Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Class of 2011: Ancient Hill Estate Winery

This blog on Ancient Hill Estate Winery is the first in a series looking at the surprising number of new wineries opening this spring – what I call the Class of 2011. This winery will open May 1.

Ancient Hill, which is located on a hillside east of and above Kelowna International Airport, is not far from where one of the earliest grape-growing trials took place in the Okanagan. Starting about 1930, Hungarian-born brothers Eugene and Virgil Rittich did extensive evaluation of vinifera grapes. They also wrote British Columbia’s first wine book, discussing their results and counselling how to make wine. Their name has survived as a street name not far from Ancient Hill.

Richard Kamphuys (rhymes with compass), who owns Ancient Hill with wife Jitske, notes that Lemberger, one of the varieties recommended by the Rittich brothers, thrives in his vineyard.

The couple came to the Okanagan from Holland and bought an apple orchard. Richard, who was born in 1963, completed an advanced economics degree at the historic Erasmus University in Amsterdam before decided he wanted a rural lifestyle for himself and his family.

Richard was actually born in Iran because his father was working there at the time. “I have no connection to Iran except that I was born there,” he says wryly. “There is nothing Persian in my background but it makes for interesting border crossings nowadays.”

“We arrived here in 1992,” Richard says. “I actually looked at the wine industry at that point, but people were still of the mindset that you could not successfully grow vinifera here, that it was an enormous risk. So I never pursued that angle. It was only 12 years later that I had come back to it. When I came here, the common wisdom was that you cannot grow the vinifera here. Who am I to question that? I am new to the area. I didn’t come here to establish a vineyard and a winery. I came here to establish a business and live here.”

The previous owners of the property, encouraged by the Rittich trials, planted grapes on the hillside in 1944. But they abandoned the vineyard when a hard winter killed many of the vines and even some apple trees. About 40 of those ancient vines, probably Okanagan Riesling, still survive.

When apples became unprofitable, Richard and Jitske replaced the orchard in 2005 with 27,000 vines over about six hectares (15 acres). They planted mid-season ripening varieties: Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Lemberger, Zweigelt and Pinot Noir.

The biggest block, about a quarter of the vineyard, is Baco Noir, a red French hybrid that is an insurance policy for Richard in case there is another hard winter. “The Baco Noir was a choice we made just to make sure,” he explains. “When I was studying up to get into this industry, I found that many people had abandoned the old varieties that were here without giving them a chance. They are winter hardy. People seem to forget that we are a lot closer to the North Pole here than in Europe.”

Richard’s preparations for the wine business included taking both viticulture and winemaking courses at Okanagan College. At the same time, he has retained Christine Leroux as the consulting winemaker for Ancient Hill.

To design the winery, they hired Robert Mackenzie, the Penticton architect who has been involved with numerous Okanagan wineries. His early sketches were for a modernistic building with lots of glass until Richard and Jitske said they preferred a winery with an old world feel. The architect came up with a handsome structure which sits comfortably in the landscape. The view from the tasting room takes in vineyards and, in the distance, the Kelowna airport.

Richard and Jitske already are considering promoting a stop at the wine shop for passengers either arriving early for a flight or waiting out a flight delay.

Here are notes on the debut wines at Ancient Hill.

Pinot Gris 2009 ($17.95). The winery is releasing 125 cases of this wine. It is a juicy-textured and easy-drinking unoaked white with flavours of apricots and pears. 88.

Gewürztraminer 2009 ($18.95). The winery produced 630 cases in 2009, purchasing about half the grapes required from Winfield-area vineyards. (All of its wines in 2010 are entirely estate grown.) This wine is finished dry, with food in mind. It has the classic spicy aromas and spicy/citrus flavours of the variety. 88.

Lazerus 2009 ($19.95). This red, with a production of 205 cases, is an unoaked blend of 61% Lemberger and 39% Zweigelt. As in Austria, the varieties blend well. Richard settled on a proprietary name because he figures these varietal names don’t sell themselves in this market. The wine has a juicy texture without being heavy. It begins with aromas of red berries and caramel candy and has flavours of blueberries and currants. 88.

Baco Noir 2009 ($24.95). This is the winery’s big red, aged in American oak. It has ripe flavours of plum with a hint of mocha and a spicy sweetness on the otherwise dry finish due to the good oak match. The winery made 140 cases. 90.

Yet to come is a Pinot Noir from 2009, still maturing in oak.

Ancient Hill Estate Winery
4918 Anderson Road
Kelowna BC V1X 7V7
T 250.491.2766
When to visit: 10 am-5 pm daily


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