Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Similkameen Wineries host a coming-out party

The wineries in the Similkameen Valley have begun to make a strong and credible effort to define a terroir-based personality, setting their wines apart from those of the much larger Okanagan Valley.

Currently, there are 12 wineries in the Similkameen, eight of which are members of the recently-formed Similkameen Wineries Association. Many of those wineries are only a few years old, one reason why the Similkameen remains a wine-touring footnote.

The Similkameen Wineries Association’s efforts are critical in raising the region’s profile so that the Similkameen, like the Naramata Bench, achieves a front-of-mind position among wine tourists and consumers.

Are Similkameen wines different? The winemakers there, like George Hanson, the co-owner of Seven Stones Winery, think so. He is pictured above with a jar of dirt from his vineyard, illustrating just how complex the soils of the Similkameen are. The layer of white in the middle of his sample appears to be the calcium which accounts for the exceptional quality of his Pinot Noir grapes.

The Similkameen has the same problem as the Lodi grape-growing region has in California. Most of the Lodi’s grapes, notably its old-vines Zinfandel, find their way into wines made in Napa or Sonoma. Until recently, Lodi was one of the most unheralded vineyard regions in California. The producers there are working hard on establishing a profile of their own.

The Similkameen Valley has about 600 acres of vineyard. The Okanagan has more than 10 times that acreage and more than 100 wineries.

Many of those wineries buy Similkameen grapes. Two of the largest vineyard owners in the Similkameen are Peller Estates and Mt. Boucherie. It is rare to see a Similkameen-designated wine from either producer. The grapes are blended with fruit from the Okanagan. That means that the resulting wines will have the Wine of British Columbia appellation.

There is nothing wrong with blending grapes from several appellations, as the delicious wines from Peller and Mt. Boucherie demonstrate. Indeed, several of the Similkameen wineries also buy Okanagan grapes as they wait for their own young plantings to mature.

John Weber of Orofino Vineyards, for example, has gradually been establishing enough sources of grapes in the Similkameen for his needs. He also has been buying some Okanagan grapes for at least one of his reds. In an early vintage, that wine had the Okanagan appellation on it. That led to so many questions from consumers in his tasting room that he now used the broader British Columbia appellation for the wine.

Similkameen wines should be different because the growing conditions in this valley differ from those of the Okanagan. Perhaps the most singular feature of the Similkameen is the wind that rises each afternoon and is often quite strong by evening, blowing from north to south. This is a big reason why the vineyards and orchards are so disease-free that close to half of all farms are organic.

Vineyards are planted both of the benches along the east and north sides of the valley and on the valley floor. The sun-baked benchlands produce big reds while the valley floors support both red and white varieties.

The Similkameen Wineries Association hosted a recent trade tasting in Vancouver and is sponsoring a big consumer tasting at The Grist Mill near Keremeos on the afternoon of Sunday, September 12.

From the Vancouver tasting, here are some recommendations, beginning with six quite good Chardonnays, a white variety that might be a signature variety for the Similkameen.

Cerelia Vineyards & Estate Winery Chardonnay MMVIII ($18.90). An unoaked Chardonnay, this wine is crisply refreshing with notes of citrus. 88

Cerelia is a winery at Cawston that opened in late July. Cerelia apparently is what the Romans called their harvest festival, which explains the Roman numerals on the label.

Crowsnest Vineyards Chardonnay 2008 Stahltank Family Reserve ($17.90). From the second-oldest winery in the Similkameen, this is another unoaked Chardonnay: stahltank is German for steel tank (the owners of the winery are from Germany). The wine shows appealing tropical fruit flavours and aromas, finishing with what seems to be a sweet note – but from the intensity of the fruit, not from unfermented sugars. 86

Eau Vivre Winery & Vineyards Chardonnay 2007 ($18). – from another winery just about to open its tasting room – is a barrel-fermented Chardonnay with flavours of pear and apple. 86

Orofino Vineyards Chardonnay 2008 ($24.90). This wine was 30% barrel-fermented in new oak, 70% in stainless steel, achieving a complex balance between the fruit and the subtle oak. The wine has a lovely core of tropical fruit flavours with a long finish of spice and citrus and with bright acidity. 90

Robin Ridge Winery Chardonnay 2007 ($18.90). From a winery that opened just last year, this is a full-bodied Chardonnay with buttery flavours of citrus and pineapple. 88

Seven Stones Winery Chardonnay 2008 ($24.99). This winery, which opened in 2007, still sells half of its grapes to Okanagan wineries. They are lucky: George Hanson is a superb grower and it shows in the quality of Seven Stones wines. This wine is a complex Macon-style Chardonnay, with tangy flavours of citrus and tropical fruits. The Macon echo comes from the earthy minerality of the wine. This wine deserves to aged a few years. 90

Here are notes on other excellent Similkameen Pinot Noirs.

Eau Vivre Pinot Noir 2007 ($19). This is a pretty, feminine Pinot Noir, delightful for its cherry and strawberry aromas and flavours and for its silken texture. 88

Orofino Pinot Noir 2007 ($31.90). Aged 16 months on French oak, this wine still has a firm structure framing the flavours of spice, cherries and strawberries. A complex wine, it should be cellared another year as it evolves toward a glorious peak. 88 +

Robin Ridge Pinot Noir 2007 ($21.90). Another pretty wine with a juicy texture, this is perhaps the one to drink while you wait on the Orofino. The wine tastes of raspberry and cherry, with spice on the finish. 88

And others well worth seeking out.

Cerelia Pinot Gris MMVIII ($17.90). A juicy, mouth-filling white with flavours of ripe pears, backed up with mineral notes and refreshing acidity. 88

Crowsnest Pinot Gris 2008 ($17.90). This is Crowsnest’s first Pinot Gris. It is crisp and clean, with flavours of pears and citrus and with a dry finish. 88

Eau Vivre Cabernet Franc 2007 ($22). This wine’s vibrant fruit – red currants and cherries – is neatly framed with oak and flavours of chocolate. 88

Orofino Riesling 2008 ($17.90). Easily the Similkameen’s best Riesling, this is serious example of this variety, with a core of concentrated sweet fruit, with a hint of petrol on the nose, with a good mineral backbone and lively acidity. It has long, dry finish. 89

Orofino Beleza 2007 ($33.90). Orofino’s flagship red, this is a blend of 70% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Cabernet Franc and 4% Petit Verdot. The wine aged 16 months in barrel, 80% of which were new, which is reflected by the notes of oak in the aroma. On the palate, there are long, ripe tannins, with flavours of cassis, plum and coffee. 90

Seven Stones Meritage 2006 ($31.99). This is 55% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franc. The wine has mint and cassis aromas and flavours, along with red currant, chocolate and coffee. The tannins are a touch dry on the finish. 89

Two of the wineries in the Similkameen valley make fruit wines. Forbidden Fruit Pomme Desirée Iced Apple ($28.90 for a half bottle) is the fruit wine industry’s answer to icewine. This spicy wine is well-balanced, with a clean, refreshing and lingering finish. 90.

A similar dessert wine is Rustic Roots Iced Orin ($27.90 for a half bottle), a delicious and well-balanced sweet wine made from organically-grown Orin apples. 90.


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