Wednesday, October 10, 2012

CedarCreek Estate Winery at 25

Photo: Ross and Gordon Fitzpatrick.
Credit Albert Normandin

If one wants to follow the history of modern winemaking in British Columbia, the story of CedarCreek Estate Winery is a good example.

When the CedarCreek label, now 25 years old, appeared, there were so few wineries that you could tour them all in two days. Today, there are more than 150 producers (and rising) in the Okanagan and Similkameen wine regions. CedarCreek has not only survived the competition; it is, by any measure, a top tier winery.

The original winery at the CedarCreek property was called Uniacke Wines. It opened in 1980, named after a distant relative of one of the owners who had been attorney general of Nova Scotia in the 18th Century. That probably was not the best choice for naming an early estate winery in the Okanagan.

The property is on Lakeshore Road on the east side the Okanagan Lake, southeast of Kelowna. That street, now lined with vineyards and housing developments, was perceived in the 1980s as lightly travelled road, somewhat remote from Kelowna. That sense of isolation is one reason why Uniacke struggled.

Late in 1986 Uniacke was purchased by Ross Fitzpatrick (who subsequently became Senator Fitzpatrick). He had grown up in the Okanagan, the son of a fruit packing plant manager. When he succeeded in business, he began looking for a hobby orchard and he built a splendid house on Lakeshore Road. Uniacke was nearby and had apple trees as well as vines. It was not too long before Fitzpatrick decided wine was more interesting than apples.

The winery was renamed CedarCreek in 1987. The property began to turn the corner in 1990 when 12 acres of Okanagan Riesling, De Chaunac and Chasselas were pulled out, to be replaced over the next several years by Pinot Noir, a far better wine grape.

In 1994, the Senator bought Greata Ranch, south of Peachland and on the west side of the lake. It was then a derelict property but he remembered it from its heyday as a major orchard. He reasoned that, since peaches once thrived here, vines also would do well. He planted 40 acres, primarily with Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer.

Then, beginning in 1998, CedarCreek hired two seasoned California winemakers in succession and completed a major modernization of the winery. That was followed by the development of two vineyards near Osoyoos, in 2001 and 2006, giving the winery properties that ripen big Bordeaux reds and Syrah. Today, with almost 130 acres of vineyard, CedarCreek is almost self-sufficient in grapes.

Winemaker Tom DiBello, the second of the two Californians, put his stamp on the wines over the decade he was there, making elegant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and complex, long-lived Bordeaux reds.

He left in 2010, to be replaced by Darryl Brooker (right), a one-time Australian sailor who came ashore to get a viticulture degree. He has made wine in Australia, New Zealand and Ontario before coming to the Okanagan. In Ontario, he helped launch Flat Rock Cellars and then spent several vintages at Hillebrand Winery, both major producers.

He has begun to put his own stamp on the CedarCreek wines, both with subtle style changes (he has a lighter hand with oak than his predecessor) and with new wines.

Example: because he has experience making sparkling wine, he is putting together a cuvée for a Pinot Noir-based sparkling wine that will be released in about three years under the Greata Ranch label.

Wholly-owned by CedarCreek, Greata Ranch was established as a separate winery in 2003 to make reserve wines tied to a proposed luxury real estate development there. When that development stalled, the reserve program was shut down; only budget-priced wines have been available there for several years.

That is changing again. “We are trying to re-invent Greata and give it its own identity,” says Gordon Fitzpatrick, the Senator’s son and CedarCreek’s president. Once again, reserve quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir will be made there in top years, along with the sparkling wine.

CedarCreek’s reserve wines are released under its Platinum label, a term that goes back to when a CedarCreek 1992 Merlot was awarded an unprecedented platinum medal at the Okanagan Wine Festival. The current Platinum wines include Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Viognier, Syrah and Bordeaux reds. In the 2012 vintage Brooker intends to make a Platinum level Pinot Gris as well.

Brooker has been given a winemaking tool not available to his predecessors: two egg-shaped 660-litre concrete fermenters imported from France. He first saw them in France in 2006 and then made Sauvignon Blanc in them in Ontario. In both instances, he was impressed with the quality of the wines that can be produced with them.

The CedarCreek portfolio is still a blend of DiBello wines and, starting with the 2010 vintage, Brooker wines. Here are notes on some of the recent releases.

CedarCreek Pinot Gris 2011 ($17.90 for 6,100 cases). The wine begins with aromas of citrus. On the palate, there are flavours of citrus fruits mingled with peaches and apples. The finish is crisp. 89.

CedarCreek Platinum Viognier 2011 (Sold out). The winery released 479 cases in June. Alas, I never got to taste it until September. It is an outstanding wine, with aromas of orange blossoms and stone fruits. On the palate, there are flavours of spice and apricots, with a rich texture on the palate. 91.

CedarCreek Platinum Chardonnay 2010 Block 5 ($29.90 for 357 cases). This wine is made from grapes coming from a select block in the vineyard at the winery.  The wine was fermented in barrels from five different French coopers, with a quarter of the wine allowed to undergo wild yeast fermentation. Significantly, no malolactic fermentation was allowed. The result is a wine with a brilliantly pure fruit focus. The grapefruit and marmalade flavours are vibrant and the texture is rich. 91.

CedarCreek Platinum Home Block Pinot Noir 2010 ($39.90). This is elegant wine has a good concentration of aromas and flavours of cherry and raspberry. The texture is firm with a promise of the classic silky texture with a little more time in bottle. 91.

CedarCreek Tradition 2007 (Sold out). Tradition is the name for the best wine made here each vintage. The winery released 159 cases in July, 2012. It is a blend of 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot, 23% Syrah, 15% Malbec, 7% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot. All of these have knit superbly over five years which included 21 months in French oak barrels. The aromas and flavours display sweet, ripe fruit – black currants, cherries – along with notes of vanilla. The texture is svelte and polished and the finish won’t quit. 92.

CedarCreek Platinum “M 2007 ($65). This is CedarCreek’s fortified wine. It began when Ann Sperling, the winemaker here in the early 1990s, began aging a barrel or two of wine in the hot Okanagan sun. Kevin Willemborg, the first California winemaker here, wanted to dump it but the assistant winemaker hid it and talked Tom DiBello into adopting the project. This particular vintage is made with Pinot Blanc. It has lovely nutty and salty notes, very much like as good fino sherry. 90.


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