Sunday, July 14, 2019

Upper Bench Altitude and other big reds

Photo: Gavin and Shana Miller

The current releases from Upper Bench Estate Winery include a new red blend called Altitude.

Perhaps that is an allusion to the elevation of Upper Bench’s estate vineyard at the eastern edge of Penticton.  Or perhaps a hint of where winemaker Gavin Miller believes the wine fits in his portfolio.

If that is his meaning, the wine does not disappoint. Gavin has established a house style with his reds: the wines are generous and full-bodied, usually the result of limited the crop load to achieve intense flavours. He also gives the wines adequate barrel-aging to polish the tannins and the texture.

Small yields and expensive barrels force Upper Bench to price many of its wines aggressively to get a return on the investment. However, the value is there. The wines will not let you down if you open them for a special occasion.  These are not wines for Tuesday night.

I have dipped into the Upper Bench web site for a bit of background on the winery and its proprietors:

Gavin Miller came to Canada in 1997 and was inspired by the burgeoning wine industry in the Okanagan. He then embarked on a 12-year career journey starting in vineyards, then into the cellar, working for most of the established wineries in and around Penticton and the Naramata Bench, notably making award-winning wines for the likes of Poplar Grove (2004-2008) and Painted Rock (2007-2010).

Shana Miller (The Big Cheese) began her love affair with cheese in 2002, when she was taught the art of cheesemaking by the original cheesemaker at Poplar Grove, Sandra Chalmers. For the next three years, as the head cheesemaker until 2006, Shana truly developed her passion for the pure, timeless art of cheesemaking.

Gavin and Shana had long dreamed of combining their passions and in early 2011 that dream became a reality when they found the perfect property and partners, the Nystroms. The couple’s relationship with Wayne and Margareta Nystrom dates back to 2005. Having lived next door to Poplar Grove Winery, the Nystroms quickly fell in love with Gavin’s first class wines and Shana’s gorgeous cheeses.

The Nystroms always had a deep admiration of the passion the Millers displayed in what they made, so, when Gavin ran into Wayne at the local Safeway and pitched his idea, it was a fairly easy decision for the Nystroms to make. Wayne and Margareta have a blended family with nine children, one of them, Tessa Sjöblom, initially started by helping with some of the design concepts before the company had been aptly christened Upper Bench. With her degree in Bachelors of Business Administration (BBA), Tessa quickly fell into a marketing, advertising and communications role.

Here are notes on the current releases.

Upper Bench Riesling 2018 ($23.10 for 575 cases). The wine begins with aromas of lime and gooseberry. It delivers zesty flavours of lemon and lime with a spine of minerality. The finish is crisp and dry. 90.

Upper Bench Pinot Blanc 2018 ($20.80 for 525 cases). There is four per cent Muscat blended into this wine. The wine begins with aromas of apple and a hint of spice. On the palate, the wine delivers flavours of apple, citrus and melon. The spine of minerals supports a crisp, dry finish. 90.

Upper Bench Yard Wine 2016 ($34.60 for 334 cases). This is 60% Merlot, 28% Cabernet Franc and 12% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged 18 months in French oak (30% new). The wine begins with aromas of cherry mingled with cigar box and vanilla. It delivers flavours of black currant, cedar and chocolate. The firm tannins suggest the bottle should be cellared a few more years. 91.

The winery explains the name thus: “This is a great wine with a great story. Yard Wine is a tribute to a wine that Gavin lovingly made for years, from the tiny vineyard at their old home in Naramata. It is a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, picked on October 31st and November 4th and co-fermented, exactly the same way he always made it.” He slipped some Cabernet Sauvignon into this vintage which like accounts for the firm tannins.

Upper Bench Merlot 2015 ($32.30 for 584 cases). The wine was aged 18 months in French oak (30% new). The begins with aromas of cherry and plum mingled with vanilla. The palate is generous, with flavours of plum, cherry, cassis with a hint of raspberry and cedar on the finish. 91.

Upper Bench Estate Merlot 2015 ($41.50 for 136 cases). This wine, which has five percent Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend, was aged 21 months in French oak (33% new). The wine begins with rich aromas of dark fruits (cherry, plum) mingled with cinnamon and cassis. The palate fulfils the promise of the nose: it is a full-bodied with ripe tannins and flavours of plum, fig and chocolate. The finish is persistent. 93.

Upper Bench Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($46.10 for 162 cases). This wine, which has 5% Merlot in the blend, was aged 21 months in French oak (30% new). The wine begins with aromas of black currants and blueberries mingled with dark chocolate and vanilla. On the palate, there are flavours of dark cherry, cassis, blueberry jam, plum and chocolate. Polished tannins give this wine a svelte, elegant texture and a long finish with a lingering note of spice.  94.

Upper Bench Altitude 2015 ($46.10 for 208 cases). This wine is 75% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon. It was aged 20 months in French oak (30% new). It begins with aromas of plum and black cherry mingled with vanilla. On the rich palate, the wine delivers flavours of cassis, plum, fig and chocolate. The long, ripe tannins give this wine an almost juicy texture. There are savoury notes on the finish. A sophisticated blend. 93.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Arterra Wines buys Culmina from the Triggs family

Photo: Elaine and Donald Triggs

In the words of that great people’s philosopher, Yogi Berra, it is Déjà Vu all over again for Donald and Elaine Triggs.

Culmina Family Estate Winery, founded in 2007 by the Triggs Family, has been acquired by Arterra Wines Canada, the successor to Vincor International – which Donald established in the early 1990s.

Vincor had become the 14th largest wine company in the world by 2006 when it was taken over by Constellation Brands, then the world’s largest wine company. In 2016, Constellation spun off its Canadian wineries and related businesses to the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund. The Canadian assets were renamed Arterra Canada Wines.

This is Arterra’s second acquisition of an Okanagan winery. It bought Laughing Stock Vineyards in 2017.  Arterra’s Okanagan portfolio also includes Jackson Triggs Vintners, Inniskillin Okanagan, Sumac Ridge Estate Winery, Black Sage Vineyards, SunRock Vineyards, See Ya Later Ranch and 50% of Nk’Mip Cellars.

Arterra also owns or controls about 1,000 acres of vineyards, most of it in the South Okanagan.

In 2007, the year after Constellation swallowed Vincor, Don and Elaine bought property on what is now the Golden Mile sub-appellation to develop a major vineyard for the winery they opened in 2013.

“Retirement to me is a nasty word because it implies stopping,” Donald told me at the time.  “I don’t think life is about stopping. It is about continuing and doing what you love.”  

Clearly, he has had a change of heart. The Arterra announcement says: “Don and Elaine are planning for retirement, but will be supporting the transition over the next several months. Sara [their daughter] will be joining Arterra as sales and marketing director in continued support of the vision, strategy and planning for Culmina.”

Donald, who was born in Manitoba in 1944, has had a long and distinguished career in the Canadian wine business. After getting degrees in agriculture and business administration, Donald spent several years in marketing with Colgate-Palmolive before joining the winery arm of John Labatt Ltd. in 1972. Four years later, he was sent to turn around Labatt’s money-losing winery in California.

His performance there caught the eye of headhunters. In 1982, he was recruited to run the Vancouver-based North American operations of Fisons PLC, a British fertilizer company. While Elaine was becoming a chartered accountant, Donald was promoted to Fisons head office in Britain, where he ran a division.

At heart, Donald is an entrepreneur who enjoys building companies.  “I’ve always had this yearning to be in my own business,” he said. “And I really had a twinge in my bones for the wine business.”

In 1989, when Labatt decided to sell its the wine business to the managers, Donald came back from Britain to lead the team that turned it into a thriving wine business. It soon took over T.G. Bright and Co, a wine company started in 1874. Thus, Arterra dates its founding as 1874.

In 1994, Donald and former partner Alan Jackson gave their surnames to Jackson-Triggs when that became the new name for Brights and other winery assets in 1994. In turn, that was the vehicle that was transformed into Vincor.

When Donald and Elaine decided to get back into the wine business in 2007, they looked in detail at five Okanagan sites, in some cases taking soil and temperature readings, before buying 44 acres in 2007 from Olivier Combret and his family, then the owners of Antelope Ridge Estate Winery.

There is a delightful sentimental streak in how Donald and Elaine named their vineyard blocks. The former Combret property is called Arise Vineyard. One of Donald’s ancestors several generations ago was a purser in the first British garrison in the Barbados who settled on a 10-acre farm that he called Arise.  

In 2009, while Arise was being planted, Donald and Elaine bought another 60 acres on two hillside benches above Arise. Here, two new vineyards were planted. The lower of these two is called Stan’s Bench, named for Elaine’s father. The upper bench, a cool northeast slope that rises to 595 meters, is called Margaret’s Bench, for Donald’s mother.

By acquiring Culmina, Arterra adds a solid selection of premium wines to its portfolio, including Riesling, Chardonnay, Bordeaux varietals and blends and an exceptional white called Unicus, made from the first planting of Grüner Veltliner in British Columbia.

Harper's Trail adds bubble to an excellent portfolio

Photo: Vicki and Ed Collett

Harper’s Trail Estate Winery bills itself as “Kamloops’ First Winery”.

On occasion, there has been some contention around that because Doug Wood planted the vineyard for nearby Sagewood Winery in 2005, three years earlier than Harper’s Trail. However, Sagewood opened in 2014, two years later than Harper’s Trail, now a much larger producer.

What makes this vineyard special is same thing that has enabled Lafarge to operate a cement plant nearby since 1970: the underlying limestone in the area, which is quarried for cement but also benefits grape growing. Ed Collett, who owns Harper’s Trail with his wife, Vicki, points to the cliff above the south-sloping vineyards. “That whole side hill is lime rock,” he says.

This property on the north side of the Thompson River is about 16 kilometres (10 miles) east of Kamloops. Formerly, it grew hay and grazed cattle in what is quintessential British Columbia range country. The winery is named for Thaddeus Harper, the 19th-century American-born rancher who once owned the vast 15,569-hectare (38,472-acre) Gang Ranch, one of the first farms to use sturdy gang ploughs. Ed bought his modest slice of ranch country in 2007 after he had conceived the idea of developing a winery. He developed a taste for wine during travels to Chile on business for the mining equipment company he established in 1987.

The desire for a winery emerged during Okanagan wine tours. Ed remembers relaxing at a bed and breakfast overlooking a vineyard and remarking: “I’ve got to get myself one of these.” He began planting vines in 2008. He currently has 10.7 hectares (26.5 acres) of vines and has plans for more in stages as he determines what varieties will succeed. “You have to take baby steps,” Ed notes. “We are further north [than most vineyards] but obviously, it is not a deterrent for us.” The cold winters led to the removal of Merlot while a 2008 planting of Cabernet Franc succeeded so well that more was planted in 2012 and 2018, followed with 2.4 hectares (six acres) of Pinot Noir and Gamay in 2013. Riesling, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay also are succeeding. Bacchus may also be planted. Wind machines combat early autumn frost. Ginseng shade-cloth on the vineyard’s borders breaks the valley’s constant winds. Propane cannons deter the birds.  

The first several vintages, which included three different Rieslings, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, a white blend, a rosé and a Cabernet Franc, were made for Harper’s Trail at Okanagan Crush Pad in Summerland.  A tasting room opened at the vineyard in the summer of 2013. The temporary winemaking facility used for that vintage is being replaced in 2014 by a new winery. There is a picnic patio but plans for a restaurant remain on hold because, in 2019, the Colletts began entertaining purchase offers for their successful winery.
Here are notes on the wines.

Harper’s Trail Field Blend White 2018 ($13.99 for 948 cases). This is a blend of 43.1% Pinot Gris, 29.2% Chardonnay, 24.2% Riesling and 3.4% Gewürztraminer. The wine begins with aromas of peach and pear. The palate is a medley of tropical fruit flavours. The residual sweetness is balanced with bright acidity, allowing the wine to finish crisply. There is a hint of spice on the finish. 88.   

Harper’s Trail Pinot Gris 2018 ($16.99 for 479 cases). The wine begins with aromas of pear, melon, citrus and apple. On the palate, the wine is crisp, with a spine of minerality. It has flavours of pear and apple. The finish is dry. 90.

Harper’s Trail Pioneer Block Riesling 2018 ($18.29 for 429 cases). The wine begins with aromas of lemon, lime and green apple which are echoed on the palate. The flavours are fresh and zesty, reflecting the bracing acidity (10 grams) that balances the residual sugar (16.7 grams). The wine will age very well; in fact, it should be cellared for another year or two to reveal everything that is going on in the bottle. 91.

Harper’s Trail Silver Mane Block Riesling ($18.29 for 828 cases). The wine begins with aromas of lemon, lime and pineapple. The palate reveals layers of tropical fruit flavours framed by bright but balanced acidity (10 grams of acid and almost 20 grams of residual sugar). The mineral notes of the terroir define the finish. This is an even better candidate for aging than its mate. 92.

Harper’s Trail Rosé 2018 ($16.99 for 1,020 cases). This is 97% Pinot Gris and 3% Cabernet Franc. The hue is fashionably pale., The wine has aromas and flavours of strawberry. The finish is crisp and dry. It is amazing how the splash of Cabernet Franc defines this refreshing wine. 90.

Harper’s Trail Sparkling Chardonnay 2016 ($26 for 240 cases). This is a traditional method sparkling wine. In the glass, there is a lively display of bubbles. The wine has aromas of citrus and apple mingled with a delicate note of brioche and almond. Creamy on the palate, the wine has flavours of citrus. The finish is crisp, dry and refreshingly clean because the fruit and not the lees flavour is dominant. 91.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Camelot trio of wines for summer 2019

 Photo: Robert Brass (right) and Julian Samoisette

Among those pleased with the quality of the 2018 vintage is Julian Samoisette, the wine director at Kelowna’s Camelot Vineyards.

“The 2018 vintage will mark my very first solo vintage here,” he says, on the release of three 2018 wines. In previous vintages, Julian has had a supporting role to Robert Young, the winery’s co-proprietor.

 “I am enormously proud of how the vintage turned out, especially considering the weather conditions from mid-August (smoke) through September (rain). Our yields happily returned to 2015-2016 levels, which was great as it allowed me a little more flexibility with our blends, and of course our volume rose about 30%, which is always nice from a front of house perspective.”

Camelot is a comparatively low-profile wine producer in Kelowna. For the web site, here is a precise of the winery’s history:

Camelot Vineyards began as an orchard and was owned and operated by Ruth and the late Robert Young Senior for almost 40 years. In 1996, keeping it in the family, Robert Young Jr. and his wife Denise, decided to take over the business. Exactly ten years later in October 2006, a huge decision was made to remove all of the trees and replant the acreage with a vineyard. Following this, Camelot Winery was erected.
The name Camelot was Robert Young senior’s choice for a previous property located in West Vancouver and, upon moving to the Okanagan Valley, the name was transferred to the orchard. Robert and Denise seized the opportunity to incorporate the name and created a beautiful tasting room using the Medieval theme. Along with a six foot suit of armour, assorted shields, swords and jousting gloves, there is a replica of the round table from King Arthur’s court. Outside there is an added feature of a sword in the stone and a patio area where a glass of wine can be enjoyed whilst absorbing the incredible scenery.
Julian is a comparatively recent addition to Camelot, having joined to work in the wine shop. His career, it seems, is burgeoning.
He was born in Manitoba in 1986 and grew up in Kelowna. He and his wife, Angelica, spent a year teaching English in northern China. On their return to Kelowna, he developed his interest in wine while working with a large liquor store. He joined Camelot in 2014 to manage the wine shop and soon moved on to viticulture and winemaking.

The winery enjoyed considerable success with a 2017 Pinot Noir rosé. In 2018, Julian hoped to make a Pinot Noir table wine but was frustrated by a shortage of grapes.

“As we weren’t able to track down supplemental Pinot Noir last year, we decided to make another rosé,” he says. “Conditions were great to do so, with lower brix and higher overall acidity making for a much cleaner, fresher example in the bottle.”

He continues: “The White Knight, our Gewürztraminer/Riesling blend, might be the wine I’m most excited for, if only to see our long-time customers reactions to it.”

The blend is about 50% of each varietal. “The Gewürztraminer perfume is strong, with the steelier nose of the Riesling also making its presence known,” Julian says. “It’s lighter, leaner, and much more acid driven than the 2017 vintage, which was altogether too fruity for some palates.”

However, Julian seems hard-pressed to pick favourites. “I think the 2018 Pinot Gris is going to be the sneaky winner for us this season,” he says. “The must went through a 20-hour cold soak in the press.  The result is a pale pink Pinot Gris that is going to give the proper rosé  a run for it’s money.”

Here are notes on his three wines.

 Camelot White Knight 2018 ($17.90). This is Gewürztraminer with “a splash” of Riesling. It was bottled in late May and the aromas have not recovered fully. Keep this in the bottle for another month. The palate is promising, with abundant fruity flavours – citrus, cantaloupe, ripe apple. Some residual sugar gives the wine a lingering sweetness on the finish. 90.

Camelot Pinot Gris 2018 ($19.90). Skin contact has given this wine a slight and appealing “eye of partridge” hue. The wine begins with aromas of citrus and white peach. On the palate, there are flavours of nectarines and apple. The finish is crisp and dry. 90.

Camelot Ruthless Rosé 2018 ($19.90). This rosé is made with Pinot Noir and Riesling. The hue is on the dark side of what is fashionable (but I like the colour). It begins with aromas of cherry and strawberry. On the palate, it has tangy flavours of sour cherry and cranberry. The finish is crisp and dry. 90.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Rubik's Cube winemaking at Blue Mountain

 Photo: Blue Mountain winemaker Matt Mavety

At Blue Mountain Vineyard & Cellars, winemaker Matt Mavety goes to great lengths to make complex wines.

The winery has just released three 2018 whites – Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc. Some producers would ferment these varieties in stainless steel and bottle them as fresh and fruity whites with screw cap closures. Such wines are perfectly valid, ideal for wine by the glass on a warm summer’s afternoon.

Blue Mountain wines, which are best with food, are all finished with corks. That complements the traditional winegrowing here, as though the winery had been transplanted here from Burgundy or the Loire.

Like a good French winery, Blue Mountain has mature vineyards. The Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris vines are about 30 years old while the Sauvignon Blanc vines are about 12 years old. Wines from older vines tend to have more flavour.

Matt trained in New Zealand but his winemaking style is more French than Kiwi. These wines, and almost all the other Blue Mountain wines, are fermented with native yeasts.  “Native yeast is present in the vineyard and cellar and allows for a stronger expression of terroir,” the winery explains.

These whites were all fermented in a collection of vessels. For example, the Pinot Gris was fermented 15% in stainless steel, 40% in an oak foudre, 25% in 500 litre oak barrels; and the remaining 20% was fermented in French oak barrels ranging from new to four years old.

When I consider how hard it must be to manage such cellar logistics, I would guess Matt also is pretty good at solving the Rubik’s Cube.

When fermentation is finished, most of the wine is aged sur lie in the fermentation vessels (for five months). Then the lots are blended before being bottled.

This may be Rubik’s Cube winemaking but it makes for complex wines.

Here are my notes.

Blue Mountain Pinot Gris 2018 ($24.90). The wine begins with aromas of orange and orange peel mingled with very subtle oak. On the palate, there are flavours of orange and lemon with notes of pear and apple. The texture is rich while the finish is crisp and tangy. 91.

Blue Mountain Pinot Blanc 2018 ($24.90). The wine begins with aromas of apple mingled with very subtle oak. Time on the lees has given the wine good texture. In the mouth, there are flavours of stone fruits and apples around a spine of minerality. The finish is crisp, with lingering fruit flavours. 91.

Blue Mountain Sauvignon Blanc 2018 ($24.90). The wine begins with aromas of lime and white peach mingled with herbs. On the palate, the wine has bright citrus flavours mingled with minerality. The savoury finish and the broad texture place this wine solidly in the Sancerre camp, not the New Zealand style. 92.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Howard Soon named to Order of Canada

 Photo: Winemaker Howard Soon

Veteran winemaker Howard Soon has been named to the Order of Canada.

He is believed to be just the second individual from the BC wine industry to receive this award. Mission Hill Family Winery owner Anthony von Mandl was named a member of the Order in 2016.

“Created in 1967, the Order of Canada is one of our country's highest honours,” according to the Governor General’s web site. “Presented by the Governor General, the Order honours people whose service shapes our society; whose innovations ignite our imaginations; and whose compassion unites our communities.

Howard is the current winemaker at Vanessa Vineyards, the Similkameen winery he joined in 2017 shortly after retiring from Sandhill Wines, one of the BC wineries operated by Andrew Peller Ltd.

On Howard’s retirement, Craig McDonald, the senior winemaker at Peller, paid this complement to him: “As a fellow winemaker, I will remain in awe at his depth of knowledge, dedication to the craft and unwavering passion toward never compromising wine quality. Indeed, Howard has served the wine consumer well and has touched so many industry professionals along the way it’s too numerous to count. Howard’s legacy continues on with Sandhill and with the many winemakers he has mentored over the years, all respecting his experience, wisdom and dedication to their learning.”

Craig described Howard as “the longest serving winemaker in Canada - amassing an incredible 37 consecutive vintages.” This year’s vintage at Vanessa will be Howard’s 40th.

He was born in 1952 in Vancouver, the grandson of a shopkeeper who emigrated from southern China in the 1880s. Howard graduated in biochemistry from the University of British Columbia in 1974. After five years in the brewing industry, he joined Calona Vineyards in 1980 as a quality control supervisor, became assistant winemaker in 1981 and subsequently was promoted to chief winemaker.

Howard has been the winemaker for Sandhill Wines since that winery’s inception in 1997. Sandhill stands apart from most British Columbia wineries because it is dedicated to making primarily single vineyard wines. Each year those wines put the spotlight on six to eight distinctive terroirs.

“I believe terroir is a quest,” Howard told me in 2005. “It is a process, which is the way we do our wines, too. We’re always trying to make better wines, so we focus on process, not outcome.  We are always doing the best with everything that we do, then the wine will take care of itself. Really to me, terroir is the expression of the fruit quality. What the grape is giving you, that’s what terroir is to me – a true expression of what is in the fruit.”

Sandhill has won an impressive number of awards, including at least nine at the Lieutenant Governor’s Award of Excellence. Since 2004 Sandhill Wines have won about 100 gold or double gold medals in regional, national and international competitions. Just one example: double gold and best in category with a 2011 Small Lots Chardonnay at the Chardonnay du Monde Competition in France.

The BC wine industry gave Howard the Founder's Award in 1998. In 2015, he received the Vancouver Wine Festival’s 'Spirited Industry Professional' in 2015.

In his typically modest fashion, Howard did not claim complete responsibility for the Sandhill single vineyard strategy. He described the history to me in a 2005 interview:

“I can’t claim credit for it. I think it was collusion between us and marketing. Perhaps some wineries don’t have the communication channel between marketing and production. We do. We have always had that because we are brand focused.

“We had the Artist Series [at Calona]. I kept wanting to slip the grape growers in on the back label. It was important to me. I felt you’ve got to give credit to the guys who are growing the grapes. Marketing said, Howie, that’s not the right place for it.

“At the same time, Burrowing Owl Winery started up. We were partners with Jim Wyse. Ironically enough, in a parallel track, we made the first vintage, 1997, for Burrowing Owl in our winery [Calona], working with Bill Dyer.

“At the same time, marketing had the concept that we needed to push up into the premium area. Artist Series is more retail. We need something that is more premium. They asked what we could do. I said, one of the simplest ways of going premium is single vineyard. Let’s give credit to our growers.”

The first Sandhill wines were made with fruit from the Sandhill Estate Vineyard, then owned with Burrowing Owl Vineyards (a partnership later dissolved). Over the years, other premium vineyards were also enlisted for Sandhill.

Arguably, the gem was Phantom Creek Vineyard, a seven-acre parcel on Black Sage Road planted and farmed by Richard Cleave. He is as iconic as a grower as Howard is legendary as a winemaker.

“I have known him for years, ever since he was growing grapes at Pacific Vineyards,” Howard told me in 2005. “That is now where Burrowing Owl is. Dick got through the free trade period [when most Pacific Vineyards was pulled out] by growing market vegetables. He was growing peppers and stuff. He said, ‘Howie, I’ve got my own vineyard.’ He had started growing grapes and selling them to home winemakers. They were pretty good grapes. Even I didn’t realize how good they were.”

Richard asked Howard to make wine for him.  “I said I’ll see what I can do,” Howard recalled. “His first fruit was 2000 – three years after the first Sandhill wine. I made some Syrah, one barrel of Syrah, just under 20 cases. It was superb Syrah, but it was only one barrel. But we realized that Dick had something going.” Phantom Creek became the second single vineyard in the Sandhill portfolio. Ultimately, the vineyard grew some of the best Sandhill wines.

The vineyard was acquired early in 2016 by a Richmond-based Chinese entrepreneur, Richter Bai, who is now developing the Phantom Creek Estate Winery.

The first wines from the 75-acre Vanessa vineyard were produced in the 2012. Most of the grapes continue to be sold to the Peller wineries in BC.

“I’ve worked with Vanessa Vineyard grapes since its founding,” Howard said on becoming Vanessa’s winemaker in 2017. “I believe it is unlike any other vineyard due to the site’s unique topography, climatic conditions and soil types – the perfect combination for making truly distinctive wine.”

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Syrah: best BC Iconic Reds

When Alex Nichol planted the Okanagan’s first Syrah in 1990 on the Naramata Bench, it is probable that his peers thought he was daft.

A generation later, the variety has established itself as one of best red varieties for B.C. wine, especially when grown in the South Okanagan or the Similkameen Valley.

About 530 acres of Syrah are grown. The production in 2018 totalled 2,034 tons, or five percent of the total wine grape crop. Numerous wineries now make Syrah (a few call it Shiraz).

Recently, former wine store owner Simon Wosk teamed up with Norman Wood, who runs the Sutton Place Wine Merchant, to stage a tasting competition of 19 B.C. Syrahs.

At the now-closed Sip Wines in Richmond, Simon and the late John Levine began sponsored tastings in 2008 of Meritage wines, under the banner, BC Iconic Reds. In recent years, that annual tasting has been continued at the Sutton Place hotel.

This year, Simon and Norman expanded the BC Iconic Reds concept to a tasting of Syrah. About 60 wine enthusiasts attended to assess the wines in a blind tasting. Their votes produced a ranking of the top six wines.

The other wines in the competition are listed alphabetically here. My notes suggest all 19 wines had considerable merit. It is clear that Syrah has found a home in the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys.

Here are the results of the tasting. Some of the vintages are sold out but most are available from the wineries and from Sutton Place Wine Merchant.

1. Sunrock Vineyards Shiraz 2015 ($34). My notes: Big and ripe, this wine begins with generous aromas of plum, fig and black cherry mingled with black pepper. On the palate, there are flavours of dark fruits, vanilla and oak. Note that the current vintage of this is 2016.
2. BC Wine Studio Siren’s Call Syrah 2015 ($35). Winery notes: Sourced from Vineyards near Cawston, BC, and Osoyoos, BC, this wine was aged 17 months in 100% new American oak barrels, and boasts elegance, finesse and classic varietal characteristics of pepper and spice.  It is clean, rich and full of dark red fruit.
3. Road 13 Syrah 2016 ($43.48). Winery notes: This classic Northern Rhone style Syrah delivers richness, elegance, balance, and freshness with an impressively long finish.
4. Painted Rock Syrah 2016 ($39.99). Winery notes: Aromas of ripe red fruit and florals jump out of the glass with raspberries, cherries, blackberries, and rose water. Rounded and rich on the palate with ripe, silky tannins with further flavours of cracked pepper, vanilla and toasted coconut. Lingering pepper and baking spices on the finish. 

5. Laughing Stock Syrah 2016  ($36.99). Winery notes: 100% estate grown on our Perfect Hedge vineyard in Osoyoos, the style is inspired by Cote Rotie in Northern Rhone, blending 95% Syrah with 5% Viognier. This classic technique gives the nose a floral lift and softens the pepper note ever so slightly.

6. Vanessa Vineyard Syrah 2015 ($34.99). My notes: The wine begins with aromas of cherry and fig mingled with spice and herbal notes. On the palate, the wine is rich with savoury flavours of dark fruit.

Black Hills Syrah 2016 ($39.99). Winery notes: This vintage of Syrah is elegant, offering notes of blackberry, blueberry, and black & white pepper on the nose with hints of cocoa and eucalyptus lingering in the background. Soft, supple tannins dominate the palate with rich black fruit carrying through for a mouth-watering finish.
Bonamici Reserve Syrah 2016 ($45). My notes: This is a bold wine with aromas of plum, fig and vanilla. There is ripe dark fruit on the juicy palate.

Church & State Syrah 2016 ($39.90). Winery notes: This bright and vibrant wine is a rising star in our books, and will only show more personality with additional time in the bottle. Already, it is showing great character through its inky purple colour. Expect a bouquet of flavour on the nose including; dried fruits, subtle spice, leather and cedar. The velvety tannins are well balanced, finishing with a good amount of length. 
Gold Hill Syrah 2013 ($34.99). My notes: The winery begins with aromas of dark fruits mingled with pepper. On the palate, bold oak supports flavours of fig and cherry.

Hester Creek Syrah Viognier 2016 ($28.95). Winery notes: Our Syrah is crafted in the traditional Rhône style with a dose of Viognier added for enhancing aromatics and flavours. This vintage has deep aromas of ripe raspberry, blueberry, white pepper an violet. An elegant palate follows with ripe fruit flavours of blackberry and blueberry, followed by earthy notes along with pepper, anise and smoked meat.

Hillside Syrah 2016 ($28). Winery notes: Crafted from grapes grown in our Hidden Valley vineyard our 2016 Syrah opens with black raspberry and notes of clove and espresso which interweave with black current and a touch of cardamom on the palate.  Elegant fine-grained tannins lead into a powerful juicy finish. 

Kettle Valley Stern Syrah 2015 ($38). Winery notes: The grapes for this wine come primarily from the Stern vineyard in Naramata.  The vineyard was farmed at two tons to the acre resulting in very concentrated flavours.  The grapes were hand picked on September 18, 2015 at approximately 25.4 brix.  The wine has gone through a full malolactic fermentation and was aged in French oak for 20 months before being bottled.  Total production: 45 cases.

Le Vieux Pin Cuvée Violette Syrah 2017 ($30.99). Winery notes: Cuvée Violette, as the name suggests, displays the perfumed and floral side of this noble grape variety. The palate is silky smooth thanks to a gentle co-ferment with just under 1% Viognier. The focus is on the feminine and graceful qualities of Syrah coming to the foreground. In the cellar we kid around and call this wine a Syrah for Pinot Noir lovers. Crunchy bramble fruit and purple flowers mingle with pepper and spice. Red bramble fruits burst on the nose and on the palate.

Phantom Creek Syrah 2016 ($75). Winery notes: Phantom Creek Vineyard has played a pivotal role in establishing Syrah as one of the Okanagan’s signature grape varieties. With only 1.2 acres planted, we produced a meagre four barrels of Phantom Creek Vineyard Syrah in 2016. This wine captures the variety’s floral and savoury signature with the desert sage of the South Okanagan.
Poplar Grove Syrah 2015 ($30.35). My notes: There are appealing floral notes on the aroma. The palate swaggers with flavours of plum, fig and cherry mingled with a hint of pepper.

The Hatch Black Swift The Long Road Syrah 2015 ($49.99). Winery notes: All de-stemmed after gentle sorting at the winery, this wine was fermented slowly at 25 degrees Celsius to fully maximize extraction of the abundantly ripe fruit. After fermentation was complete, the wine was finished in a mix of new and older French oak (50/50) for 16 months. This vintage has an incredible mixture of concentration and elegance. Despite the intensity at this stage, the wine remains beautifully smooth and pleasant to drink at this point, but shows enough stuffing to it that indicates it will have a long and complex life ahead.
Thornhaven Syrah 2015 ($30). Winery notes: Platinum National Award Winner 2018 – blackberry, cherry, vanilla and cloves. medium-bodied.

Winemaker’s CUT Syrah 2017 ($34). The aroma begins with notes of smoked deli meats which are echoed on the palate. This is a robust, gamy red with hints of pepper on the finish.