Church mice, starlings, and robins fill B.C.'s bottles

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      Shove over penguins and emus, yard dogs and wallabies, madfish and eaglehawks, beasts and beauties. Here come robins, starlings, and church mice, new wines to further fill the critter corner.

      Whoever started putting wee beasties on wine labels likely didn't realize the zoo that would be unleashed. In some cases, they're not so wee: think of the bounding rock wallaby on every bottle of Yellow Tail. Hundreds of critters, real and fanciful, adorn the stuff we gulp with our dinner.

      But there's always room for more, in this case, recent releases from three little wineries. Two are on Vancouver Island, on the Saanich Peninsula, and one is located along the Similkameen River in Keremeos/Cawston, which is B.C.'s hottest wine region, both literally and figuratively.

      First tastes from Church & State indicate a very high level of quality, borne out by a clutch of awards and the presence of internationally renowned winemaker Bill Dyer at the helm. The Brentwood Bay–based winery sources its pinot gris grapes from the Okanagan's renowned Black Sage Vineyards, and the 2006 Church Mouse Pinot Gris is modestly priced ($16) for such a tasty white. Despite its water-pale colour, it is aromatic with big fruit, a citrus mélange with apricot and almonds, rich and robust, and a little roasty; that 14.4 percent alcohol does show through. It's a fine frittata or sauced-seafood wine, and maybe the best thing besides Perrier lemon to accompany a real cobb salad that's redolent with blue cheese.

      Four bucks more gets you the 2005 Church Mouse Merlot. This has an India ink–intense colour, with tarry and spicy aromas. (Someone found a hint of spicy jalapeño here; the label writers got "fruit cake, black cherry, and plums".) With a smooth and supple weight, as well as a rich and lengthy finish, this is state-of-the-art B.C. Merlot, the kind of hearty but mellow red that likes very sharp cheeses, oven-dried tomatoes with smoked Gouda, or anything meaty.

      Church & State produces over a dozen wines, many of them featured at Victoria's best restaurants, but the Web site doesn't mention any Lower Mainland eateries that stock the stuff. Stores include Edgemont Village Wines in North Vancouver, Mud Bay Wines in Tsawwassen, Sip Wines in Richmond. The most intriguing way to buy their best is the Case of Precious Medals dozen: four gold-medal winners, four silvers, and four "up and comers", available for $302.10, including GST.

      Starling Lane is the other Saanich-sited winery. More modest in scope and size, it's a venture of three families. This vintage they released nine wines, of which five are already sold out–happily, not the two to be tasted. Maréchal Foch is a variety that brooks no middle ground: you either love it or hate it. Put me in the former camp, as long as it's made well. Quails' Gate and Lang are the best producers of this curious hybrid in the Okanagan, but we can now add Starling Lane 2006 Maréchal Foch ($23.90) to the list. It's textbook stuff, with an intense, deep purple colour. There's also the classic Foch nose: dusty/dry fruit of unclassifiable flavours, sweet on the front of the palate, a hearty bite at the back, and, when the tannins are under control (as they are here) it can be a treat. It will reward anything hearty and wintry you throw at it, particularly stews, roasts, and slow-braised red-sauced dishes. But the price is a tad steep. They made only 266 cases, so it won't be easy to find; local restaurants stocking it include Aurora Bistro, Mistral French Bistro, O'Doul's Restaurant & Bar, Chill Winston, and Papi's Ristorante Italiano in Richmond.

      Those with a sweet tooth will relish the 2006 Wild Blackberry Dessert Wine ($22.90 per 375 millilitre bottle, 333 cases made). It's my new fave in this category since I can't find any more of Thetis Island Vineyards' Wild Blackberry Fruit Wine. Light, fresh, nicely acidic, it has grand aromas, gentle, delicate blackberry flavours, and it's not syrupy ice-cream topping, but a delicious after-dinner treat that stands on its own and should be drunk that way. Lovely stuff, and were it six or seven bucks cheaper, I might have sent out a dozen or two this Christmas. As it is, Grinch-like, I kept a couple of bottles just for myself.

      I can't tell you much about Robin Ridge, apart from the fact that the winery is headquartered in Keremeos and sources some of that sensational Similkameen fruit, which puts it squarely in the middle of B.C.'s currently most fascinating wine region. The venture of Tim and Caroline Cottrill, the winery is so new it only received its B.C. LDB control numbers a few months ago. Smart people, these Cottrills, for working closely with Lawrence Herder, one of the area's major players.

      Chardonnay and Pinot Noir came out the chute first; the Chardonnay is very good, but the Pinot is brilliant. The 2006 Chardonnay is finished under screw cap, costs $18.90, and shows an unusual Crenshaw melon aroma at first that culminates in a slightly nutty, dry-sherry aftertaste. The flavour profile also has some of that sweet grapefruit edge, so it's luscious and rich in the mouth. It's one of the more unusual B.C. Chardonnays you'll taste in this or any vintage.

      Finally, the 2006 Pinot Noir ($21.90) is rich and hale, fuller and fruitier than many out of the Okanagan, nestling right into what is becoming a definite Similkameen Pinot Noir style. It's surprisingly intense, with lots of small-cherry flavours, easy tannins, excellent acid, and an eternal hallelujah finish. Here's a sure hit, a remarkable red that takes its place instantly among the top B.C. Pinot Noirs. If they could only fix the fiendishly difficult screw cap so you wouldn't need a knife and pliers to get the bottle open, it'd be perfect.

      There's a six-pack for your new year's hunting; if local restaurants and wine shops come up dry, visit the wineries' Web sites.