or with pleasurable food, and, as with CheckMate’s style, a Merlot with a strong first move. We can see where it got its name from.
All of these wines are available in larger format bottles, and available in exclusive Gift sets.