CheckMate Artisanal Winery, a luxury brand in British Columbia, crafts gorgeous, super-premium Chardonnay and Merlot in the Okanagan Valley. Regular readers know that neither of those two grapes is our first choice of wine. But wow, CheckMate had us hooked from the minute we walked into their beautiful Oliver tasting room last month. Their wines can proudly stand side-by-side with any world-class Chardonnay and Merlot. Read on for details of the spectacular wines, the winery, winemaker Phil McGahan, and our excellent visit.
CheckMate Story: Luxury Brand
CheckMate Artisinal Winery owner Anthony von Mandl opened this prestige winery with a chess theme in 2013. But his dream started more than 40 years ago, when his pioneering family planted vines at what are now CheckMate’s vineyards. Von Mandi is also the owner of Mission Hill Winery, which took a surprise win at the International Wine & Spirit Competition in London for ‘Top Chardonnay in the World’ in 1994.
CheckMate crafts micro-block batches of single-vineyard Chardonnay and regional Merlot. Their motto is “New-world Chardonnay and Merlot with old-world elegance.” In 2018, Wine Spectator declared: “These are some of the best young wines coming out of Canada today.”
CheckMate: Our Visit
We stopped by CheckMate last month. Our knowledgeable and friendly host, Valerio Mariani, gave us a tour of the production facility and tasting room with floor-to-ceiling windows, and shared stories about the wines he poured for us. His passion for his job and for the grape shone with every sentence. In other words, he gave us a memorable experience.
We learned that Phil McGahan, an Australian lawyer turned winemaker in the Hunter Valley, worked at Williams Selyem winery in Sonoma before moving to CheckMate. He creates all their luxury Chardonnay and Merlot in the same manner to highlight the unique expression of terroir in different vineyards. They are bottled unfined and unfiltered “to maintain the most complete expression of the grape and the terroir.” Phil uses a fair amount of oak in his Chards, but he is careful not to over-oak them, making sure the oak is well integrated “so the fruit is always the star.”
CheckMate’s five Chardonnay vineyards are located on the Golden Mile Bench, Black Sage Bench and Osoyoos East Bench. Their five Merlot vineyards are located on Osoyoos East Bench, Black Sage Bench, Osoyoos West, Golden Mile Bench and Oliver North. These CheckMate sites, natural yeasts and artisanal winemaking result in a collection of remarkable Chardonnay and outstanding Merlot.
CheckMate Luxury Brand Wines
Canadian wine writer and sommelier John Schreiner awarded CheckMate Little Pond Chardonnay with 100 points for 2015 and 2016. Certainly, CheckMate is the first Canadian winery ever to earn perfect scores across two consecutive vintages. In Schreiner’s review of the 2015, he noted: “It takes a considerable investment to make wines like these, starting with practices in the vineyard and carrying through to the winemaking. It is impossible to find anything negative about this wine.” Moreover, CheckMate received international acclaim with more than 100 wine ratings scoring 90+ points.
Credit for all the photos in this article goes to our friend Chuck Kinzer, a professional photographer.
2014 Fool’s Mate Chardonnay
A blend of five unique vineyard sites, Fool’s Mate showcases five different climates. Phil uses 67% wild fermentation, aging the blend in 85% French oak (42% new) and 15% concrete egg for 16 months. As a result, this is a complex, intense wine, with elegance and texture. On the nose, aromas of peaches, melons, lemons and almonds entice. The palate features more peaches, apricots and baked bread, backed by fresh acidity, minerality and a slightly salty finish.
2019 Capture Chardonnay
The fruit for this wine is from the Border Vista Vineyard, situated next to the Canada-US border. The challenging climate and the sandy soil provide beautifully layered complexity. Aromatics of orchids, herbs, spices and stone fruit lead into flavors of apples, pears and more stone fruit. Capture Chard is richer and more concentrated than Fool’s Mate, but softer, with minerality, bright acidity and some creaminess.
2015 Queen’s Advantage Chardonnay
Phil sources grapes for Queen’s Advantage from the oldest Chardonnay vines in B.C., planted in deep, rocky soils. What a pretty nose of lemons, pears and tropical fruits, with hints of wet stones. The aromas echo on the palate, which is creamy and lush, while silky at the same time. Additional notes of butterscotch, butter cookies and barrel spices layer more flavors into this standout Chard.
2018 Black Rook Merlot
Elegant, lively and opulent, Black Rook is Valerio’s favorite Merlot, and we understand why. The sandy soils of the Black Sage Bench provide intense fruit and aniseed aromas and flavors. Scents of roses, licorice, blueberries, blackberries and espresso lead into more blue and black fruits and licorice, with cherries, strawberries, and undertones of savory sage, black tobacco, spices and chocolate. This Merlot is drinkable now but also has considerable aging potential.
2017 Opening Gambit Merlot
Simply put, Opening Gambit is stylish and charming. Aromas of plums and black fruit mirror the palate, with notes of chocolate, cassis, vanilla and spicy oak. Valerio poured our Merlot from a magnum, which he says ages more slowly. Therefore, the fruit is softer and more approachable, with more new world grace, and higher alcohol content. Plush and structured, cellar Opening Gambit and watch its flavors evolve.
2018 Silent Bishop Merlot
Valerio generously treated us to tastes of both the 2018 and 2019 Silent Bishop, which aren’t on the tasting menu. The harmonious 2018 sings, with savory red, black and blue fruits that follow aromas of black cherries, espresso, earth and hints of tobacco. The 2019 is young but so beautiful and impressive, we took a bottle home for our cellar. Aromas and flavors of blueberries, cherries, and herbs give way to subtle notes of mesquite and mocha.
Summary: CheckMate Luxury Brand Wines
In conclusion, CheckMate produces luxury brand wines that are perfect for special occasions. They will also enhance any holiday table. Most importantly, they have a place on the world stage of Chardonnay and Merlot.
Thank you, James Berti, CheckMate Guest Experience Manager, and also Wine BC, for helping us organize our tasting.
Margot and Dave