“Winemaking is like the game of chess; it requires the winemaker to think many steps ahead, anticipating the impact each move will have at a later point in time.” – Philip McGahan
Just as a chess grandmaster has a game plan, a winemaker heads into each growing season with a clear vision, a plan for contingencies, and must stay true to his resolve. When that resolve is to craft world-class wines and it is ultimately achieved, you’ve truly mastered your craft. Such is the case when speaking of Philip McGahan, winemaker for CheckMate Artisanal Winery in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley.
Australian born, Philip took up the challenge at CheckMate – a winery that uses the word artisanal in its name! – setting out to make sophisticated chardonnays and merlots by meticulously focusing on family-owned and farmed estate vineyards. He’s an expert at letting nature take its course, utilizing wild yeast ferments with no fining or filtration, to allow for the full potential of flavour expression.
The extremely small lots of chardonnay and merlot used to make CheckMate’s wines display impeccable character, integrity and quality, and are the culmination of more than three decades of sustainable farming and pushing the boundaries of winemaking in the Okanagan. Quite matter-of-factly, CheckMate crafts some of the very best chardonnay and merlot outside of France. A bold statement to be certain, but it has its fair share of backers.
CheckMate’s wines have earned more than one hundred 90+ point scores from critics around the world. And then there’s the perfect score of 100 points awarded for its 2015 ‘Little Pawn’ chardonnay – the first time a Canadian table wine has ever achieved perfection. But to prove that it was no fluke, that perfect score was repeated for the 2016 vintage – an unprecedented accomplishment.
“Twenty years ago, it would not have been possible to make a wine of this calibre in the Okanagan.”
The 100-point score was awarded by John Schreiner, wine writer, sommelier and author of over 15 books on the subject of Canadian wine. In his review of the 2015 Little Pawn chardonnay he noted: “It takes a considerable investment to make wines like these, starting with practises in the vineyard and carrying through to the winemaking. It is impossible to find anything negative about this wine.”
There’s actually an interesting twist to this story, perhaps even a premonition. In 1994, the Okanagan was first placed on the world wine map with a surprise win by Mission Hill Family Estate for ‘Top Chardonnay in the World’ at the International Wine & Spirits Competition in London. The grapes for this award-winning wine were grown in the same vineyard used today for CheckMate. This site is home to possibly the oldest vines in Canada, dating back some 45 years, including a mysterious chardonnay clone of unknown origin that formed the backbone of the 1994 ‘Best Chardonnay in the World’ Trophy winner in London and this 100-point Little Pawn chardonnay.
Dr. Gregory Jones, PhD1, one of the world’s most preeminent experts on climate and viticulture was quoted as saying: “Twenty years ago, it would not have been possible to make a wine of this calibre in the Okanagan. The world’s wine map is changing. This is largely the result of changes in climate that have shifted wine styles in some regions. For the Okanagan Valley, climate change has transformed it into a magical place to grow and ripen fruit and produce world-class wines including chardonnay and merlot.”
CheckMate was established after owner Anthony von Mandl purchased an exceptional chardonnay vineyard on the Golden Mile in 2012. Evidently, the winery has become one of the crown jewels in von Mandl’s portfolio of Okanagan wineries (others include Mission Hill Family Estate, Martin’s Lane Winery, CedarCreek Estate and Road 13 Vineyards.)
For Philip McGahan, who’s as genuine and laid back as they come, quietly perfecting his craft, he remains humble about the attention the wines have received. “The most rewarding aspect of being a winemaker is seeing the joy the wine brings to people and the reactions when people taste our wines for the first time,” he says. “As a winemaker, I think you aspire to creating a body of work over an extended period of time. My shorter term goal is to draw more and more people’s attention to CheckMate; that they’ll have the opportunity to try our wines.”
After just seven vintages in the Okanagan, Philip has mastered the grapes and the terroir as though he has been here his entire life. He was trained in Australia and, before he was recruited to CheckMate, he worked for several years in the Sonoma Valley in California. Philip was intrigued by the Okanagan’s unique climatic band for winemaking to craft ‘new world’ chardonnay with ‘old world elegance’.
When I asked Philip if there’s a specific art or playbook to maturing a wine and knowing when exactly it should be ready to bottle, he responded by saying that “you need to have a philosophy that you are following, an insight into what the wine gives you and the ability to project where the wine will be in one, two and five years from what you are tasting in the glass now. This allows you to determine when you should bottle it.”
“You have to be prepared to change all the time, to keep in touch with what Mother Nature gives you. No two seasons are the same.”
With the 2020 harvest well on its way, Philip emphasizes that it is in fact this time of year that not only challenges him, but excites him the most. “You have to follow the season, be in cadence with it and follow through on your convictions of what the year brings,” he says. “It can be difficult to keep on top of the growing season, how the grapes are developing and making the correct picking call to make the wines that you feel the vineyard is telling you to make. You have to be prepared to change all the time, to keep in touch with what Mother Nature gives you. No two seasons are the same, so you change constantly.”
In my efforts to explore these stories on artisan winemakers, I’m quickly learning that there is no singular definition to the term artisan – when it comes to winemaking at least – or how an artisan is expected to make his or her wines. But what we do know is that excellent wine comes by way of detailed and passionate work, driven by the producer’s interpretation of what is ‘best’ from their vineyards.
In Philip’s own words, “an artisan winemaker is someone who focuses on detailed work in the vineyard, uses time honoured techniques, does not do anything to hasten maturation of the wines, and bottles unfined and unfiltered. This creates wines that are flavourful, textured and unadulterated.”
And so, what originally began as an outrageous dream, born out of a bold vision, has achieved the unthinkable. Whereby harnessing the effects of climate change it is now possible to produce $100+ elegant wines in a very unexpected place, British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley.
CheckMate’s current chardonnay and merlot vintages and library wines are available to order via the winery’s website at www.checkmatewinery.com. Below are my tasting notes of what I was given to taste through:I had the chance to sample a selection of CheckMate’s portfolio, including some older vintages that are still available to purchase at the winery. Visitors have a rare opportunity to taste these wines at The Installation, an innovative ‘pop up’ tasting room designed by Seattle-based architect Tom Kundig. A brand new contemporary winemaking facility is soon opening, complete with tasting room and members’ lounge that will completely transform the winery into a work of art on its own.
CheckMate 2015 ‘Fool’s Mate’ Chardonnay
This chardonnay is testament that multi-vineyard expressions can be just as prestigious as single vineyard offerings. In fact, five very distinct vineyard sites make up this final blend, and it’s quite wonderful. The palate boasts an array of complex flavours, including peach, apricot, melon, butterscotch and almond butter. It’s got a salty minerality to it – something I absolutely love in chardonnay – and it’s backed by fresh and vibrant acidity. Some spice lingers on the finish. This is a great entry point to the portfolio – if it’s even fair to refer to it as such. I’ve been no less than captivated by this wine all three times that I have enjoyed the pleasure of tasting it. ($80)
CheckMate 2015 ‘Attack’ Chardonnay
Another multi-vineyard blend – this one comprised of four sites. Beneath the hovering aromas of wet stone and flint await rich and enticing notes of tropical fruit and spice. The palate is zesty, rich and minerally. The long and exceptional finish displays notes of ginger, spice and citrus rind. It’s layered, complex and collectible. Still young, it will remain quite generous in years to come. It’s a very special wine that deserves attention and an occasion worthy of it. ($115)
CheckMate 2014 ‘Little Pawn’ Chardonnay
This was the release before the 100-point 2015 vintage – which was subsequently backed up with 100 points again for the 2016 vintage. This single vineyard, limited quantity stroke of elegance from the Black Sage Bench quite assuredly takes the crown among the Checkmate portfolio. Cool evenings in the southern Okanagan preserve natural fruit acids, providing freshness and balance to this savoury finished product. When you pour this truly remarkable artisanal wine, you’ll be captivated by its floral nose, cinnamon spice and lemon zest. The beautiful oak integration gives off a subtle richness with substantial length. I’ve tasted this wine three times now (twice tasted in 2018, then again in 2020) and I can say with confidence that I have not once overrated it. It’s glorious and expressive, and it’s been a real treat to be able to re-visit it. Outstanding. ($110)
CheckMate 2014 ‘Black Rook’ Merlot
The sandy soils of the Black Sage Bench provide intense fruit and flavours from sites tucked into the foothills of the Okanagan. This expertly – and dare I say – “artisan” crafted merlot displays a lifted nose of roses and brambled fruit. The palate is rich with dark fruits, cassis and savoury tannins that coat the tongue. A worthy expression. ($85)
CheckMate 2015 ‘End Game’ Merlot
A complex, firm and richly structured merlot here. A variety of baking spices are expertly integrated among the wondrous flavours of vanilla, licorice and dark fruit that really stand out – both on the nose and the palate. The acidity is well-balanced and provides solid backbone to this wine’s core strength. Nice and firm, it will age for years to come and will undoubtedly reward patience with great dividends. Impressive. ($85)
CheckMate 2014 ‘Opening Gambit’ Merlot
This is the one. This is the wine that truly sets CheckMate apart as a world-class producer… of merlot. (We already know their pedigree for chardonnay.) It’s dark and rich, with floral and black fruit aromas. Supple, spicy, and firmly textured, with hints of chocolate that accompany a mouthful of black currant fruit. It’s got length for days – you’d think that you just finished a bowl of beautifully ripened cherries. This wine can age for a decade and a half, if not longer, and is sure to be a crown jewel in your cellar. Yes, Canada makes single varietal wine this good. ($85)