Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Phantom Creek at the Wine Festival






Photo: Phantom Creek's imposing winery


A top priority winery table to visit at the Vancouver International Wine Festival in 2020 is Phantom Creek Estate Winery.

The Black Sage Road winery, which has its formal opening scheduled for this spring, is an emerging star among the 33 British Columbia wineries at the festival during the last week of February.

Festival attendees get an early opportunity to meet some of Phantom Creek’s principals and to taste some of the exceptional wines. The winery’s spectacular 45,000-square-foot winery on Black Sage Road in the South Okanagan will open to the public in April or May.

I was able to tour the winery at the end of October last year after most of the construction was completed and when the 2019 crush was underway. Festival attendees should visit the winery this spring and summer to experience Phantom Creek fully.


Industry gossip says that owner Richter Bai, a Vancouver-based Chinese businessman, has invested $100 million in the Phantom Creek project, including vineyards in the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys. I cannot confirm that but it would not surprise me, given the art and the cutting edge winemaking equipment in the winery.

 The imposing sculpture (above) of Helios, the sun god to the ancient Greeks, which greets visitors, was created in Italian marble by Emily Young, an artist described as Britain’s “greatest living stone sculptor.”





And that is just for starters. 



The VIP tasting room (above) is dominated by a glorious Dale Chihuly glass sculpture. He is an American artist with a considerable following.

In 2014, Mr. Bai identified wine growing as a prestige agriculture business for his family in Canada. He engaged wine educator James Cluer MW and the two spent much of 2015 touring prestigious wineries in France and California, getting ideas and educating Mr. Bai in winery operations. In 2016 he purchased the Sundial Vineyard on Black Sage Road where the late Harry McWatters had started to build a showpiece winery.

Only the cellar was built before Mr. Bai acquired the property. Phantom Creek is significantly more impressive than what Harry had in mind. It is the grand spectacle in the South Okanagan, somewhat like Mission Hill Family Estate is the grand winery in the North Okanagan.

Mr. Bai was attracted initially to the property’s vineyard on Black Sage Road. Renamed Becker Vineyard, it is about 45 acres of mature vines with a proven track record for quality wines. He also bought the adjoining seven-acre Phantom Creek Vineyard, a grand cru site (if it were in France), growing exceptional Bordeaux reds and Syrah.

Subsequently, he has acquired and planted, or replanted, an impressive vineyard portfolio. These include:

·       The 44-acre Kobau Vineyard, a producing vineyard on the Golden Mile formerly owed by C. C. Jentsch Cellars.

·       The 15-acre Richter Vineyard on Black Sage Bench formerly owned by grower Pierre Hebting. Near the Phantom Creek winery, it has been largely replanted with Bordeaux red varieties and Syrah.


·       The 15-acre Ryegrass Vineyard, just down hill from Phantom Creek. A former orchard acquired in 2017, it is being converted to Syrah and Bordeaux reds.

·       The 62-acre Evernden Springs Vineyard in the Similkameen Valley. It was acquired as raw land in 2017. Planting started last year. Pinot Gris and Riesling comprise the majority of the initial plantings, with some red varieties likely to follow.



Phantom Creek Estate’s first wines were made in 2016 by a team led by Napa Valley winemakers Anne and Cameron Vawter, along with Ross Wise, Phantom Creek’s first fulltime onsite winemaker. Ross left after the 2018 vintage to join Black Hills Estate Winery. He was succeeded in the cellar for the 2019 vintage by New Zealand winemaker Francis Hutt (left, photo credit Olaf Strassner).

A graduate of Lincoln University in Christchurch, Francis has made wine in New Zealand, Australia, Oregon and Burgundy, before he was headhunted by Phantom Creek.

“The thing that really made me leave my country and come here was the resources they are putting into the vineyards,” Francis told me when we chatted in the superbly equipped Phantom Creek cellar where he was making his first Okanagan vintage in 2019. “If I get good grapes coming in through the door, I can make good wine in a plastic bucket. I don’t need this equipment.”

Phantom Creek is committed to organic and biodynamic viticulture in all its vineyards. The guiding philosophy comes to Olivier
Humbrecht MW, (right), a leading Alsace winemaker whom Mr. Bai met when visiting wineries in Europe.  In 2017, Olivier also agreed to become Phantom Creek’s consulting white winemaker.

“This was our third vintage farming organically and biodynamically,” says Santiago Cilley, who joined Phantom Creek last year as chief executive officer. “It’s a journey. We are in the infancy of understanding organic and biodynamic viticulture. We are taking big steps quickly.”


Santiago has an impressive resumé, including nine years with Jackson Family Wines  in California. He moved from there to Chile. In South America, he met businessman and wine entrepreneur Alejandro Bulgheroni, who asked him to return to California to be president of Alejandro Bulgheroni Family Vineyards USA. 

Santiago has experience in sustainable viticulture. He regards organic/biodynamic viticulture was a greater challenge. “We cannot react to things,” he says. “We have to anticipate things before they happen because our tools are very limited to correct things in the vineyard. That is very good discipline. It keeps us all thinking what’s ahead rather that figuring out how we are going to solve problems.”

While the 2019 Okanagan vintage was surprisingly challenging for newcomer Santiago, he believes Phantom Creek harvested good quality fruit. “In difficulty, you can separate one group of producers from everyone else,” Santiago says. “If it was easy, we would all be making wine in our garages.”

Phantom Creek’s white wines are built around Olivier Humbrecht’s Alsace style. The winery has a cellar specifically designed for white wines. There are 22 Austrian-made oak ovals, each with a 3,500-litre capacity, neatly arranged in a humidity and temperature-controlled cellar.

“This room is specifically finished with brick walls,” says HJ Cha, a Phantom Creek brand ambassador. “There is a gap between the concrete wall and the brick wall. The space allows the room to breathe. It also acts as a barrier or buffer for temperature and humidity fluctuations. We keep an even and constant temperature and humidity throughout the room.”

The white wines – Riesling and Pinot Gris – are aged in these ovals. The vessels impart no obvious wood flavours to the wines but allow the wines to become rich in flavour and texture. The wines are allowed a long, cool ferment with wild yeast and will spend as much as 10 months on the lees before being bottled. Consequently, the whites are released a year later than similar varietals from other wineries.


A separate cellar for red wines (above) is equipped with 5,000-litre French oak casks, arranged under the press room so that gravity can be used to move the crushed fruit into the casks. As well, small-lot reds are fermented in standard oak barrels (heads are removed so that grapes can be placed in the barrels).

Fermenting in individual barrels is done partly of necessity. There are small blocks of vines in the various vineyards that produce fruit of high quality and individuality. The fruit almost demands to be vinified separately rather than being blended into larger lots. The small lot wines currently are offered first to members of Phantom Creek’s wine club.

Here are notes on some of the Phantom Creek wines. Those to be poured at the Festival are indicated with a *.

*Phantom Creek Riesling 2017 ($30 for 333 cases). This wine was made with grapes from an East Kelowna vineyard, fermented with indigenous yeast over four months. It was aged 10 months in stainless steel (with seven percent aged in neutral oak barrels). This wine is crisp and dry, with lime on the nose and palate and with a spine of minerality. The maturation on lees has added a hint of brioche to the aroma and flavour. 93.

*Phantom Creek Pinot Gris 2017 ($30 for 833 cases). The grapes were from two Okanagan Falls vineyards and were fermented with indigenous yeasts over seven months. Some 60% was aged 10 months in stainless steel; the rest was aged oak casks. The texture is luscious. The wine begins with aromas of pear and a hint of oak. On the palate, there are flavours of ripe pear and apple with a touch of spice on the lingering finish. 92.

*Phantom Creek Viognier 2017 ($40 for 333 cases). The fruit for this came from a west Osoyoos vineyard. In subsequent vintages, the fruit has come from the winery’s Kobau Vineyard on the Golden Mile. This is an elegant and classic South Okanagan Viognier with aromas and flavours of orange blossom and stone fruit. The wine, after being fermented with wild yeast, was matured 10 months in stainless steel and oak casks. 92.

Phantom Creek Merlot Becker Vineyard 2016 ($55 for seven barrels). This wine begins with aromas of black cherry, black currant and spice. Generous on the palate, the wine delivers savoury flavours of cassis and black cherry with herbal notes on the lingering finish. 91.

*Phantom Creek Becker Cuvée 2016 ($60 for 34 barrels). This is a blend of 39% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Franc and 26% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged 18 months in French oak. The wine begins with aromas of cassis and black cherry. On the generous palate, flavours of black currant and black cherry mingle with black coffee and licorice. The texture is full and the finish is long. 93.

Phantom Creek Block 1A Small Lot Syrah 2016 ($50 for three barrels). The fruit for this is from a tiny 0.78-acre block of Syrah in the Becker Vineyard. The wine has aged 20 months in French oak but still shows a firm structure. The wine has bold aromas of dark red fruit and delivers flavour of dark fruit, leather and tobacco with a hint of white pepper. 92. 

Phantom Creek Co-Fermented Small Lot 2016 ($75 for three barrels). The fruit for this wine comes from small blocks of Malbec (60%) and Petit Verdot (40%) from the superb Phantom Creek Vineyard. The wine, aged 20 months in French oak, begins with the spicy and floral notes of the Malbec. On the palate, there are flavours of black cherry and dark fruits, with a spine of minerality from the Petit Verdot. The finish is very long. 93.

Phantom Creek Phantom Creek Vineyard Syrah 2016 ($75 for 4 barrels). Bold and savoury, this wine is rich with flavours of cherry, plum, fig and black pepper. 94.

Phantom Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Phantom Creek Vineyard 2016 ($80 for five barrels). This sophisticated wine begins with aromas of black currant leading to flavours of black currant, coffee and dark chocolate. The wine is dark and concentrated and clearly will cellar very well. It has already been aged 18 months in French oak. 95.

Phantom Creek Cuvée Phantom Creek Vineyard 2016 ($100 for 650 cases). This wine is 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 26% Petit Verdot, 15% Malbec, 8% each of Syrah and Cabernet Franc and 5% Merlot. This is a bold, rich wine with aromas and flavours of cherry, black currant, plum and vanilla. It was aged 18 months in French oak. Long ripe tannins support the opulent texture and the persistent finish of this delicious wine. 96.








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