CheckMate: Anthony von Mandl’s Master Class in Terroir Curation

Checkmate Artisanal Winery: 4799 Wild Rose Street, Oliver, Okanagan Valley, BC

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Natasha Sadowy welcomes a thirsty @amustread to the exceptionally cool CheckMate pop-up

CheckMate doesn’t boast a high-end, architecturally inspiring winery – yet.

What it has, instead, is a chessboard of ten, site-specific, small-lot vineyards in the southern region of the Okanagan Valley that provide a fabulously distinct range of Chardonnay and Merlot fruit. If you are a terroir geek, and love to tease out the nuance and layers of site expression – east vs west, clay vs sand, volcanic vs alluvial fans – CheckMate is your best play.

For those who are counting, CheckMate is Anthony von Mandl’s fourth winery in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. With his ‘triple threat’ in the more northerly Kelowna region, CheckMate is his ‘south valley’ success story and some would argue, his most calculated move yet.

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Spring 2018: CheckMate’s Window on the south Okanagan Valley, Oliver

Located on the western side of the Okanagan Valley on the Golden Mile Bench sub-appellation, CheckMate is nestled into the Mt. Kobau hillside, at 400 metres. On a clear day – as it was the day we visited – you can see south to Washington State and east to the Columbia Mountains. But for the rattlesnakes and Black Widows (full disclosure) that call this stretch of the valley home, this is wine nirvana.

Here at CheckMate, von Mandl is laser-focused on what grows best in the region, which coincidently, happens to be the 21st century’s most maligned grapes. Utterly undaunted, in that sentient, chess-like, I’m-six moves-ahead-of-you kinda way, von Mandl and his team are confident their cool climate vineyards in the south Okanagan Valley will be part of the Chardonnay and Merlot redemption story. The long hours of sunlight and arid heat in the south valley, combine to inspire perfect phenolic and sugar ripeness, and consistently elegant, palate-rewarding levels of acidity. Then layer on each vineyard’s terroir, and you have a fascinating tactical exploratory of that elusive variable – site expression.

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CheckMate Chardonnay line-up. Photo Credit: CheckMate Artisanal Winery
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CheckMate Merlot. Photo Credit: CheckMate Artisanal Winery

Checkmate’s first release featured the 2013 vintage. The portfolio includes 5 x Chardonnay: Knight’s Challenge, Capture, Queen Taken, Little Pawn, Fool’s Mate and Attack – and 4 x Merlot – End Game, Silent Bishop, Black Rook and Opening Gambit. Of course, all are brilliantly branded to reflect the metaphorical similarities between grape growing, winemaking and chess.

von Mandl credits John Simes, his former Mission Hill winemaker and now VMF Estate’s Viticulturist Emeritus, with identifying CheckMate’s premium collection of vineyards. Purchased in 2010, VMF Estates formally set up shop in the former Antelope Ridge Winery in 2012. Von Mandl secured two adjacent vineyards as part of that transaction: Domaine Combret Estate Winery (which changed to Antelope Ridge) and Dekleva Vineyards – the latter, the source of the “heritage” clone that earned von Mandl the best Chardonnay in the world award in 1994 (1992 Mission Hill Grand Reserve Chardonnay).

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Anthony von Mandl and CheckMate winemaker Phil McGahan. Photo Credit: bcbusiness.ca

CheckMate’s first 2013 vintage was with talented winemaker and new recruit, Phil McGahan. An Australian lawyer-turned-winemaker, with experience in the Hunter Valley and Williams Selyem in Sonoma, McGahan relished the opportunity to work in a true cool climate region with this exquisite matrix of terroir and mesoclimates.

VMF Estate vineyards include:

Domaine Combret – planted in 1973, the oldest plantings of Chardonnay in BC…maybe Canada, on the cooler, western side of the valley on the Golden Mile Bench sub-appellation

Osoyoos West Vineyard – Merlot loving, well drained sandy soils, just west of Osoyoos

Border Vista – sandy, glacial soils on the warmer, east side of the valley, offering abundant sun exposure from afternoon and evening sun

The Barn Vineyard – porous soils in the Black Sage Bench, east-valley vineyards that hug the Washington border, producing low yielding, grape clusters with deep concentration (Chardonnay and Merlot blocks)

Oliver North – south of the McIntyre Bluff – the “south valley” demarcation point – Merlot vines thrive in the cooler shadows of the volcanic rich, eastern mountains, offering savoury, full bodied wines.

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CheckMate 2016 launch in New York City. Photo Credit: Perspective Branding

As true believers of the saying – great wine is made in the vineyard – the von Mandl team strategy is clearly bearing fruit. CheckMate is slowly racking up the wins:

  • Wine Spectator scores of 90+ points for eight of CheckMate’s wines, including the 2014 Chardonnays and 2013 Merlots
  • First place at The Judgment of BC for the 2013 Black Rook Merlot – a competition that pitted 12 BC wines against 12 global benchmark wines and judged by 24 judges including international Masters of Wine, wine writers, and local BC judges
  • a top three showing at Mavericks of Merlot, a BC tasting where the CheckMate Merlot outperformed France’s Pomerol star – Petrus and Italy’s Super Tuscan darling Masseto
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Lovin’ the brand design! Photo Credit: Perspective Branding

In addition to the painstaking curation of selected parcels, blocks and rows, CheckMate is a ‘design-thinking’ case study. The broad-shouldered black bottles take a page from old-style rum bottles and early stage Bordeaux. The chess design and monochromatic art treatment is integrated into every layer of packaging. The pop-up winery, a 3-sided, glass-encased tasting room “container” designed by von Mandl’s go-to architect – Tom Kundig – provides a spectacular window on the valley.

At ~$85 a bottle, VMF Estates is targeting a better-educated wine audience, who appreciate freshness, nuance and are keen to be part of the resurrection. Looking ahead – as chess players must – they are CheckMate’s future; the next generation who von Mandl hopes, will embrace his “next world” wines.

Checkmate wines are available in fine dining restaurants and through CheckMate’s wine club. If you’re planning to visit the winery, it’s recommended you call ahead.

Queen TakenTasting Highlights

 2013 CheckMate Queen Taken Chardonnay – 14.1% ABV – $125

Queen Taken is from the 40+ year old Dekleva vineyard on the cooler, western side of the valley. Aromatics on this wine are beautiful – floral, tropical, citrus peel with classic mineral smells of wet stone. The palate has bountiful fruit– apple, bosc pear, white peach – with a perfect balance of bright acidity and ripeness. This is Okanagan elegance at its best.

2013 CheckMate Little Pawn Chardonnay – 14.3% ABV – $110

 Little Pawn comes from across the valley on the warmer Barnyard Vineyard on the Black Sage Bench.

On the nose it is floral and spice – truly, everything nice. The warm site and low vigour soils provide rounder, concentrated fruit flavours and wonderful rose and lemon zest aromatics. This wine has tremendous mouth feel; it’s elegant with creamy layered tropical fruit notes and a fresh, bright, spicy brioche finish.

2013 CheckMate End Game Merlot – 14.5% ABV – $85

This wine comes from the warmer, sun-kissed side of the valley and offers a rich nose of ripe red fruit and aromatic spice. The palate offers bright fruit – sweet ripe plumb, black cherry – with savoury notes on the finish, gentle, fine-grained tannins and tremendous length.

2013 CheckMate Silent Bishop Merlot – 14% ABV – $85

Silent Bishop showcases the cooler side of the valley with fruit sourced from three different Western Benches (Oliver North, Golden Mile and Osoyoos West).

A beautifully floral and red fruit nose. Lots of full-bodied, red fruit flavour with a fresh elegant style, soft tannins, and a distinct rosemary thread on the finish.

Transparency: Von Mandl Family Estates covered the cost of the tastings at the VMF Estate wineries.

Feature image photo credit: CheckMate twitter

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