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It's Canada's most famous wine—but is it worth $185?
I don’t think I get asked about any one single bottle of wine more than I get asked about Mission Hill’s flagship wine, Oculus. Have I tried it? What’s it taste like? Is is worth the money?
You can argue that Black Hills Note Bene was the Okanagan’s first “cult” wine when it launched in 1999, but the reality is that Oculus has sat atop the price/prestige pyramid for most of the Okanagan’s recent history. And given that we’re Canadians, there are few things we like to do more than take shots at anything we perceive as striving about its station. So when people ask me about Oculus, half the time I think they want me to put the boots to it and put it and its ambition in its place.
But the reality is that in most vintages, it’s not only an excellent wine, but a woefully misunderstood one. I’ve been lucky enough to taste most vintages of Oculus over the past decade, and I’m pretty comfortable saying that no other Okanagan Bordeaux blend is as consistently well made (Laughing Stock’s Portfolio would be a solid runner-up here, and to be fair, it’s less than half the price). It ages very well, but in most vintages it can be enjoyed relatively young with some advance decanting. But of all of that should be expected when you’re paying this much for a bottle of wine.
For starters we’re always dealing with a Merlot dominant blend (the 2019 is 52% Merlot, with 30% Cabernet Franc, 17% Cabernet Sauvignon and 1% Petit Verdot). But for anyone who thinks that means an overly lush, soft wine, you don’t know Okanagan Merlot. Our Merlot is badass Merlot – muscular, tannic, big shouldered. So much so that Mission Hill’s chief winemaker Corrie Krehbiel’s major concern when making this wine is “taming” the Merlot into a state where its tannins don’t overwhelm the blend.
The one thing I find with first-time Oculus’ers (I’m trademarking that phrase) is that the wine isn’t as big or as rich as they expect, and that’s very much the case with the 2019. If you we’re looking for a flagship wine that has a spiritual connection, it wouldn’t be the big, fleshy Cabernets of the Napa Valley but of the more dialed-back offerings from Boardeaux’s Right Bank, where less badass Merlot also dominates the blend. The use of oak is far more restrained that it is in most of the other flagship Bordeaux blends in the Okanagan.
On the nose the 2019 has a very elegant, somewhat restrained of take on wild flowers and violets. It’s delicate more than bold. On the palate blackberries, maybe wild blueberries overlayed with a herbaceous character that brings the complexity and some cedar box notes as well, with just a hint of some tobacco. The entire package is corseted in some pretty serious tannins—they’re not mouth puckeringly dry, but they are definitely there giving a serious sense of purpose and structure (and great hopes for ageability).
Well this is the $185 question. I confess that I’ve never shelled out $185 for Oculus, nor $130 when it used to be that price. But full disclosure, I don’t recall ever spending over $100 on any Canadian wine, and it’s not a price point I regularly visit for any wine, from any country (I’m cheap). But if that’s a price tranche you do trade in and if you’ve long been interested in the wine, I can say it’s real deal. I can also say that I’ve long had a hunch that Mission Hill proprietor Anthony von Mandl loses money (or breaks even) on his flagship wines (and that includes the Pinots and Rieslings from Martins Lane, which I have shelled out for) so if you don’t want to be fleeced, I’m comfortable that no ones getting rich (or richer) off of Oculus.
There are some caveats though. If you’re a fan of big Cabs from Napa (like Caymus) or Paso Robles (like Austin Hope)—both wonderful wines btw—I’m not sure this will be the wine you’re looking for. Aussie Shiraz? No way.
But if you favour Bordeaux and even better, modern Bordeaux that dials back the ripeness, then I think this is a potentially excellent wine for you and would be a killer to sneak into a high-end blind tasting. Likewise if you like Tignanello, I think you’ll appreciate some of the well-defined acidity that’s in play here. And if you’re just plain rich and want to impress peeps and buy local? Well, that’s a no brainer.
Note: The 2019 has just been released to Mission Hill wine club members. If there is any leftover (and they usually hold back some) it’ll be available to the public in the new year.
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