Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Howard Soon becomes winemaker at Vanessa Vineyards

Photo: Vanessa master winemaker Howard Soon

Vanessa Vineyards has recruited the briefly-retired Howard Soon as its master winemaker.

It is a coup that did not surprise anyone in the wine industry. Howard, who retired this summer after 37 vintages with Calona Vineyards and Sandhill Wines, has been involved with the Vanessa project in the Similkameen for a number of years. When Vanessa, which was planted a decade ago, began selling its grapes to Andrew Peller Ltd., Howard began making single vineyard wines with those grapes for Sandhill.

In a statement, he said: “I’ve worked with Vanessa Vineyard grapes since its founding, and believe it is unlike any other vineyard due to the site’s unique topography, climatic conditions and soil types – the perfect combination for making truly distinctive wine.”

Vanessa, which opened a tasting room in the Similkameen just this summer, began releasing wines under its own label in the 2012. These impressive red wines have been made to date by Karen Gillis, the winemaker at Red Rooster Winery, another Peller-owned property. Because Vanessa is not expected to build its own winery in the Similkameen for several years, the 2017 vintage and perhaps the 2018 will also be made at Red Rooster, but under Howard’s hand.

“I wasn’t looking for a job,” Howard says. But, after a career with a major winery, he could not pass up the opportunity to “dedicate myself to this vineyard.”

I included Vanessa Vineyards in the book I published this spring: Icon: Flagship Wines from British Columbia’s Best Wineries. Here is an excerpt to provide background on the winery.

This 30-hectare (75-acre) Similkameen Valley vineyard was developed on exceptionally rocky raw land. To prepare it for planting in 2006, the vineyard managers brought in a rock crusher more appropriate, perhaps, to a quarry. The machine wore out two sets of teeth while pulverizing the rock. It is not surprising that the red wines from this vineyard have a spine of minerality that should contribute to their longevity.

The specifications released with the first wines outline this terroir: “The vines grow in rows of rocks, stressing the plants, absorbing the day heat and imparting that warmth during the cooler nights. This gives the grapes their unique and complex character. The west to southwest exposure on which the rocky vineyard sits benefits from the afternoon sun, which contributes to lengthening the growing season and producing low yields of intensely ripe fruit.”

Proprietors John Welson and Suki Sekhon did not necessarily have a winery in mind when they bought this property in 2005. Suki is a successful Vancouver developer, while John is a retired stockbroker who is passionate about wine. In his Vancouver business, Suki constructs buildings that are leased to clients. He thought he could develop a vineyard and then lease it to a winery. That is not the wine industry’s usual business model. Wineries need to know the quality of the grapes before committing to buying them. When the vineyard produced fruit, Suki and John began selling grapes to Andrew Peller Ltd., the owner of nearby Rocky Ridge Vineyard and also Sandhill Wines. In 2010, Howard Soon, the Sandhill winemaker, added a Vanessa Cabernet Merlot blend made with their grapes to his portfolio of single-vineyard wines.

That wine helped encourage John and Suki to open a boutique winery. “We kind of went into this initially, basically to build a vineyard, and then, as you get into it, the industry just pulls you along,” John admits.

Except for two acres of Viognier, the Vanessa vineyard is planted entirely to sun-loving reds: Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. Suki had concluded that it is one of the warmest sites in the sun-bathed Similkameen and is best suited for red varietals. He will find a cooler site if he and John decide they need white wines in their portfolio.

Old maps show that an easement for a stagecoach road from Osoyoos to Princeton ran by the property. For a time, the partners considered calling the winery Stagecoach Road or Old Stagecoach Road. In the end, they opted for Vanessa, the name of Suki’s eldest daughter.

Howard Soon is one of the most respected winemakers in British Columbia, both for the many awards his wines have won and for the young winemakers he has mentored. He hides his celebrity behind a down-to-earth personality and a self-deprecating sense of humour.

He was born in 1952 in Vancouver, the grandson of a shopkeeper who emigrated from southern China in the 1880s. Howard graduated in biochemistry from the University of British Columbia in 1974. After five years in the brewing industry, he joined Calona in 1980 as a quality control supervisor, became assistant winemaker in 1981 and subsequently was promoted to chief winemaker.

His new role at Vanessa is hardly a part-time venture. “I am in there all the way,” he says. “I’m excited to go back to the work bench. It will be refreshing to be hands on with these small productions.

Currently, Vanessa produces about 3,000 cases a year. The vineyard would support 10,000 cases a year but the winery’s owners are in no rush to get there. The significant shortage of grapes that has developed in the Okanagan and the Similkameen creates a strong demand for Vanessa’s grapes.

“We have a big vineyard and a small winery,” says Vanessa partner John Welson. “We have control over the quality of the fruit and we have the financial backing to support the vineyard.”

None of the Vanessa wines are currently released to wine stores. They are available in a handful of restaurants, at the tasting room (right) and to members of Vanessa’s wine club.

Here are notes one some of the current releases.

Vanessa Meritage 2013 ($36 for 625 cases). This is a blend of 44% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Cabernet Franc 32% and 24% Merlot. It is a bold red, beginning with aromas of vanilla and spice that reflect the 18 months the wine had in barrel. The barrel regime was complex: individual varieties were fermented in and aged eight months in barrel. Then the wine was blended and aged another 12 months in French and American oak barrels, of which 60% were new. On the palate, there are flavours of black currants, black cherries, coffee and licorice. The finish is lingering, with notes of spice and cedar. 93.

Vanessa Syrah 2013 ($39 for 270 cases). This is 91% Syrah co-fermented with 9% Viognier in the classic style of the Rhone. This wine has been aged 18 months in French and American barrels, again 60% new. Powerful aromas explode from the glass: white and black pepper, gamy red fruit, chocolate and licorice. All of this is echoed on the palate, along with flavours of plum, figs, black olives and leather. 92.

Vanessa Right Bank 2014 ($39.99 for 1,090 cases). This is a rich, full-bodied Meritage anchored with Merlot in the classis right bank style of Bordeaux. The flavours of plum, black cherry and cassis simply enrobe the palate with luscious fruit. 93.

Vanessa Merlot 2014 ($34.99 for 570 cases). This is the first single variety Merlot from Vanessa. The wine shows good concentration, with aromas of black currant, black cherry and spice, all of which is echoed in the dried fruit flavours on the rich palate. 92.

Vanessa Cabernet Franc 2015 (Not yet released). This is a delicious wine, with brambly aromas and flavours, including black berry and black cherry. The texture, with long ripe tannins, is generous and approachable. 92.

Vanessa Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 (Not yet released). This wine suggests that Vanessa will emerge as a leading Cabernet Sauvignon producer. It recalls a Margaret River Cabernet from Australia, with bell pepper mingled with sage aromas. On the palate, there are flavours of black currant, black cherry, black olives and tobacco. The firm texture supports a wine with ability to mature in the cellar. 92.


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