The making of a Celeb Wine: Tragically Hip White "Ahead by a Century"

Yesterday I drove out to Stoney Ridge Estate Winery in the Niagara region to talk to head winemaker Jeff Hundertmark about the recently released Tragically Hip Ahead by a Century 2014 VQA Chardonnay. Although sales have been strong since the early May launch, not surprisingly, sales of it -- and the band’s red blend, Fully Completely -- leapt after the news about frontman Gord Downie’s illness broke. Barry Katzman, the president and CEO of Stoney Ridge, was also on site and so before sitting down for a tasting with Hundertmark, I spent a few minutes chatting with Katzman about celeb wines in general. In addition to the Hip’s wine launches, Katzman's experience includes the launching of Mike Weir, Wayne Gretzky and Johnny Reid.

The wine serves as is an extension of the celebrity’s life that fans can engage in and interact with.

Part of the beauty of celebrity wines, he explained, is that they provide a connection between the fan and the superstar. “The wine serves as is an extension of the celebrity’s life that fans can engage in and interact with. And since wine is all about lifestyle and so too are music and sports, say, there is a natural fit and overlap.”

The connection, he added, is also very good for the industry. “The fame or notoriety of a celebrity often draws non-traditional consumers. A person who is a Hip fan but has never tried a wine from Niagara, may try Fully Completely or Ahead by a Century, like it, and then be turned on to other wines in the region.”

But other than lending their name, does the celeb play any real role in the process?

As far as the Hip goes, Katzman assured me that band members and their management team were deeply involved in everything from style and taste profile to price-point and label. “When they initially approached us we were thrilled. They made it clear, however, that it would be a partnership -- which it was and is. We’re very happy with that.”

Hundertmark concurred. “Just as they did with Fully Completely, the Hip came in knowing what they wanted. It had to be an oaked chardonnay, big and toasty and very Californian.”

This presented a challenge, he explained, because although the chardonnay variety grows equally well in both cool and hot weather regions, the grapes taste different. Cool weather climes produce leaner, more acidic grapes with citrus notes whereas those grown in hot climes are big, round, and lush with tropical fruits. So, how did he and his team satisfy the Hip’s demands?

Jeff Hundertmark, head winemaker at Stoney Ridge and Mike Weir wineries, sips a glass of Ahead by a Century.

Jeff Hundertmark, head winemaker at Stoney Ridge and Mike Weir wineries, sips a glass of Ahead by a Century.

The making of Ahead by a Century began in 2014 when 100% chardonnay grapes were hand-harvested from Wiens Family Farm in Niagara On The Lake, pressed and then fermented in oak with natural indigenous yeasts. The wine was then left on its lees for an additional six months.

“This produced a wonderful buttery character, bready, like baked brioche,” Hundertmark enthused.

The wine was then aged another 10 months in oak barrels producing its complex characteristics of toast, coconut, marshmallow and butterscotch.

Happily for Hundertmark and the Hip, chardonnay is a winemaker’s grape. “You can shape and sculpt it into the style you like which makes it different that any other variety.”

I asked Hundertmark if he could share a few tips for tasting Ahead by a Century. Of course, the subject of ambience didn't come up -- music-wise, that’s obvious.

Hundertmark’s Chardonnay Tasting Tips:

Temperature: “If you’re in the mood to drink it as a beverage instead of a beer or cocktail, say, refrigerator temperature is fine. But, if you’re having it with food, room temp or about 20 degrees C works.”

Style of Glass: “A bigger balloon glass with a wider opening so everything can come out and it’s not too concentrated. Again, back to the temperature thing. You don’t want it too cold because the cold keeps aromatic components trapped and you want them released.”

Decanting: “Open and decant 10 or 15 minutes before serving.”

Food pairing: “Smoked salmon … a mildly spicy dip … creamy cheese. You just don’t want something too acidic such as fresh fruits or the wine will taste flabby.”

Ahead by a Century 2014 VQA Chardonnay is available at Stoney Ridge Estate Winery ($19.95) and can be ordered online at stoneyridge.com