How climate change is helping one Okanagan vintner create the perfect Chardonnay

BUILDING NAPA NORTH | Anthony von Mandl, founder and owner of von Mandl Family Estates, and winemaker Philip McGahan

With CheckMate Artisanal Winery, Anthony von Mandl is betting that climate change will help make the Okanagan–and his vineyards–the best in the world

You don’t come across a lot of feel-good business stories about climate change. Global warming is more typically reported as a cost. A 2013 report from the nonprofit Center for Climate and Energy Solutions in Virginia put the real cost to businesses globally of the previous year’s abnormal weather at US$130 billion.

A winery seems an unlikely bet to buck this trend. But the new CheckMate Artisanal Winery in the Okanagan Valley may be doing just that. The latest venture of Anthony von Mandl, founder and owner of von Mandl Family Estates (which also owns the vineyards Mission Hill, CedarCreek and Martin’s Lane), CheckMate is the result of von Mandl observing in recent years that climate change had begun to negatively affect some  varietals in certain well-known wine regions.

“The grapevine is the canary in the coal mine of agriculture,” he says, sitting in his office at VMF Estates’ headquarters in Vancouver. Increased heat at the farming stage can throw off the whole winemaking project. Many Napa Chardonnays have been affected, showing higher alcohol content, lower acidity and greater concentration—what critics refer to as “flabby” wine. “Napa can no longer really produce a Chardonnay with the elegance of a Meursault,” says the 66-year-old von Mandl.

Bad for Napa. But it might be an opportunity for regions that are rising into the ideal Chardonnay temperature range. Places like the Golden Mile Bench south of Oliver, which CheckMate calls home.

Von Mandl is the ideal Chardonnay vintner to capitalize on this shift, with various mature Chardonnay vineyards. He won “Best Chardonnay in the World” at the International Wine and Spirit Competition in the United Kingdom in 1994, as well as the only North American gold medal from the 2001 Chardonnay du Monde competition in France.

But von Mandl says he is going further. The money-no-object winery was a “skunkworks project” for four years, during which time winemaker Philip McGahan matched microclimates and winemaking techniques across a range of VMF properties, all under secrecy. Grapes were sorted, wild fermented and stirred. Without interventions such as fining and filtering, the wine was decanted into specially designed bottles. The result is five Chardonnays priced between $100 and $125.

Von Mandl clearly aims to make an international mark, showcasing the Okanagan Valley in an unprecedented way. The five wines
are available only by subscription. They were launched in December at the Michelin-starred Vaucluse restaurant in New York—perhaps the first Canadian wine ever launched out of the country.

And if all that isn’t exclusive enough, consider that the very first bottle, a jeroboam of a Chardonnay called Methuselah, was carried to London personally by von Mandl for delivery to the Royal Family. It is now resting in the wine vault at Buckingham Palace.


*Sources: Canadian Vintners Association; Wine Institute of California