Friday, October 27, 2017

Roche Wines has a home on Upper Bench Road

Photo: Pénélope and Dylan Roche

Roche Wines, which opened its winery this summer on Upper Bench Road in Penticton, should encourage all ambitious young Okanagan vintners trying to figure out how to open their own wineries with limited resources.

Since I have not seen the books at Roche Wines, I have no idea whether some family money is backing up owners Dylan and Pénélope Roche. But I do know that this young couple, who moved to the Okanagan from France in 2011, have developed their business one methodical step after another. Other aspiring young vintners might look on Roche Wines as a case study.

Dylan was born in Vancouver in 1976, the son of a lawyer and a nurse, and got a degree in urban geography from the University of British Columbia. After college, he went to Burgundy in 2000 as a bike mechanic and cycling guide with Butterfield & Robinson. Exploring wineries in his free time inspired a passion for wine. By 2003, he was enrolled in enology studies in Beaune.

 That led to winemaking apprenticeships over the next five years in Côte d’Or, Chablis and New Zealand. He then became a wine educator and program director at Château Lynch-Bages in Pauillac from  March, 2006 to February 2008.

Dylan then became assistant winemaker at two estates in Péssac-Léognan and the winemaker at Château Bellevue de Tayac in Margaux in 2010, just before he and Pénélope decided on a winemaking career the Okanagan. Pénélope was born in France, with five generations of winemaking and viticulture behind her in the family estate, Château Les Carmes in Haut-Brion (which was sold just before the couple came to Canada). She also has formal winemaking training and experience in Spain, New Zealand and Australia.

While Pénélope worked as a consulting viticulturist in the Okanagan, Dylan became the winemaker at Intersection Wines, remaining there until early 2016.

They established the Roche label as a virtual winery with a small production of Chardonnay in 2012. Virtual wineries produce wine in existing licenced wineries. It is a way of getting into the business without investing in production facilities until wine sales justify it.

Roche Wines was an early member of the Garagiste wineries, a group of largely Okanagan wineries (many virtual) producing less than 2,000 cases a year. This year’s vintage is pushing Roche beyond that threshold. It has taken the couple about five years to grow from 85 cases of Chardonnay in 2012 to their own winery and vineyard.

Their search for a vineyard was confined largely to the Naramata Bench and to Okanagan Falls until they bought an eight-acre property with four acres of vines on Upper Bench Road in 2014.

“We had driven by this property a few times,” Dylan says. “It was on the market for a while [since 2013].” Because there was a meadow and a planting of Christmas trees near the road, “it was not an obvious vineyard from the road.”

The property was one-third of a block owned a veteran viticulturist named John Barnay, who had planted grapes about 2o years ago and still farms the adjacent block.

Initially, Dylan was lukewarm on the property because of the varieties in his four acres: one acre of Zweigelt and three acres of Schönburger. “We hesitated,” he said, after they first looked at the land. “Then a few months later, we said this is the perfect location, the perfect exposure, the perfect soil. It is just the two varieties that we were sticking on.”

Neither he nor Pénélope had experience with those two varieties. But they were impressed that the own-rooted vines were about 20 years old and very healthy. They bought the property and kept the Zweigelt and the Schönburger. The latter was under contract to another winery through this vintage, although Dylan kept enough back so he could learn the potential of Schönburger.”

“We talked about tearing out Schönburger and planting something else, probably Pinot Noir,” Dylan says. “But it is like adopting a puppy … you get fond of it. Pénélope is now protecting it.” However, they have planted an additional 1.75 acres of vines, two-thirds Chardonnay and one-third Pinot Noir.

Dylan turns the Zweigelt, an Austrian red not well-known in this market, into an a very successful dry rosé. One of his secrets: a dash of Schönburger is blended into the wine to lift the aromatics.

Beginning in 2013, Dylan and Pénélope began to extend their portfolio by purchasing Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris from the 15-acre Kozier Organic Vineyard on Todd Road, not far away on the Naramata Bench. They had become friends of owner Len Kozier and his family in 2012 while buying grapes for Intersection.

They continued to buy fruit after Len died suddenly early in 2013. Last year, the Kozier family turned over farming that vineyard to Dylan and Pénélope. “The vineyard has Merlot, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and Viognier,” Dylan says.

The control of that grape supply and the opening of the Roche winery this fall is triggering a major extension of the Roche portfolio.

“We were limiting our scope when we were working for other wineries, just for time and logistics,” Dylan says. “We were at one white, one red and one rosé for a couple of years. In 2016, we added a few wines in anticipation of opening. By this time next year, we will be up to eight or nine wines. We don’t want to go much beyond that.” 

“We have continued with the Pinot Gris, the Pinot Noir and the rosé,” Dylan adds. “We have a second Pinot Gris, and a Schönburger. This fall, there will be two different Pinot Noirs. We also have Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon in the barrel. We haven’t forgotten that Pénélope is from Bordeaux.”  

The winery, a metal-clad building fronting on Upper Bench Road, is designed for a capacity of 6,000 to 10,000 cases. It is a practical, well-designed building, double-insulated to conserve energy consumption. The compact tasting room is tucked into a corner with windows that look over the vineyard. It is not a LEED building but the design principles reflect Dylan’s LEED thinking.

Here are notes on Roche wines.

Roche Pinot Gris 2014 ($25.90). This may be sold out … but it is a complex wine with intense fruit flavours and herbal/honeyed notes in the aroma. This makes the case for aging Pinot Gris. 92.

Roche Pinot Gris 2015 ($25.90). The winery released 236 cases this summer. The wine was fermented in neutral oak. It has good weight, with aromas and flavours of pears and a hint of vanilla on the finish. 92.

Roche Pinot Gris ‘Inox’ 2016 ($20.90). This tank-fermented and aged wine is crisp, with aromas and flavours of citrus, pears and apples. A nice spine of minerality adds to the weight and structure. 90.

Roche Arôme 2016 ($17.90 for 130 cases). This is the winery’s dry Schönburger, a crisply spicy and aromatic white that certainly makes the case for keeping the variety in the portfolio. The wine is exotic, with tropical fruit and herbal flavours. 91.

Roche Pinot Noir 2014 ($34.90). The wine begins with aromas of cherry mingled with classic “forest floor” notes. Time in barrel have given this a toasty note. Flavours of strawberry and cherry dominate the palate. The texture is silky. 91.


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