Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Howling Bluff gets both feet into Pinot Noir

Photo: Howling Bluff's Luke Smith

The Okanagan wine industry is largely populated by individuals who have switched from white collar careers to become wine growers.

Few have plunged more deeply into their new careers than former stock broker Luke Smith, now the owner of Howling Bluff Winery.

Plunged is the operative word. This fall he will be crushing the grapes by foot to make a super-premium Pinot Noir. “We don’t want a machine to touch it,” he says. (You would be surprised how many other wineries do this from time to time.)

This is the ultimate step that Luke has taken in a grape growing odyssey that has seen him switch almost all of the Bordeaux vines he planted in 2003 and 2004 to Pinot Noir. He concluded that his terroir on the Naramata Bench was far better suited to ripening Pinot Noir every year.

The late and cool 2011 vintage was the last straw with his Bordeaux reds. The year forced him to drop so much fruit in an effort to ripen the grapes that he produced just nine barrels for his Sin Cera red blend, down from 24 barrels in 2010.

Future vintages of Sin Cera will be made primarily with grapes purchased from select growers in Oliver and Osoyoos. The Bordeaux varieties ripen more reliably there, Luke believes, that they do on his vineyard. But be believes that he can ripen Pinot Noir – he has 6 ½ acres now – and make outstanding wine every year.

He has the awards, including a Lieutenant Governor’s award of excellence, to prove that his Summa Quies vineyard can grow world-class Pinot Noir.

This summer, he isolated a block of about 1,200 Pinot Noir vines beside the winery for a trial to produce a super-premium wine. The vines are being cropped around one ton an acre in an effort to make a wine of intense flavour and aroma. The remainder of the Summa Quies vineyard is being cropped at about twice than tonnage, more in line with the normal crop load that leading Pinot Noir producers find is adequate for quality wine.

“We are going to pick it separately,” Luke says of the grapes in his trial block. “Daniel [his son] and I are going to get in there and stomp it. It will be whole cluster, stomped on. It will ferment in its own tank, all free run juice. It will be about three barrels’ worth and it will go into one new barrel and two second-fill barrels, for 18 months. It will be bottled and stay in the bottle for another 18 months.”

When he is ready to release the wine in 2016, he intends to have it tasted blind against a selection of $100 Pinot Noirs from international producers and “let it lie where it lies.”

He does not expect to come in last.

Of course, you will want to taste some of his wines before 2016. Here are notes on current releases.

Howling Bluff Summa Quies Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc Sémillon 2011 ($20 for 253 cases). Mostly Sauvignon Blanc, this blend has aromas of herbs and citrus, with a satisfying dollop of sweet fruit on the middle of the palate. The finish is slightly off-dry. While winery owner Luke Smith is happy with the wine, he also intends to make a crisper, drier version in 2012. 88.

Howling Bluff Summa Quies Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010 ($35 for 311 cases). This wine, which is nearly sold out, shows what can be done by cropping Pinot Noir at two tons an acre. The wine’s lovely colour would flatter a jewel case. There is a dramatic explosion of cherries in the aroma, carrying through to spicy, cherry flavours and a silky but concentrated texture. 90.

Howling Bluff Three Sisters Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010 ($28 for 275 cases). Made with purchased grapes, this is a light and charming Pinot Noir with strawberries in the aroma and cherries on the palate. 88.

Howling Bluff Summa Quies Vineyard Sin Cera 2009 ($31 for 300 cases). This is a blend of 37% Malbec, 29% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Franc and 8% Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine is just as impressive as the tank sample I reviewed a year ago. Then, I described it as “a chewy, concentrated red with flavours of plums, olives, figs and with long ripe tannins.” This time, I also picked up spice and black currant with an elegant structure. 92.

Howling Bluff Summa Quies Vineyard Sin Cera 2010 (not yet released). This red is youthfully firm, with cherry and mocha aromas and with flavours of black currant and raspberry. The vivacity of the flavours reflect a vintage that was not as hot and ripe as 2009. Good viticulture still produced good wine. 90.


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