Thursday, March 9, 2017

St. Hubertus has a new boss in the cellar

 Photo: Winemaker Wade Stark

Veteran winemaker Wade Stark took over the cellar at St. Hubertus & Oak Bay Estate Winery last spring.

Judging from a recent tasting of 2016 wines still in tank in that cellar, Wade was a good hire by Leo and Andy Gebert, the Swiss brothers who opened this winery in 1992.

Over those 25 or so years, they have cycled a number of winemakers through the cellar Before they moved on to take up careers elsewhere. A recent winemaker went back to New Zealand; his predecessor is now making wine at La Frenz Winery. An earlier St. Hubertus winemaker left amid a blaze of litigation. I have never quite figured out why, since Leo and Andy have always come across to me as good humoured individuals who are quick with a quip, as in this from Andy: “There are only two kinds of wine – sold and unsold.”

In Wade, the brothers very likely have a winemaker who will stay around for a while.  He has a degree in food engineering from the University of Guelph (his home town). “I thought at the time that was the program that would lead to a job in brewing or winemaking,” Wade says. At the time, Brock University had not developed its winemaking program.

He got a taste for the wine industry in his final year with work-study assignments at various Ontario wineries. However, he started his career working in a   Molson brewery in Barrie, ON (which closed in 2000 and, for a time, was converted to a grow-op). Wade was long gone by then.

After eighteen months at Molsons, he was ready to move on. The colleague showed him an advertisement in the Toronto Star: Mission Hill Family Estate Winery was looking for a trainee technician.

Wade had vacationed in the Okanagan Valley the year before and was struck by the beauty of the valley and the winemaking potential. “I responded to the ad right way,” he says. Mission Hill hired him in July, 1998. He was soon promoted to cellarhand and then winemaker, staying at Mission Hill for 17 ½ years. When Ganton & Larson Prospect Winery was launched as a sister winery at Mission Hill, Wade was assigned to be its winemaker and stayed there until moving on in 2015.

St. Hubertus is clearly a different winery than Mission Hill. “It was an incredible place to work,” Wade says of Mission Hill. “I have gone to almost the polar opposite of that, from a large scale union environment over there. Now I have come over to, as you can see, a beautiful vineyard site with small scale winemaking. It is hands on at every level.”

Wade would hardly say it, but he came from a winery with all the latest equipment and technology to an artisanal winery in a former barn. St. Hubertus lost its original winery in the 20o3 forest fire. After moving out vineyard equipment from the barn, the winery resumed production there. Wade has all the equipment any winemaker needs but it is not pretty.

Good wine, of course, is made in the vineyard. “What is nice about this is the vineyards,” Wade says. “I can just walk out the door. So I make a point of doing that ever day, walking out and getting familiar with the site.”

Grapes have been grown on this southwestern-facing slope since the late 1930s. J.W. Hughes, a pioneering horticulturist in the Okanagan, purchased 235 acres in this district for vineyards. Once they were established, he arranged to sell them to his farm managers after 1944.

The vineyard now owned by St. Hubertus was purchased by Frank Schmidt; he continued managing it after selling it to Growers’ Wines of Victoria. The new owners renamed it Beau Séjour after a wine brand. That sign remained above the gate for many years. When the Geberts opened their winery, they reversed the sign so that St. Hubertus faced the road. The old sign, after surviving the fire, finally came down several years ago (but is still preserved on site) when the entrance was spruced up.

Leo Gebert bought the vineyard, then 55 acres, in 1984 after emigrating from Switzerland. The winery was opened after his brother, Andy, joined him in 1990. The vineyard has been expanded to 80 acres.

The grape varieties grown here over the years have changed. Back in the 1960s, Frank Schmidt had a major success with a white table grape called Himrod. Growers’ Wines initially wanted to sell the wine as Canadian Liebfraumilch until deterred by the German wine industry. The last Himrod vine on the property was destroyed in the 2003 forest fire.

Two of the oldest varieties here are Maréchal Foch and Riesling. This vineyard has clone 21B Riesling planted in 1978 (as well as 1989 and 2000). It is the same clone that makes the Old Vines Riesling at Tantalus and at Sperling Vineyards, also from 1978 plantings. St. Hubertus only began keeping its old vines fruit separate a few years ago. Before that, everything was blended into a pleasant and value-priced wine, in keeping with the Gebert preference for releasing affordable wines that sell.

Wade Stark may not have the prettiest winery but he certainly has one of the Okanagan’s proven terroirs.

Here are notes on the wines, beginning with the 2016 barrel samples, Wade’s first wines here.

Chasselas 2016. This is the classic white grape of Switzerland. I am not sure whether the Geberts planted the variety here initially but I do know they have increased the acreage over the years. It makes a very pleasant white. This one has aromas and flavours of peach and apple, with a crisply refreshing finish. 90.

Pinot Blanc 2016. As wine shows, this variety delivers lots of fruit, with aromas and flavours of apples. The finish is crisp. 90.

Schönburger 2016. This delicious variety was developed in the 1970s at Geisenheim in Germany. With some Muscat in its background, it produces spicy wines. This wine has a spicy aroma and flavours of lychee and grapefruit. 90.

Gewürztraminer 2016. This also has aromas and flavours of spice, grapefruit and lychee. The spice is more intense that the Schönburger and the wine has more weight on the palate. 90.

Chardonnay 2016. The tank sample was a bit too young to assess, but it promises to be an appealing fruit-forward wine with good weight and a crisp finish. 88-90.

Riesling 2016. This is a juicy wine with layers of flavour, including lemon and lime. The wine is balanced toward dryness but with a hint of residual sweetness. 90.

Old Vines Riesling 2016. The old vines account for the great concentration of aroma and flavour. There is lime, lemon and peach on a full palate. It is all primary fruit now but, after a year or two in bottle, the classic petrol aromas will emerge. 92.

Pinot Noir 2016. While this wine still has time to go in the barrel, it is promising, with aromas and flavours of cherry and strawberry and with the beginning of a silky texture. 89.

The following wines are in bottle and on the market. Oak Bay usually signifies a reserve tier wine.

St. Hubertus Chasselas 2015 ($19.50). This is a juicy and refreshing wine with flavours of peaches and pears. 88.

St. Hubertus Great White North 2015 ($12.50). This is a blend of Pinot Blanc, Gewürztraminer and Chasselas created initially for a grocery chain in the U.S. The value is astonishing. The wine has spicy, herbal aromas and flavours, with a fresh, clean and dry finish. 88.

St. Hubertus Riesling 2014 ($16.75). This is a fine dry Riesling with a hint of petrol on the nose and with concentrated grapefruit and lime flavours. 90.

Oak Bay Gebert Family Reserve Riesling 2013 ($N/A). This is the Old Vines Riesling, with classic petrol in the aroma and with a steely minerality giving a backbone to layered flavours of lemon and lime. 92.

Oak Bay Family Reserve Schönburger 2015 ($26). This is a fruit-driven wine with flavours of lychee and other tropical fruits mingled with spice. The wine is balanced to finish dry. 90.
Oak Bay Family Reserve Pinot Noir 2013 ($35). This is a pretty wine, with spicy cherry flavours. 88.

Oak Bay Gamay Noir 2013 ($18.50). Full-bodied, this wine has aromas and flavours of black cherry and plum with a pinch of pepper on the finish. 89.

Oak Bay Foch 2014 ($22). Here is a wine for those who want a big, big red. It begins with a very dark colour. On the palate, the flavours are concentrated – there is plum, fig and licorice. There is just over 15% alcohol. 90.

Oak Bay Family Reserve Northern Lights 2008 ($40). This is a pink sparkling wine from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. It spent 80 months on the lees before being disgorged. It has aromas and flavours of cherries and cranberries. The finish is crisp and dry. 88.

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