Wine Culture Magazine

CheckMate winemaker Philip McGahan believes 2020 is the best harvest in several years. Photo courtesy of CheckMate Artisanal Winery

CheckMate winemaker Philip McGahan reckons the 2020 harvest is the best he’s experienced since arriving in 2013. “The Chardonnay was the nicest fruit I’ve seen here in the valley,” says McGahan. “Although it was hot from mid-July into August, overall it was a cool year, starting with a wet spring, poor flowering and poor fruit set, which set up the lower yield, about 20 percent. But the fruit quality is stunning.”

“It’s a good year for winemakers,” he chuckles. “But the accountants don’t like it as much!”

McGahan says CheckMate’s unique house style is based on a commitment to an impeccable oak program. “We focus on premium oak but we also make sure it’s fully integrated with the wine… We follow the oak all the way through the process, so that it becomes a fully harmonized part of the wine.”

Of the past few vintages of Chardonnay, he remains particularly impressed with the 2015. “It’s still very fresh. Even though it was a warm year the acidity and freshness belies that: It’s a little leaner style and that’s for good reason,” he says, and explains that picking early paid off.

CheckMate’s Chardonnay grapes. Photo courtesy of CheckMate Artisanal Winery

“There’s a mantra for Chardonnay that if it tastes good when you pick it maybe you’ve left it too late,” he says. His picking decisions are based not so much on flavour but more on the numbers—on getting that acidity. Comparing the last three vintages, “2015 is a little more restrained but with good flavours and nice mouthfeel, and still showing very well. 2016 was a classic Okanagan year (similar to 2013). It had a warm start but a cooler summer, a beautiful fall with good hang time. It’s a little riper and more opulent but still not over the top. It’s drinking beautifully now, and should for another five or six years. 2017, just released to the club, “is more like 2016.”

When it comes to Merlot, McGahan suggests it’s the extended skin contact (50 to 65 days) that sets the wine apart. Un-fined and unfiltered, the wine spends 21 months in three-year seasoned French oak from some of Bordeaux’s best coopers. He says the 2015s (from that warm year) are drinking really well: “Rich, ripe fruit character but still with that element of herbal and green notes that you get in a good Bordeaux, plus freshness and acidity to carry the fruit…. 2016 (again a classic year) has nice character, with a little green edge that’s becoming more subtle. We haven’t yet released 2017 (probably in spring).”

Checkmate’s Estate Vineyard. Photo courtesy of CheckMate Artisanal Winery

His own favourites? He enjoys the wines from acclaimed Jagged Rock Vineyard, “It has a different note to it. The two blocks combine contrasting plant material; and yield sage brush, herbal and tropical fruit elements, with nice acidity, as well as floral notes from cuttings taken from the original Combret and Deklaver old vines, planted in 1973 and 1975—which produced the 100 point Queen Taken. “It’s been a lot of fun to see it fulfill its potential.”

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