Thursday, July 20, 2017

Howling Bluff goes solar

Photo: Pinot Noir producer Luke Smith

It appears that the experience of growing wine has turned former stockbroker Luke Smith, the proprietor of Howling Bluff Estate Wines, into an environmentalist.

The Naramata Bench vineyard that he began planting in 2004 is, Luke says, ‘dedicated to becoming a fully sustainable and earth friendly winery.”

Howling Bluff uses neither pesticides or chemical fungicides. It uses drip irrigation, not overhead irrigation. It mulches its prunings, putting them back into the vineyard or shipping them to Penticton’s composting plant.

“As of the spring,” Luke writes, “we started on the next project with the installation of the first of four phases of solar panels. Howling Bluff has a goal to be a Net Zero winery within the next half decade.”

That puts Howling Bluff on the leading edge with a growing number of wineries moving in this direction. Off The Grid Organic Winery in West Kelowna, with a straw bale wine shop and solar panels, is still connected to the grid only because the local municipality insisted on it. Others with solar panels include Orofino Vineyards at Cawston and Burrowing Owl Winery near Oliver.

Undoubtedly, there are others, given how much sunshine there is in the Okanagan and the Similkameen – at least in the summer. It might be another matter on those winter days when the valleys are socked in.

There also is some good winemaking at Howling Bluff. The winery has now won three Lieutenant Governor’s Awards of excellence for its Pinot Noirs. Most recently, the 2013 vintage of its Century Block Pinot Noir took that award this summer.

Here are notes on recent releases:

Howling Bluff Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($20 for 611 cases). This was fermented in stainless steel at a cool temperature, resulting in a wine with excellent fruit aromas and flavours. It begins with aromas of lime and grapefruit. On the palate, there are flavours of grapefruit and gooseberry mingled with herbs and spice on the crisp, tangy finish. 91.

Howling Bluff Three Mile Creek Reserve Sauvignon Blanc ($25 for 322 cases). This is a complex Graves style white. Sixty percent of the juice was fermented in and aged four months in new French oak puncheons while the remainder was fermented in stainless steel. A modest volume of Sémillon in the blend adds complexity. There are aromas and flavours of herbs and grapefruit with a subtle hint of smoky oak in the background, along with a spine of minerality. The finish is crisp and dry. 92.

Howling Bluff Pinot Noir Rosé 2016 ($20 for 405 cases). This is a robust rosé, unapologetically dark in hue (readers will know I prefer dark rosés, not pale ones). This wine was the result of bleeding juice from tanks of crushed Pinot Noir and then fermenting the juice in stainless steel at cool temperatures. The wine has aromas and flavours of cherries and strawberries. A slight touch of tannin is on the dry finish. I think this gives a good structure. This is a rosé for year-round drinking. 90.

Howling Bluff Acta Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014 ($35 for 277 cases). This is clone 777, planted on a western-facing slope that was once a beach of an ancient lake. Acta is Latin for beach. This wine was aged 12 months in French oak (30% new, 35% each in second and third fill barrels). With bright fruit flavours and silken textures, this is a very appealing Pinot Noir. It has aromas and flavours of cherry and raspberry. It is juicy on the palate and spicy on the finish. 92.

Howling Bluff Summa Quies Pinot Noir 2014 ($35 for 250 cases). This wine is made with clones 114, 667 and 777. It had a similar barrel regime to the previous wine. It begins with aromas of cherry, subtle spicy oak and herbal, forest floor notes. On the palate, there are flavours of cherry, strawberry and vanilla. The colour is deep and the texture is both rich and silky. 92.

Howling Bluff Century Block Pinot Noir 2014 ($N/A for 83 cases). The 2013 vintage of Century Block was priced at $75. This wine is called Century Block because in the 1980s 100 different varieties of apples grew on this site. Now, it is planted with 1,200 vines, clones 666 and 777. This wine was aged for 12 months in new French oak. It begins with aromas of mint, cloves and red fruit. On the palate, there are flavours of black cherry and ripe strawberry mingled with a hint of oak. The concentrated texture suggests a wine of considerable potential to age. 93.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Class of 2016: Liber Farm & Winery

Photo: Liber owners Mike and Nicole Dowell, with son Connor

Liber Farm & Winery
156 Sumac Road
Cawston, BC, V0X 1C3
T: 250.499.5305

When Mike and Nicole Dowell opened the Liber Farm tasting room in July 2016, they realized a dream that had been snuffed out by the temperance-minded British Columbia regulators of the 1960s.

The Liber winery and its seven-acre vineyard occupies a subdivided portion of the historic Mariposa Farm which, in the early 1960s, was the first farm in British Columbia to be certified organic. It blazed the trail for Similkameen agriculture: half the farms in the valley are now organic.

Bob McFadyen, the original owner, had become interested in vineyards and wine while serving with the Canadian Army in Italy during World War II.

Lee McFadyen, his widow, recounted the story in a 2009 note included in a financing package for Mariposa Vineyard, a stillborn winery not connected with Liber Farm. “In 1962 … Bob ended his 10-year-search through B.C. for the ideal location to plant a vineyard,” she wrote. “About 25 acres of grapes were planted, with planning for a further 40 acres to supply the future winery. The politics of the 1960’s, however, stood in the way of a license being issued. The government of the day did not see room for expansion beyond the two existing B.C. wineries.”

She exaggerated – there were actually three wineries at the time.

The couple fell back on selling grapes but the price the McFadyens received for grapes often was below the cost of production. The dream of a winery died. There is a gap in the story but it is probable that the vineyard was pulled out during the great pullout of 1988.

Some of the productive land was subdivided between Lee’s sons. Craig Erickson, the son who took over what later became the Liber farm, grew apples and vegetables.

About 2007, he revisited Bob’s dream. He planted three and a half acres each of Chardonnay and Merlot. After selling grapes for several vintages, he licensed Sleeping Lady Winery (named for the nearby mountain overlooking the Similkameen River) and, with the help of a consultant, began making wine. However, he put the property on the market late in 2015 when he decided to move to Nova Scotia.

Enter the Dowells. Mike, born in 1974 just outside Edmonton, has been a manager with a heating and air conditioning company. Nicole, born in 1977 in Edmonton, has a degree in chemistry and had once worked in a family home-building business. They are also entrepreneurs as importers of premium Colombian rum.

A wine tour in the Okanagan in 2005 followed by a 2006 wine tour in California sparked their interest in wine. “We vacationed in the Okanagan every year from that point forward,” Mike says. “And we purchased a seasonal property in Naramata, so we got exposure to a lot of wineries up there.”

Changes in their personal lives, including a strong interest in organic food, led them to begin looking for a winery or an orchard in wine country. “I remember being stuck in traffic, driving to work in the snow and saying, enough is enough,” Mike says.

“When we did the research, we found this valley was all one and two in the grape atlas,” Mike continues. Bob McFadyen clearly had found excellent grape-growing terroir.  

“Here, everything is class one,” confirms Pascal Madevon, Liber’s consulting winemaker (right). “It could be very hot in the day but at the end of the day, there is the river here and it cools the valley down fast. That is perfect for the Chardonnay and the Merlot. For me, this is an incredible spot for Chardonnay.”

It was the flavour of the Chardonnay that clinched the deal for the Dowells. They took over Sleeping Lady in March 2016 and changed the name to Liber, also the name of their rum distribution business. They preferred that to Sleeping Lady because Liber is one of names the Romans had for their wine god. “And Bacchus was taken,” Mike says.

One of their first moves was to recruit Pascal, a top-notch French-trained winemaker who worked at Osoyoos Larose Winery and Culmina Family Estate before setting up a consulting practice last year.

“Nicole and I are old enough to know that if we don’t like it, we won’t bottle it,” Mike says. “We wanted to hire someone who could help us learn. Our number one fear is that if somebody comes in here and does not like our wine, the chance of them trying our wine again are probably zero. We felt we needed to make sure our first vintage was good. We had to hire the best person we could.”

They took over an inventory of 16,000 litres of 2015 wines made by another excellent consultant. Pascal joined them in June, 2016, in time to help finish those wines and launch into the 2016 vintage. The 1,800 cases of 2016 wines included wines made with purchased fruit.

They opened the Liber tasting room in July, 2016. “We just had three wines to start with,” Mike says. “So we decided we should make more wine. With Pascal’s help, we secured grapes in 2016 from Naramata, Oliver and our area.”

Liber has been able to augment its portfolio this season with those grapes. Some of the wines are bottled under informal sounding labels (Hello Sunshine is an example).

“We are starting a new line called Off Your Rocker Merlot – because we were off our rockers when we bought this place,” Mike laughs. “We have fun with our labels. We don’t take ourselves too seriously.”

Nicole corrects the impression that comment leaves. “The presentation is still meant to be classy,” she says. “When you see that label [Off Your Rocker], it is the fun wine. There are the more serious wines, getting down to business.” In fact, Liber has just bottled a Reserve Merlot for future release.

Here are notes on the wines.

Liber Everyday Chardonnay 2016 ($18 for 410 cases). This unoaked Chardonnay is a delicious wine with aromas and flavours of peaches and ripe apples, all wrapped around a backbone of crisp minerality. 90.

Liber Hello Sunshine 2016 ($19 for 153 cases). This is a blend of 55% Viognier, 35% Pinot Gris and 10% Gewürztraminer. The wine has aromas of apricot, apple and melon which are echoed on the palate. The finish is crisp and dry, punctuated with a touch of spiciness. 88.

Liber Sauvignon Blanc Sémillon 2016 ($22 for 120 cases). This dry and herbal Bordeaux-style blend shows the influence of the French winemaker. The wine begins with lots of drama on the nose. On the palate, it has flavours of grapefruit and mango with a hint of oak. The finish is at once savoury and tangy. 90.

Liber Chardonnay 2016 (to be released late this year). Half of this was aged in stainless steel and half went through malolactic fermentation and aging in French oak. The wine begins with aromas of citrus, honey and vanilla. It is generous on the palate, with buttery undertones to the citrus flavours. Bright acidity gives the wine a crisp, clean finish. 91.

Liber Rosé 2016 ($22 for 132 cases). This is a saignée style wine made with Merlot grapes. The lovely salmon hue is immediately appealing in the glass. It has aromas and flavours of strawberry and raspberry, with a dry finish. 91.

Liber Signature Red 2015 ($25 for 584 cases). This organic wine is a blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot. It begins with aromas of raspberry and cassis, leading to lively brambly flavours. 90.

Liber Let me be franc 2015 ($23 for 301 cases). This is organic Cabernet Franc. It is a spicy, brambly red with flavours of blackberries and cherries. 88.

Liber Cabernet Franc 2016 (unreleased). This has a fuller palate than the 2015 and delivers classic flavours of black cherries and blackberries with a spicy finish. 90.

Liber Off Your Rocker 2016 (unreleased). This is 100% Merlot. Still youthfully firm, it has aromas and flavours of black cherry and blueberry. 90.

Liber Reserve Merlot 2016 (barrel sample). The wine begins with a remarkably perfumed and fruity aroma. The texture is concentrated. The wine delivers flavours of black cherry and dark fruits reminiscent of Christmas spices. 92.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Clos du Soleil will plant second vineyard

Photo: Chicken foraging  in Clos du Soleil's organic vineyard

There is good news for those who never get enough of their favourite wines from Clos du Soleil Winery: this Similkameen winery with a 10-acre estate vineyard has purchased another 10 acres just west of the current vineyard.

The new vineyard is called Les Collines. Half will be planted next spring with Sauvignon Blanc (three clones) and Sémillon, both of which already grow on the estate vineyard. When the new vines are producing, the winery will be able to increase the volumes of its elegant Bordeaux-inspired white wines. The other half of the property will be left in its natural state.

French for “hills,” the Les Collines name was inspired by the rugged nature of the property. “The land is hilly terrain comprised of several steep ridges which is ideal terroir for growing Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon grapes,” says Michael Clark, the general manager and winemaker at Clos du Soleil.  

Like the estate vineyard, the property is certified organic. Michael will continue to maintain organic certification for Les Collines and also will be practicing biodynamics here. He believes that living soils are crucial to maintaining vine health and for producing grapes that most truly represent their place.

“For grape growing,” Michael continues, “the soil composition is of paramount importance for establishing a vineyard. The soil at Les Collines is extremely rocky with high levels of angular rocks within the gravelly loam, and is similar in composition to the upper bench Similkameen soil series seen on the estate vineyard. In addition, the organic practices already in place on this property have contributed to maintaining soil health and quality.”

The announcement came shortly after the release of three 2016 wines and a 2014 Syrah. The fruit sources are a mix of estate grapes and purchased grapes, primarily from vineyards in the Similkameen Valley.

Here are notes on the wines.

Clos du Soleil Capella 2015 ($27.90 for 20 barrels). This is 80% Sauvignon Blanc, 20% Sémillon. The wine was fermented in barrel (55% French oak puncheons, 45% stainless steel). Half the wine was fermented with wild yeast and one-third of the barrels went through malolactic fermentation. All lots were barrel-aged on the lees for nine months. The result: a rich and complex dry white. It begins with herbal and grapefruit aromas. There is good weight on the palate, with layered flavours of  grapefruit, lime, passionfruit and quince. 91.

Clos du Soleil Sémillon 2016 (wine club only; 110 cases). This wine was fermented and aged eight months in concrete, with minimal handling. It begins with floral aromas along with notes of lime. On the palate, the texture is elegant and polished, with flavours of lemon, lime, wet stone around a backbone of minerality. The finish is dry. 91.

Clos du Soleil Fumé Blanc 2016 ($20.90 for 860 cases). For this wine, grapes were purchased from two Similkameen vineyards and one in Oliver. The blend is 88% Sauvignon Blanc and 12% Sémillon. Both were blended after fermentation was completed in stainless steel, with light oak contact for the Sauvignon Blanc. It is a delicious and complex white, beginning with herbal and grapefruit aromas. The wine is rich on the palate, with flavours of grapefruit, apples and pears. Bright acidity gives the wine a crisp, refreshing finish. 91.

Clos du Soleil Grower’s Series Pinot Blanc 2016 ($20.90 for 522 cases). The Pinot Blanc variety deserves a better profile, given how well in grows in the Okanagan and the Similkameen. This is one of the best examples, a top-flight Pinot Blanc with fresh and floral aromas that reminded me of morning in a hay field after a spring rain. On the palate, it has flavours of crisp apples mingled with hints of citrus. 91.

Clos du Soleil Rosé 2016 ($19.90 for 544 cases). This is a blend of 60% Cabernet Franc, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, grown specifically to make rosé. The appeal begins with its dark ruby hue in the glass (a rosé that actually looks like one!).  It has aromas and flavours of wild strawberries, cherries and red plums. A touch of tannin and minerality gives the wine backbone and body. The wine is delicious now but is also a rosé to enjoy with food the whole year. 91.

Clos du Soleil Grower’s Series Syrah 2014 ($26.90 for 250 cases). This is the winery’s first Syrah. It may be a departure from the Bordeaux template at Clos du Soleil, but it is a fine departure. The grapes are from the same Keremeos vineyard that supplies the Pinot Blanc. The appeal begins with the deep, rich colour and the aromas of black cherry, plum and raspberry. On the palate, there are flavours of plum, black cherry and cola, with a hint of cloves and white pepper on the finish. 91.

Clos du Soleil Célestiale 2014 ($26.90 for 57 barrels). This is 38% Merlot, 36% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc, 5% Malbec and 1% Petit Verdot, aged 15 months in French oak. This is a very approachable Bordeaux blend, beginning with aromas of black currant, cherry and raspberry, followed by flavours of black cherry, blueberry and plums. The long ripe tannins give the wine easy elegance. 92.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Stag's Hollow champions Vidal

Photo: a bunch of Vidal grapes

Larry Gerelus and Linda Pruegger took over a vineyard already growing Vidal when they established Stag’s Hollow Winery & Vineyard in 1995.

Vidal is a white French hybrid white varietal. The conventional wisdom at the time held that French hybrids needed to be replaced with vinifera grapes that make better wine. Most of the hybrids, in fact, were pulled from Okanagan vineyards in 1988.

There are a few exceptions and one happens to be Vidal. The variety, much more widely planted in Ontario than in British Columbia, has been the backbone of Canadian Icewine production since the 1980s. The variety tended to be overlooked as a table wine grape.

Larry and Linda initially bought into that received wisdom. They grafted a substantial part of the vineyard’s Vidal to Chardonnay and started calling table wine from the remaining vines “Tragically Vidal” because the variety was thought to be on its way out.

Then a strange thing happened. The well-made Vidal table wine at Stag’s Hollow developed something of a cult following. At the same time, the “anything but Chardonnay” bias infected a lot of consumers. Larry and Linda has to remove some of the Chardonnay grafts and let the Vidal vines regenerate from the roots. A few years later, they actually planted more Vidal when establishing their new Shuttleworth Creek Vineyard at Okanagan Falls.

Dwight Sick, the winemaker they hired in 2008, also takes Vidal very seriously. The 2016 Tragically Vidal still has all of the tropical fruit flavours that made this a cult wine. But he has tweaked it to achieve more complexity.

This wine is made from two lots of Vidal. The lot from the Stag’s Hollow Vineyard was fermented in stainless steel for 30 days at cool temperatures until it was totally dry. The second lot, from the Shuttleworth Creek Vineyard, was fermented in stainless steel at slightly warmer temperatures. Fermentation was arrested to leave a hint of sweetness. As well, about a quarter of the fruit had botrytis, or noble rot, which is rare in the Okanagan. The wine was finished by blending in 14% Orange Muscat.

The only thing tragic about this delicious wine is that it will be sold out before most of us can get our hands on it.

Here are notes on that wine and two other recent Stag’s Hollow releases.

Stag’s Hollow Muscat Frizzante 2016 ($22). This is a blend of 57% Muscat Ottonel, 5% Orange Muscat and 38% Riesling 2015. The lively bubbles propel floral and spice aromas and flavours; and give the wine a creamy texture. The modest touch of residual sugar is nicely balanced with bright acidity. This is a wine crying out for a Sunday brunch. 91.

Stag’s Hollow Tragically Vidal 2016 ($17). This is a blend of 86% Vidal and 14% Orange Muscat. The wine begins with aromas of grapefruit. On the generous the palate, there are flavours of honey and grapefruit with a hint of residual sugar. A portion of the fruit was affected by botrytis, accounting for the complex honey and tobacco notes on the finish. 90.

Stag’s Hollow Merlot 2014 ($18.99). This wine began its fermentation on one-ton fermenters but was transferred to American and French oak barrels (50/50) to finish fermenting. It was aged in barrel for 18 months. Dark in colour, the wine begins with toasty aromas, along with black cherry and fig. One the palate, there are concentrated flavours of dark fruit – figs, plums, black cherries. Long ripe tannins give this wine a generous texture and finish. 90.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Lunessence wines continue to hit the right notes

Photo: Michal Mosny, the maestro at Lunessence

Michal Mosny, the general manager and winemaker at Lunessence Winery & Vineyard in Summerland, plays classical music in the vineyard, in the cellars and in the tasting room. The vines are treated to Bach and Mozart. The red wines get Puccini operas while the whites get Verdi operas.

Michal, who was born in Slovakia in 1982, lives and breathes classical music. “In Slovakia, I had a small garage winery next to a village where Beethoven used to go,” Michal says. “He wrote Für Elise there.”

In 2011, Michal and his wife, Martina, emigrated to the Okanagan. He set up a vineyard management company; that led to him being recruited in 2014 to manage Lunessence and its six-and-a-half-acre vineyard. The property formerly was the Sonoran Estate Winery until it was purchased and rebranded by Zhizhong Si, a China-born environmental consultant who was educated in Canada. He is now based in Vancouver.

Since 2014, the tasting room has been renovated and a new production facility has been built elsewhere on the property. And, of course, speakers have been deployed in some parts of the vineyard.

“There are a lot of studies about how music impacts the plants,” Michal says. “I did a lot of research about it. I think there is something. I can see something in the wines, that they have a different integrity. I think they are happier. With classical music, every single instrument produces some emotions.”

He continues: “When we ferment white wines, usually it is opera we are listening to, to bring some stories into the wines. White wines are usually fermented to Giuseppe Verdi. When the reds come into the cellar, we switch to Puccini. It is fun when you are listening to Puccini and there is some tragedy and you are doing punch downs …”

Michal will concede that it is difficult to prove that wine benefits from good music. But there is no harm in it. Besides, he loves classical music. Those who share his taste will agree that the Lunessence tasting room is one of the most listenable in the Okanagan.

Previous vintages at Lunessence have been excellent. However, the recent releases are even more in harmony than before.

Here are notes on current Lunessence wines. Winemaker’s Cut refers two special selections from the vineyards – or as Michal says, “a moment in time captured.”

Lunessence Muscat 2016 ($20 for 88 cases). The lovely wine begins with aromas of rose petals and spice, leading to flavours of peach, mandarin orange and spice. A touch of residual sweetness accents both the aromas and the flavours. 91.

Lunessence Sauvignon Blanc Muscat 2016 ($22 for 660 cases). This blend also includes small amounts of Viognier, Chardonnay and Sémillon. The wine has aromas of apricots. On the palate, there are flavours of apricot, citrus, ripe apple and pink grapefruit. The body is light but the texture is juicy and refreshing. 90.

Lunessence Sauvignon Blanc Winemaker’s Cut 2016 ($24 for 270 cases). The wine begins with aromas of herbs and citrus. On the palate, there are flavours of citrus supported by subtle oak notes (20% of this wine was aged five months in Slavonian oak). The finish is dry. 89.

Lunessence Pinot Blanc Oraniensteiner 2016 ($22 for 270 cases). The wine begins with aromas of melon and green apple, which are echoes in the flavours. A touch of residual, nicely balanced with acidity, give wine a rich texture. The spine of minerality creates the impression of a dry, spicy finish. 90.

Lunessence Quartet 2016 ($18 for 550 cases). This is a blend of Viognier, Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Orange Muscat. The wine was fermented in stainless steel, partially with wild yeast, and had some time on lees. Consequently, a delicate bready note mingles with the fruit aromas. On the palate, there are flavours of ripe pineapple. A hint of residual sweetness gives the wine a rich finish. 91.

Lunessence Duet 2016 ($20 for 400 cases). This fruit-forward red is a blend of Cabernet Franc and Syrah. It was fermented 80% in stainless steel and 20% in American oak. The wine has aromas of red berries with a hint of cedar. On the palate, there are flavours of cherry with a touch of black pepper. The soft ripe tannins give this wine a juicy and approachable texture. 90.

Lunessence Essence 2015 Special Late Harvest ($26 for 173 cases of 375 ml bottles). This is a blend of Pinot Blanc, Oraniensteiner and Gewürztraminer. The aromas and flavours are ripe and exotic – hints of honey and orange marmalade with a spicy accept. The texture is fleshy. The lingering finish is sweet and well-balanced. 91.

Lunessence Merlot 2015 ($30 for 330 cases). A bold, dark wine with 15% alcohol – reflecting a warm vintage – this begins with powerful aromas of black cherry, plum, cassis and vanilla. It is a powerful wine with concentrated flavours of black cherry mingled with dark chocolate, vanilla and leather. It is a wine that will command the table. 92.

Lunessence Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($30 for 330 cases). This dark wine begins with aromas of cassis, leather and vanilla. The palate is rich with flavours of dark fruit mingled with vanilla. The long ripe tannins contribute to a generous texture, but with the structure to age well and develop further complexity. 91.

Lunessence Winemaker’s Cut Syrah 2015 ($32 for 150 cases). The heavy bottle announces a bold Syrah, a wine that begins with intense aromas of fig, plum, black cherry and vanilla. The flavours follow through with dark fruit, leather and pepper. This is an example of why the Okanagan is getting a reputation for powerful Syrahs. 92.

Lunessence Crescendo MMXV 2015 ($30 for 550 cases.) This is the winery’s initial Bordeaux red – a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot. The wine was aged six months in French and Slavonian oak and six months in stainless steel. The wine begins with aromas 0f cherry, red currant, vanilla and mocha. On the palate, there are layers of flavour beginning with black currant, black cherry and blackberry. The texture is rich. The finish has notes of spicy red and black fruits mingled with hints of cedar. 91.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Class of 2017: Forgotten Hill Wine Co.

 Photo: Wine growers Maya and Benoit Gauthier

Forgotten Hill Wine Co.
3960 Cottonwood Lane
Naramata, BC
Tel: 1-250-496-5600

At 2,100 feet above sea level, Forgotten Hill proprietors Maya and Benoit Gauthier have the highest-elevation winery vineyard in the Okanagan.

This Naramata Bench winery, which has just opened its by-appointment tasting room, grows primarily Pinot Gris, with a few rows of Pinot Noir, in a four-acre vineyard. The vines are above the Kettle Valley Railroad right of way, now a popular hiking and biking trail.

The tasting room is adjacent to an elegant bed and breakfast destination, also called Forgotten Hill, which opened five years ago. The view from the B&B is nothing short of breathtaking, encompassing vineyards and wineries along Okanagan Lake from Naramata to Penticton.

It was that view that led Maya’s parents, Denys and Cherry Bouton, to buy this property in 2004.

“There was no name to this hill,” Maya says. “That is why we call it Forgotten Hill. When we first moved here, there was nothing – no power, no water. Nobody knew that this land was available. Everybody thought it was just crown land up in the woods. No, it was land that had been owned by a logging company for 90 years.”

Maya continues the story: “My parents wanted to have family land. Both sides of the family had vineyards and land but over time, everything was lost. My dad is French, from Paris, and my mom is from India. My Mom’s family lost everything in Partition and Dad’s family lost stuff during the war. They both had this dream of having a piece of land for the family. Once we started coming here, we all fell in love with it.”

Maya grew up in North Vancouver and went to Simon Fraser University to earn a degree in English literature and communications. She thought about continuing on to a master’s degree. However, when the decision was made to plant a vineyard in 2008, she enrolled in the viticulture and winemaking program at Okanagan College.

“I spent a year doing viticulture,” she says. “Driving a tractor was too much fun.”

She met Benoit at Okanagan College, where he was also studying winemaking and viticulture after catching the wine bug in California. He was born in 1980 in Rouyn Noranda in Québec. He took a degree in chemistry in a co-operative program at the University of Sherbrooke.

“Every second semester, I had a work placement in industry,” he says. That included experience at a pharmaceutical company and a paint company. One assignment with the federal government in Ottawa had him determining the age of legal documents by analyzing solvents in the ink.

“At the end of my bachelor, I did not see myself going into chemistry, either for a master’s or for a living,” Benoit says. “It was just too specialized and too narrow. I love nature and I love to work with my hands; and I love science. And I love wine, beer and good food. So I just decided to take a pause and go travelling a little bit.”

He spent a month with a friend in San Francisco. “I visited Napa and Sonoma, drank some really good wines and visited some vineyards,” he remembers. “I thought that maybe winemaking would be suitable for me.”

Returning to Canada, he considered Brock University but settled on the practical training at Okanagan College.

“All the teachers are winemakers and viticulturists,” Benoit says. “I thought it was a good way to learn the hands-on experience right away. With my bachelor of chemistry, I also looked at a master in winemaking. Sitting at a desk, you learn good things, but winemaking is really hands on.”

He then spent two years at Wild Goose Vineyards, mentoring with Hagen Kruger, the winemaker and co-proprietor there. Maya, meanwhile, spent two years at Township 7 Vineyards, working with winemaker Brad Cooper.

When Benoit and Maya married in 2009, they spent their honeymoon at a large winery in New Zealand’s Marlborough region, working a vintage.  Returning to Canada, he spent a year at Pentâge Winery and then took a year off to help build the Forgotten Hill bed and breakfast house. Maya worked in winery tasting rooms until the demands of raising two young daughters and managing the B&B took all her time.

When the house building project was concluded, Benoit resumed his winemaking career, joining Noble Ridge Vineyard & Winery in 2011. Since 2014, he has been fulltime winemaker there.

Photo: The view from Forgotten Hill

He and Maya acknowledge that it was controversial to plant their high-elevation vineyard. “Nine years ago, when we were looking to plant our vineyard, there was no information,” Maya says. “You can get charts for the whole valley – temperature, soil, all the information you could want for planting. Everything stopped right at the KVR and there was nothing beyond it. We started calling this ‘forgotten hill’ at that point.”

So they established their own weather station to gather the necessary data. “When we took our own measurements over a few years, we were confident the growing conditions would not be that much different from the vineyards just below us,” Maya says. “We have a big rock face just behind the vineyard that reflects the heat.”

“And the slope is perfect, too,” Benoit says. “It is a gentle slope facing south/southwest.  There is really good air drainage.” In winter, an insulating layer of snow usually remains on the vineyard while vineyards lower on the hillside are often bare.

While the vineyard is planted almost entirely to Pinot Gris, a small block of Pinot Noir was planted as an “experiment,” Benoit says. It proved to be a suitable choice and, with as much as 10 more plantable acres, more Pinot Noir vines will be planted next year. He also purchases varieties such as Merlot and Syrah which would not flourish at this elevation.

Maya and Benoit sold grapes in 2013 but, to assess quality of the fruit, made wine for person consumption in 2012 and 2014. The results led to the production of commercial quantities in 2015 under another winery’s license while getting Forgotten Hill licensed last year.

“In 2016, I think we produced 560 cases,” Benoit says. “This coming vintage, we need to produce about 660 cases. And probably step it up to 750 or 800 cases the year after. We will take it slow and easy to establish ourselves. We are pretty busy.”

Indeed. He is also working the vineyard and making wine at Noble Ridge. Jim and Leslie D’Andrea, owners of Noble Ridge, are rare among winery owners who allow their winemakers to pursue sideline projects.

“This is kind of my weekend project,” Benoit laughs. “Noble Ridge is my fulltime gig. This allows me to experiment with different winemaking methods, different styles. I am doing Syrah here, so it kind of extends my winemaking skills. Who knows, maybe in 10 years? For the time being, I am happy to make small lots and serve them to our guests.”

Here are notes on current releases which, except for the Pinot Noir, can be found in  VQA marketing channels.

Forgotten Hill Pinot Gris 2015 ($19.04 for 185 cases). This wine reflects a warm vintage. It is rich in texture with flavours of ripe pear and almond and with a hint of spice and minerality on the finish. 90.

Forgotten Hill Pinot Gris 2016 ($19.04 for 108 cases). Benoit split the juice into three lots, using a different yeast with each one to achieve complexity. The wine begins with floral and citrus aromas. On the palate, there are flavours of citrus, apples and pears. The bright acidity gives a refreshing lift to both the aromas and the flavours. 91.

Forgotten Hill Rosé ($19.04 for 135 cases). The blend is 81% Merlot, 19% Pinot Noir. The wine has strawberry aromas and flavours with a dry, savoury and herbal finish. 89.

Forgotten Hill Pinot Noir 2015 ($30.35 for 25 cases). The wine begins with aromas of cherry and strawberry. Intense flavours of cherry and vanilla explode on the palate. The wine has a silky and juicy texture with a long lingering finish. The varietal definition shows that this high-elevation vineyard is excellent Pinot Noir terroir. 92.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Mirabel and Painted Rock have upscale rosé wines

Photo: Mirabel owner Doug Reimer

It speaks to the surging popularity of rosé wines that both Mirabel Vineyards and Painted Rock Estate Winery have released “premium-priced” rosé wines.

Most B.C. rosés are priced in the $15 to $20 a bottle range. The imported pink wines in the B.C. Liquor Stores, while mostly also under $20, include a selection of Provence rosé wines between $20 and $30, suggesting that a market has developed for premium rosé.

Mirabel Vineyards is the new Kelowna producer owned Doug and Dawn Reimer. They released a very fine Pinot Noir last fall at $70 a bottle. Now they have released a Mirabel Rosé of Pinot Noir 2016, priced $30.

The smart packaging resembles the Miravel 2016 Provence rosé listed this year at $28.99 in the B.C. Liquor Stores. The name and the bottle shape no doubt are coincidental.

Painted Rock is the winery established by John Skinner and his family on a vineyard near the Skaha climbing bluffs south of Penticton. All the wines here are priced between $35 and $55 – except for the rosé, which is $21.69 plus tax. This is the winery’s fourth rosé vintage.

Both of these wines are made in the saignée method. That is a French term meaning “bleed” that is one of the common ways to make a rosé. It means that red grapes are crushed and the juice receives the required skin contact to achieve a rosé colour. Then a portion of the juice – typically no more than 15% by volume – is bled from the tank. It is fermented much like a white wine.

The remaining varietal juice remains on the skins for the longer period required for red wine. With the higher ratio of skins to juice, the red wine benefits by having more concentrated flavours and textures.

And the rosé does not suffer, as these wines illustrate.

Here are notes on the two rosé wines, as well as a note on Painted Rock’s 2016 Chardonnay, also just released.

Mirabel Rosé of Pinot Noir 2016 ($30 for 100 cases). This wine was fermented cool in stainless steel and spent six months on the lees, gaining texture. Packaged in a clear squat bottle with a glass stopper, the wine has immediate eye appeal. The light salmon pink hue mirrors many fine Provence rosés. The aromas of strawberry and raspberry and the fruit flavours pack more punch than the colour leads one to expect. There are flavours of strawberry with a hint of McIntosh apple. The crisp, dry finish is refreshing. 91.

Painted Rock Estate Rosé 2016 ($21.69 plus tax for 510 cases). Every red varietal in the winery was bled for this. The blend is 29% Merlot, 22% Cabernet Franc, 20% Syrah, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Malbec and 8% Petit Verdot. The vibrant hue is a bit darker than the Provence style; more like a Tavel rosé. The aromas of strawberry and red currant just bound from the glass, leading to bold and herbaceous flavours of strawberry, cranberry, cherry and red currant. The wine is dry. 91.

Painted Rock Estate Chardonnay 2016 ($30.49 plus tax for 488 cases). To build complexity into this wine, there were three different harvests over three weeks of the Chardonnay block to capture specific characters of flavour and ripeness. Eighty percent of the wine was aged six months in French oak (55% new); the remainder was aged in stainless steel. Sixty percent of the wine went through malolactic fermentation. The object of this complex winemaking was to preserve aromatics, fruit and acidity while framing it very subtly with oak. The wine begins with citrus aromas. On the palate, there are flavours of apple, melon and stone fruit. This is an excellent wine but I wonder if it has not been released a bit too soon. There is a lot of potential yet to emerge with, say, six more months of bottle aging. 90 +.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Seven Directions 2016 rosés: pale but tasty

Photo: Winemaker Daniel Bontorin

Pale rosé wines have become highly fashionable.

It seems that many producers in British Columbia have decided to take a cue from the rosés of Provence. One of these producers is Daniel Bontorin, winemaker and co-proprietor of Seven Directions Wine.

Daniel is also the winemaker for Volcanic Hills Estate Winery in West Kelowna. However, Seven Directions is his own label. Under that label, he producers just rosés.

Daniel’s rosé-making pedigree goes back to the 2005 vintage when he made Vaïla, the outstanding rosé still produced at Le Vieux Pin. That wine, along with rosé from JoieFarm Winery, almost certainly started the renewed interest in a wine style made now by the majority of wineries.

Vaïla is a Pinot Noir rosé. Daniel made three vintages at Le Vieux Pin before moving on to consulting. Subsequent winemakers at LVP have continued to make it in the same vibrant and juicy style of the original.

One of the first wines Daniel made at Volcanic Hills in 2010 was a Gamay Noir Rosé. It went on to win a Lieutenant Governor’s Award of Excellence.

So I would never doubt his rosé-making chops. But I wish he had not quite succumbed to the Provence fashion. I prefer more colour in rosé, even if that puts me at odds with a lot of sommeliers and more than a few other wine writers. I like my pink wines to put on a bit of a show in the glass.

Happily, pale does not mean flavourless. Once I get to taste these wines, I can deal with my bias while I wait for the world to return to equilibrium on the appearance of  rosé.

Here are notes of two of Daniel’s recent releases.

Seven Directions Pinot Noir Rosé 2016 Tractor & Vines Vineyard ($22.90 for 205 cases).  The grapes for this wine are from a Summerland vineyard. The winery describes this as having a “pale grapefruit hue” and cautions the consumer should not be fooled. There is lots going on in the nose and the palate. The wine begins with aromas of strawberry and raspberry. There are red berry flavours with a hint of fruit sweetness and a juicy texture. 91.

Seven Directions Cabernet Franc Rosé 2016 Fruitvale Ridge Vineyard ($16.90 for 300 cases). The grapes for this wine are from eight-year-old vines in an Osoyoos vineyard. The winery describes the colour as “pale coral.” The aromas of the delicate wine suggest strawberry, raspberry and tangerine which are echoed in the flavours. The flavours are surprising robust for such a delicate wine. The finish is dry. 90.