Thursday, January 13, 2011

Current releases from St. Hubertus Estate Winery

The recent report on the British Columbia wine industry by Simon Fraser University professor Andy Hira commented on the vulnerability of some wineries due to astronomical prices for vineyard land.

While that is so for newer wineries, it does not apply to the long-established producers such St. Hubertus & Oak Bay Estate Winery of Kelowna. Leo and Andy Gebert opened this winery in 1991, based on vineyard they had acquired in the mid-1980s. The wine industry at the time was anything but overheated. By today's standards, land was cheap.

Very few producers have a real estate cost base as favourable as St. Hubertus. It shows in the prices of their wines, very few of which sell for more than $20 a bottle. And it is obvious that the two Swiss-born brothers and their families are making a living. They are even able to afford some vineyard toys: Andy uses a remote-controlled helicopter with a camera for quick surveys of the vineyard.

There is a lot of history attached to the St. Hubertus property, including some that is tragic. The vineyard dates from about 1928, as one of five planted by J.W. Hughes, a pioneering grape grower. It was taken over by Frank Schmidt, one of his foremen, who grew grapes for Beau Sejour (one of the many names under which Victoria-based Growers Wines operated.

At one point in the 1960s, Growers had him plant a table grape called Himrod. It made such good wine compared with the labrusca varieties then in use that Schmidt was forbidden to give plants to anyone else. The company promised the wine would make him famous. Perhaps infamous would have been more like it. They released the wine as Canadian Liebfraumilch. When the German wine industry threatened to litigate (rightly so), the name was changed to Rhine Castle. And Schmidt was allowed to sell plants (six for $5) all across western Canada to home gardeners.

In subsequent years, even better grape varieties replaced the Himrod. By 2003, there was just one Himrod vine on the property, a massive vine behind Leo's house. It was trained to stretch for many yards and was heavy with tasty clusters of grapes every summer. Winery visitors even were allowed to pick a few bunches.

In early September of 2003 the Okanagan Park wildfire swept through the vineyard, following a dry creek. It destroyed Leo's house, along with the Himrod vine. It also burned down the winery.

Fortunately, the brothers are very organized. Except for a few barrels, all the wines from the previous vintage had been bottled before the fire and moved to a nearby warehouse, which did not burn. A new tasting room opened in the warehouse within 10 days. Good insurance coverage enabled the brothers to build a new winery and a new home for Leo and his family.

Their peers in the wine industry helped the brothers get grapes to make their 2003 wines. The grapes on their own vines were totally unusable due to smoke taint on the skins. In fact, the grapes were so unappealing, Andy said later, that even the birds refused to eat them.

After that season, St. Hubertus tweaked the varieties in its vineyard. Other than that, the business has moved ahead with few hitches other than winemaker turnover. Even that seems not to have upset the consistency of the winery's style.

Here are notes of some of the current wines available online and in private wine stores.

St. Hubertus Chasselas 2009 ($15.99). Since this grape is the primary white grown in Swiss vineyards, it seems at home here as well. The St. Hubertus style is soft and quaffable, beginning floral and herbal aromas and delivering flavours of honeydew and peach. Because the acidity is soft, the finish seems off-dry. The only other winery with this variety is Quails' Gate; that winery blends Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris with the Chasselas as a way of achieving a more complex white with a crisper finish. But let's not quibble: St. Hubertus has made a crowd pleaser. 86.

St. Hubertus Pinot Blanc 2009 ($13.99). This is a textbook example of unoaked Pinot Blanc - a refreshing and crisp white with flavours of pears and apples. What you would have tasted on the vine has been delivered in the bottle. 88.

St. Hubertus Dry Riesling 2009 ($14.99). The vineyard has the good fortune that at least some of its Riesling vines date from 1978. That would account for the backbone of minerals here, along with a slight whiff of petrol, a sign of a serious Riesling. There are herbal aromas and flavours of citrus. It is a nicely balanced wine with a moderate 12.2% alcohol. 89.

Oak Bay Pinot Noir 2007 ($14.99). Oak Bay generally refers to oak-aged wines from St. Hubertus. This is a medium-bodied wine with spice and berries on the nose, with bright cherry flavours and with pepper on the finish. 87.

Oak Bay Marechal Foch 2009 ($18.99). This variety has always produced one of the biggest reds from St. Hubertus. This is a dark wine with the typical gamey flavours of the variety, along with black cherries and with a satisfying hit of chocolate on the finish. 88.


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