Thursday, March 14, 2013

Kettle Valley's Barber Cabernet: the back story

Anyone with a bottle of the Barber Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 from Kettle Valley should treat it as a tribute to the late Dave Barber.

That wine – only 864 bottles were made -  represents the last vintage grown in his Naramata Vineyard before his death in July, 2010.

The Barber Vineyard is about five acres of vines on a southwest slope just above Okanagan Lake and two kilometres from Kettle Valley.

“It is a gorgeous piece of property,” says Bob Ferguson, who owns Kettle Valley with his partner, Tim Watts. “We actually tried to buy the property for years. There are two lots, one with a house and one with land for a vineyard. The people who owned it would not sell us the bare land without us buying the house. And we did not want a sec0nd house.”

Dave Barber was a Vancouver businessman who also happened to be one of Kettle Valley’s regular customers. One day in 1999 when he was at the winery, he mentioned that he had purchased the property. His interest was in owning a summer residence for his family.

“We told him we had been trying to buy it for four or five years and had no luck,” Bob recalls. “He offered to let us farm it, so we jumped at the chance.”

The Kettle Valley team planted Cabernet Sauvignon on half of the property and equal blocks of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc on the other half. The winery has continued to farm it, buying the grapes from Dave Barber and now from his estate. And they hope it is an arrangement that will go on for a long time.

Clearly, Dave was proud of what Kettle Valley was achieving. “Dave's interest in farming,” his obituary said, “… grew into a fervent hobby; he loved doting on his vineyard in Naramata, selling his Cabernet Sauvignon grapes to Kettle Valley for almost a decade.”

Kettle Valley has comparable arrangements with other Naramata Vineyards that allow them to farm for quality wines, not for big tonnage. The Barber Cabernet Sauvignon is cropped about a ton an acre. The $38 a bottle price is certainly not high enough to make that sort of viticulture economically viable. “It is because we enjoy doing it,” Bob says. “To make money on growing late ripeners like Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot in this territory, you would have to be charging way more money than the market would bear.”

But the partners just won’t compromise. “The key in Naramata with Cabernet Sauvignon and some of those other later ripening varieties,” Bob says, “is that you have to keep your tonnage down or you get all kinds of green notes.”

There certainly is no greenness in the Barber Cabernet Sauvignon. In fact, that wine and the Syrah – two of three recent releases – each have 15.2% alcohol. That shows that the grapes were fully ripe before being harvested, benefitting from the long, warm 2009 vintage.

The robust alcohol levels are not at all obvious, which speaks to Kettle Valley’s skills at growing ripe grapes and making generously-flavoured wines.

“The fruit was really, really ripe, so the tannins were soft,” Bob explains. “The full-on berry flavours and really ripe tannins mask the high alcohol. It is in balance. That is the key: if your fruit is ripe and you have those soft ripe tannins, it tends to mask the heat that goes with the alcohol.”

Here are my notes on those three releases.

Kettle Valley Viognier 2011 ($26 for 179 cases). This wine is made with grapes from a Naramata vineyard and also from a Similkameen vineyard. It begins with a lovely aroma of honey, pineapple and apricot, leading to honeyed apricot flavours. The finish, however, is dry with a refreshing acidity that gives this wine appealing crispness. 90.

Kettle Valley Syrah 2009 ($38 for 285 cases). This is a big, generous wine with so much fruit and texture that the 15.2% alcohol is not perceptible. The aromas include pepper and black cherry, with a lifted perfume from the five per cent of Viognier in the blend. On the palate, there are rich flavours of black cherry, plum, prune, vanilla and black liquorice. There is a lingering finish with a touch of white pepper. The grapes for this wine all are from Naramata vineyards. 90.


Kettle Valley Barber Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 ($38 for 72 cases). This is a bold Cabernet, with 15.2% alcohol but also with so much substance that one is not aware of the alcohol. It has alluring aromas of plum, black cherry and vanilla (as it should, having spent 21 months in French oak). It has a big, luscious palate of black currant, black cherry and vanilla with a hint of mint on the finish. The tannins are long and ripe. The wine is drinking well now but has the structure to age gracefully at least to 2019. It is easy to understand why Barber is a legendary Naramata vineyard. 92.


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