Anthony von Mandl’s opening gambit on the Okanagan Valley wine landscape was Mission Hill Family Estate. You might call it a winery rescue, because Mission Hill, which began producing wine in the early 1990s, was built on the site of a near-bankrupt winery that dated back to the mid-1960s. The transformation in von Mandl’s hands was dramatic and total. Mission Hill quickly became the destination winery as the Okanagan Valley began to attract tens of thousands of wine tourists each year. Famed for its distinctive architecture that features an elegant arched entry and a bell tower, Mission Hill was no less noted for its wines, sourced from vineyards throughout the Okanagan Valley, from the hillside estate vines near Kelowna to the sandy soils near the Canada-U.S. border.
Von Mandl’s latest accomplishment is a sort of déjà vu—the rescue and rehabilitation of another rundown winery and its neglected vineyards, this one renamed CheckMate Artisanal Winery, with the first vintage 2013. As he did with Mission Hill (and with his Martin’s Lane winery completed in 2017), von Mandl commissioned architect Tom Kundig to design CheckMate. The building, completed this past summer, is an irregularly angular white structure that at once contrasts with and mediates between the linear patterns of the vines on the slopes below and the jagged profiles of the hills behind it. Its impact will change with the seasons. The tasting room features floor-to-ceiling windows that give visitors a panoramic view of the estate vineyards and the broader valley, enabling guests to drink in the environment while savouring the wines that are its products.
Says von Mandl, the British Columbian wine pioneer, of Kundig, the Seattle-based architect and long-time collaborator, “He loves to repurpose buildings, to reuse buildings in exceptional ways.” This is also von Mandl’s approach to some of his wineries, and in this case Kundig has created CheckMate on the cinderblock structure erected in the 1990s by the original owner.
CheckMate wines are made from only two varieties: chardonnay and merlot, an odd combination that parallels the equally unusual pairing of riesling and pinot noir that are the hallmark of Martin’s Lane. Chardonnay and merlot are two of the world’s most popular wines, whose original benchmark regions are Burgundy and Bordeaux’s Right Bank, respectively. But most producers tend to focus on either Bordeaux or Burgundy varieties, and opting for one from each is a provocatively different approach. What von Mandl offers is a simple but equally provocative explanation: “Because we can do it. An emerging [wine] region should not be governed by tradition but by soils and climate.”
Chardonnay and merlot generally possess far less cachet than varieties such as riesling, cabernet sauvignon, syrah, and pinot noir. Chardonnay struggles with an image of being too everything—too boring, too oaked, too common—while merlot has no particular image, its claim to fame being that it was ridiculed in the movie Sideways. There are, of course, fine chardonnays and merlots from many parts of the world, but that said, the wines made at CheckMate take these varieties to a level of quality rarely attained outside their benchmark regions.
It is also noteworthy that, bucking the almost-universal practice of pricing red wines higher than white, CheckMate’s chardonnays cost more than its merlots. It’s a remarkable and fully justified expression of confidence in the winery’s chardonnays, all of which exhibit a common theme: beautiful acidity and the fruit-acid tension that turns chardonnay from a drab, workhorse variety into a triple crown winner. Attack Chardonnay 2017 (all the wine names refer to chess) shows beautifully nuanced flavours and notes of spiciness, while Fool’s Mate 2017 delivers enormous complexity and exquisite texture. Queen Taken Chardonnay 2017 shows brilliant complexity and a fine texture.
As for CheckMate’s merlots, they bear no resemblance to the fruity, low-acid efforts that dominate the market. Again, fruit-acid balance is at the core, and all show appealing textural qualities. End Game Merlot 2017 delivers fruit with breadth and depth, and Silent Bishop 2017 is finely tuned with components that mesh seamlessly. These are beautiful merlots whose lower prices in no way suggest lower quality. But they are a boon to buyers.
Making the wines since the first vintage at CheckMate is Philip McGahan, an Australian who traded a career in law for one in winemaking. Like many modern winemakers, McGahan treats the vineyards and the cellar as a seamless whole, and he talks as much about growing the grapes as about making the wines. CheckMate is, he says, “a subregional winery in the true south of the Okanagan Valley,” and the reasons chardonnay and merlot make sense as the winery’s varieties are the warm climate and the moderating effect of the lake.
By now McGahan knows CheckMate’s vineyards intimately—and not just the vineyards but also the distinct parcels within them—and he is working to match locations with the best-suited clones, variations on each variety. The result is to give him a wide range of wines to work with, based on location and clone. In the cellar, the wines are fermented with natural yeasts, aged in stainless steel, concrete, and barrels of varying sizes, and neither filtered nor fined. These are vins de garde, wines made with longevity in mind.
CheckMate is the latest in a number of new wineries in the Okanagan Valley, including a handful that call themselves destination wineries. There’s no doubt that CheckMate is a destination winery, one sought out by wine-lovers looking for the finest expressions of two somewhat-maligned but classic varieties. The term checkmate has a clear sense of finality about it, but at CheckMate Artisanal Winery, the adventure is just beginning.