Thursday, November 8, 2018

Class of 2018: Echo Bay Vineyard

Photo: Winemaker Kelsey Rufiange (left) with parents Kathy and Mark

Echo Bay Vineyard
224 Eastside Road
Okanagan Falls, BC, V0H 1R5
T 250.490.6228

Are you looking for terroir-driven wine? Meet Echo Bay Vineyard just north of Okanagan Falls, which has recently had a “soft” opening.

The winery is based on a bucolic five-acre vineyard planted in 2013, tucked on a west-facing slope on a bay on Skaha Lake. The vineyard is farmed on organic and biodynamic principles. From the first vintage in 2015, fermentation has been with only natural yeast, the ultimate in allowing the vineyard to express itself in the wines.

The vineyard is planted entirely with red varietals: Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon along with smaller quantities of Malbec, Carménère, Petit Verdot and Sangiovese. Synoptic, the winery’s flagship red, is a blend of all varietals except Sangiovese.

“Our goal is to have a blend that represents our entire vineyard,” winemaker Kelsey Rufiange says. “We vinify everything separately, for the most part. Then we blend near the 16-month mark, and decide then what we want. Instead of making the same wines every year, we will let the vintage decide what wines are going to be made.”

The excellent 2015 vintage yielded about 300 cases from the vineyard. With the exception of two barrels of Cabernet Franc and a bit of Sangiovese made for the family, the wines all went into Synoptic. At full production, the vineyard will produce just 1,000 cases of wine.

The wines are excellent but hard to get. Friends and family are likely to snap up the initial releases – and the Rufiange family has a lot of friends and family.

Kelsey’s grandparents were Al and Nella Kenyon, who bought this Okanagan Falls property in 1967 and eventually turned it into a retreat for the many members of the Kenyon family in the Okanagan. This has long been a leading Penticton business family (founders of Greyback Construction in 1963).

Kelsey’s parents, and partners in the winery, are Mark and Kathy Rufiange. Formerly a nurse, Kathy is a Kenyon. Mark, who was born in Edmonton in 1960, is an engineer who ran Structurlam, a Penticton company that produces engineered wooden beams. He retired 10 years ago but retirement did not suit either of them.

“We were getting antsy,” Kathy says. “I can’t sit still.” She and Mark decided to plant a vineyard. “I took the viticulture course in the [Okanagan] college. And Kelsey got interested.”

To make sure they did it correctly, they took vineyard advice from Richard Cleave, the legendary Okanagan viticulturist who formerly owned the Phantom Creek Vineyard.

Kelsey, who was born in 1988, already had a geography degree from McGill and a consumer’s interest in wine. Now, she also took the viticulture course and went to Lincoln University in New Zealand for a postgraduate degree in enology. She polished her skills by making wine in New Zealand, Australia and California before taking over the cellar at Echo Bay.

She and her family have a clear focus on the wines they want to produce. “We don’t like big, extracted wines,” Kelsey says. “We are looking towards the more elegant style. Our alcohols, for the most part, have been in the low 13s.”

She made the first two Echo Bay vintages at the nearby Synchromesh winery while Echo Bay built its own winery. “He has the same kind of principles that we have,” Kathy Rufiange says of Synchromesh owner Alan Dickinson. “He does not use pesticides.” He also espouses fermenting with natural yeast.

“That is so important in your wines,” Kelsey says. “Yeast is a very important part of your flavour profile. If you want to make a wine that speaks of place, that is what it is. We have said if the ferment does not start, we will use yeast. We are not that pure – but we want to be pure.”

When she began making wine in Echo Bay’s virgin winery, it occurred to her that natural fermentation might not begin because there had never been a ferment in the building. “But it worked,” Kelsey says. “I think there is more of a vineyard influence than we know. We are growing our own grapes, so we have control. If the grapes are healthy, they will start by themselves.”

The design of that well-equipped building recalls a large barn, echoing the time when the Kenyons grew hay and raised livestock here before vines were planted. The Rufianges once had two sheep among the vines, now taken by bears, and still keep chickens to help deal naturally with cutworms. Vineyard operations incorporate many organic and biodynamic principles.

“To me, the proof is in the wines I drink from biodynamic farming; and looking at the vineyards, and the long life they have,” Kelsey says.

The unusual labels make one think of the Rosetta Stone. The hieroglyphics on the Echo Bay labels are historic meteorological symbols.

“The weather symbols act as a metaphor to what becomes a bottle of Echo Bay wine,” Kelsey explains. “The symbols are each a snapshot of a moment in time. During the course of a growing season we accumulate a whole lot of these moments, creating a story that tells itself in the wine we have bottled. We pay homage to nature’s influence in shaping different wines with different seasons, without human manipulation trying to make a certain wine the same year to year.”   

While the flagship wines are red, Kelsey also makes white wines. Because she uses purchased grapes for these, the wines are not under the Echo Bay label. However, Mark has his eye on a nearby acreage where, with the agreement of family members, a small block of white varieties might be planted in the future. Kelsey would like to work with varietals such as Albariño and Chenin Blanc.

Here are notes on the Echo Bay wines.

Echo Bay Synoptic 2015 ($40). The blend is 40% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Malbec and 3% each of Carménère and Petit Verdot. The wine was aged 19 months in oak (30% new). The complex wine has layers of dark fruit and cherries in the aroma and on the rich palate. 92.

Echo Bay Cabernet Franc 2015 ($45). The two best barrels of Cabernet Franc were selected for this wine, which was aged 19 months in oak. One of those barrels was new. The wine begins with appealing brambly aromas. The rich palate shows flavours of black cherry and blackberry with notes of cherry and chocolate on the lingering finish. 93.


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