Monday, March 20, 2023

Four Shadows: a rising star on Upper Bench Road

Photo: Winery proprietors Joka and Wilbert Borren
With four wineries close to each other, Upper Bench Road on the eastern side of Penticton makes for a comfortable day of wine touring, with time to take in several other nearby wineries. Think of this as an easy introduction to Naramata Bench, with enough wineries to fill the rest of the week. Let me recommend starting with the low-key Four Shadows Vineyard & Winery at the south end of Upper Bench Road. Here is an excerpt on the winery from the 2020 Okanagan Wine Tour Guide:
Wilbert and Joka Borren, both immigrants from the Netherlands, are nothing if not industrious. Wilbert was a 20-year-old graduate of an agriculture college when he arrived to work on an Alberta dairy farm. He met Joka in 1990, shortly after she arrived in Canada. In 1993, after the couple married, Wilbert concluded that the rising cost of milk quotas prevented him from realizing a dream of his own dairy. So he bought a hog farm near Lacombe, Alberta. “It took some persuading,” Joka admits.
When they tired of hogs and hard winters, they moved to the Okanagan in 2011, now with four sons, to become grape growers. They bought the bankrupt Mistral Estate Winery and its 4.9 hectares (12 acres) of neglected vineyard on the eastern edge of Penticton. Wilbert made up for his lack of experience by engaging viticultural consultant Graham O’Rourke, co-owner of nearby Tightrope Winery. “I am a farmer,” Wilbert says. “Stepping into the wine business is a new game.” Within a few years, Graham suggested that Wilbert did not need help anymore. Four Shadows Vineyard—a name inspired by the four Borren sons—was selling quality fruit to such top-flight wineries as Foxtrot Vineyards and Synchromesh Wines. “It was never our intention to start a winery,” Wilbert says. “But then we were selling grapes [to wineries] that were all making good wines. People started to ask why we were not making our own wine.” Once again, they overcame winemaking inexperience by turning to consultants. Tightrope’s Lyndsay O’Rourke made the Four Shadows wines in 2017, and Pascal Madevon, formerly the Osoyoos Larose winemaker, took over in 2018.
The former Mistral tasting room, empty nearly a decade, was professionally renovated: one of their sons is a carpenter, while another, a welder, fashioned the winery’s unique steel signage.
Here are notes on the current releases.
Four Shadows Riesling Dry 2021 ($23.99). This wine begins with citrus aromas. On the palate, there are flavours of lime and apple. The finish is crisp with bright acidity. 90.
Four Shadows Riesling Classic 2022 ($23.99). This off-dry Riesling is packed with fruit: aromas of peach, lemon and apple leading to flavours of stone fruits and grapefruit. The residual sugar is well-balanced and the finish lingers. 92.
Four Shadows Pinot Blanc 2022 ($N/A). This is a crisp and lean white with aromas and flavours of green apples mingled with lime. The finish is quite dry. 89.
Four Shadows Rosé 2022 ($24.99). This is a Pinot Noir/Merlot blend with an attractive rose hue. A delicious and refreshing rosé, the wine is packed with flavours of strawberry, raspberry and grapefruit. A hint of residual sweetness lifts the texture. 90.
Four Shadows Pinot Noir 2019 ($30.99). This barrel-aged wine begins with aromas of cherry that lead to flavours of cherry and blackberry. There is a classic note of forest floor on the finish. The texture is firm. 90.
Four Shadows Zweigelt 2021 ($25.99). The light-bodied wine begins with aromas of cherry and pomegranate. The palate delivers flavours of raspberry, cherry and pomegranate. 90.
Four Shadows Merlot 2019 ($28.99). This full-bodied red begins with aromas of black currant and black cherry. On the palate, there are flavours of black currant mingled with plum, black cherry, chocolate and spice. 90.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Tightrope champions Naramata Bench

Photo: Tightrope's Lyndsay and Graham O'Rourke
While most British Columbia Syrahs now are grown in the South Okanagan or the Similkameen, the Tightrope Syrah is a reminder that this Rhône varietal was planted first in the Okanagan on the Naramata Bench. In 1990, Nichol Vineyards, which is near Naramata village, imported from France about 1,350 Syrah vines. These were planted against a west-facing cliff which reflects the heat of the sun across the vineyard.
Then in 2000, Richard Roskell planted primarily Syrah in the seven and a half acre Marichel Vineyard. Other growers also have since planted the varietal. Terravista Vineyards, which has released Syrah made with Osoyoos fruit, planted Syrah several years ago in a vineyard on the west side of Naramata Road. The trick with this heat-loving varietal, which ripens fairly late, is to plant it in a warm site, as Alex Nichol did in 1990. Tightrope’s Syrah is from the Paisley Vineyard on Upper Bench Road. Owned by Dr. David Paisley, it is on a steep west-facing slope which, the winery says, makes it excellent for ripening grapes. Neighboring Four Shadows Vineyard & Winery has its vines on a similar slope.
The other two wines in the currant package from Tightrope are both from grapes grown in the estate’s own Fleet Road Vineyard. Merlot is more widely planted on the Naramata Bench than Syrah and arguably in the Okanagan’s most reliable red. Regardless of the source of the fruit, winemaker Lyndsay O’Rourke (co-owner with husband Graham) has stamped a consistent style on the wines. All show impeccable concentration of aroma, flavour and texture.
Here are my notes.
Tightrope Riesling 2021 ($24 for 212 cases). The estate-grown grapes were whole-cluster pressed and, after overnight skin contact, were fermented cool for about 30 days. While there is just over 23 grams of residual sugar in the wine, the bright acidity needs it for balance. This will age very well. The wine has aromas of citrus. The layers of flavour on the palate mingle citrus with stone fruit. The finish is persistent. 92.
Tightrope Merlot 2020 ($30 for 253 cases). The estate-grown grapes were destemmed into half-ton fermenters and cold-soaked for five days before fermentation. The grapes were on the skins about three weeks before being pressed into barrel for 12 months aging in French oak (50% new). Dark in colour, this full-bodied Merlot begins with aromas of dark cherry and plum. On the palate, the flavours of blueberry, dark cherry and plum and the ripe tannins lead to a lingering finish. 93.
Tightrope Syrah 2019 ($40 for 395 cases). There is six percent Viognier co-fermented with the Syrah. The wine was fermented in small lots in stainless steel and then aged 12 months in French oak barrels (50% new) and in one American oak barrel. The wine begins with aromas of dark cherry, plum and blackberry. There are layers of flavour on the generous palate, including plum, blueberry, pepper and anise. 93.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Fort Berens remarkable wines

Photo: Heleen Pannekoek and Rolf de Bruin (Courtesy Fort Berens Winery)
When they moved from Holland in 2008, Heleen Pannekoek and Rolf de Bruin took a big chance when they established Fort Berens Estate Winery at Lillooet rather than in established winegrowing regions of British Columbia. That risk has worked out well for the winery owners; and for communities in the Fraser Valley. The current releases from Fort Berens are among the winery’s best. At last year’s WineAlign National Wine Awards, Fort Berens was judged number three among the ten best small wineries in Canada. That is quite impressive from a producer that pioneered a new wine-growing region in British Columbia.
This is also a winery that is giving back to its community. After the nearby village of Lytton was destroyed by wild fire in 2021, Fort Berens last summer launched a fund-raising campaign to raise $125,000 to help Lytton rebuild. Like Fort Berens’s wines, the campaign over-delivered, raising $164,000. The funds have been directed to the rebuilding of the town’s outdoor pool. While Lytton needs more than that, this is a contribution of funds that may not have been there without a successful winery in Lillooet.
The winery’s current releases showcase three vintages: estate-grown reserve reds from 2019 along with wines from 2020 and 2021. The 2020 vintage in Lillooet (as elsewhere in British Columbia) was of very good quality but limited in quantity. For some reason, the vines produced small bunches with smaller berries. The result was wines with more intense flavours – but with yields 20% to 40% lower than expected. Wines from the 2020 vintage are already in short supply. In 2021, berries again were small due to the impact of the heat dome in June. Lillooet had the highest temperatures ever recorded in June. Fortunately for quality of the 2021 wines, the Lillooet vineyards were spared smoke damage from the wild fires. The 2021 Fort Berens wines are fresh and full of clean flavours.
Here are notes.
Fort Berens White Gold 2020 ($29.99 for 140 cases). The fruit is whole-cluster pressed estate-grown Chardonnay, fermented in barrel with native yeast. The wine went through malolactic fermentation in barrel and then aged about 10 months in French oak (17% new). The wine has aromas and flavours of nectarine and apple mingled subtly with buttery vanilla notes. 92.
Fort Berens White Gold 2021 ($31.99 for 260 cases). The wine was made with estate-grown fruit and benefitted from a long, slow ripening period. Half of the fruit was crushed and left on the skins for four hours. The must was settled overnight before being transferred to barrel and fermented with natural yeast. The other half was whole-cluster pressed and the juice went into barrel. Fermentation was with natural yeast. The wine was aged nine months in French oak (30% new). Only partial malolactic took place. This is a lovely Chardonnay, with aromas and flavours of peach, apple and citrus mingled with vanilla and almond. 93.
Fort Berens Riesling Reserve 2020 ($29.99 for 200 cases). This wine was made with estate-grown fruit. It was whole-cluster pressed and fermented with natural yeast in stainless steel. A hint of residual sugar is balanced well with bright acidity. However, the initial impression is austerity until the wine has had a chance to breath. A case can be made for decanting this wine – or laying it down to age a few years. The texture is concentrated. The wine has aromas and flavours of citrus and apricots with a classic note of petrol. 92.
Fort Berens Riesling Reserve 2021 ($29.99 for 325 cases). This wine was made with estate-grown grapes from low-cropped, select rows. Half of the grapes were crushed, left on the skins for 12 hours before being pressed into barrel for fermenting with natural yeast. The other half were whole-cluster pressed and fermented in barrel with natural yeast. The wine spent nine months in French oak (12% new). The wine begins with appealing aromas of lemon, spice and peach. The creamy palate delivers flavours of lemon and peach. 92.
Fort Berens Pinot Noir 2020 ($34.99 for 296 cases). This superb wine was a platinum award winner at last year’s National Wine Awards. The berries, left uncrushed to minimize tannin extraction from the seeds, were fermented with a select Burgundy yeast. Pump-overs three times a day during fermentation extracted colour and flavour. The wine was aged about 10 months in barrel: half in American oak, half in French oak, of which 25% was new. The wine is dark-hued. Aromas of cherry mingle with toasted oak. The full, silken palate delivers flavours of cherry, raspberry and even plum, with a lingering spice on the finish. 92.
Fort Berens Pinot Noir 2021 ($34.99 for 360 cases). The grapes were destemmed and crushed; then after a two-day cold soak, were fermented with select Burgundy yeast. Three daily pump-overs took place during ferment. The wine was then aged nine months in neutral oak. This is a bright, cheerful Pinot Noir, with aromas and flavours of raspberry and cherry. The wine is medium-bodied with a silky texture. 90.
Fort Berens Pinot Noir Reserve 2020 ($38.99 for 110 cases). This wine was made with estate-grown clone 115 Pinot Noir. For fermentation, 20% of the clusters were left whole. The wine was matured 10 months in French oak (20% new). Decanting is recommended to let this tightly-structured wine show its aromas of cherry and pomegranate and flavours of cherries. There is a hint of forest floor on the silky finish. 93.
Fort Berens Pinot Noir Reserve 2021 ($41.99 for 290 cases). This wine was made with estate grown fruit (clones 115 and 667). After a two-day cold soak, the destemmed and crushed grapes were inoculated with Burgundy yeast. There were twice-daily punch-downs and pump-overs during fermentation, with three days of maceration on the skins before the wine was pressed into French oak barrels (25% new) for nine months aging. The wine begins with aromas of red cherry, cranberry and spice. The silky palate delivers flavours of dark cherry and pomegranate mingled with spice and oak on the finish. 94.
Fort Berens Cabernet Franc 2020 ($32.99 for 1,000 cases). This is an intense wine, the result of a three-day cold soak; a 26-day ferment with pump-overs every four hours; and three days of maceration before the wine was pressed to barrel. It was 15 months in barrels (50% French, 50% American). A hint of toasty oak mingles with bramble berry aromas. On the palate, there are flavours of blackberry, plum and dark cherry. 92.
Fort Berens Cabernet Franc Reserve 2019 ($39.99 for 190 cases). This is an impressive estate-grown Cabernet Franc, picked late in the season for full ripeness. Extended skin contact extracted a dark colour, layers of flavour and a full body. The wine was aged 15 months in oak (40% new). Of those barrels, 70% were French, 30% American oak. The wine begins with aromas of black currant, dark cherry and blackberry which are echoed on the palate. There are long, ripe tannins on the finish. 93.
Fort Berens Meritage 2020 ($31.99 for 1,600 cases). This is 65% Merlot, 18% Cabernet Franc and 17% Cabernet Sauvignon. A four-day cold soak preceded inoculation with Bordeaux yeast strains. Each varietal was fermented and barrel-matured separately for 15 months (50% American and 50% French oak). The final blend was put together after the wines came out of barrel. This is a medium-bodied wine. Aromas of cherry and cassis lead to flavours of dark cherry, plum and black currant with a hint of ch0colate. 91.
Fort Berens Meritage Reserve 2019 ($39.99 for 160 cases). This estate-grown Meritage is 86% Merlot, 14 % Cabernet Franc. Each varietal was fermented and aged separately, to be blended after 15 months aging in barrel (60% French, 40% American, with 13% of the oak being new). The wine is a tour de force, with aromas of cassis and dark cherry that leap from the glass. On the palate, the wine has rich, spicy flavours of dark cherry, plum and black currant. The finish is persistent. 95.

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Meyer Family Vineyards is a Chardonnay master

Photo: Meyer winemaker Chris Carson
Based in Okanagan Falls, Meyer Family Vineyards has a proud slogan: “crafting single vineyard wines of excellence.” The winery backs that up in the current release of four single vineyard Chardonnays made by winemaker Chris Carson. These rank among the finest from the Okanagan – and there now are many first-rate Chardonnays made in British Columbia.
Meyer Family Vineyards, owned by JAK Meyer and his wife, Janice Stephens, began making Chardonnay in 2006 from a small Naramata Bench vineyard. Today, Meyer farms 23 acres of estate vineyards, including the McLean Creek Vineyard at Okanagan Falls, the Old Main Road property near Naramata, and the recently acquired Lakehill Road Vineyard in Keremeos. The Anarchist Mountain Vineyard is owned by JAK’s sister, Terry, and her partner, Andrew Stone.
These four wines are all from the 2021 vintage, a challenging year that included forest fires followed by the heat dome. The temperature peaked at 48◦C for several days and stayed high for about 10 days. The extreme heat reduced vineyard yields. Fortunately, the weather was exceptional from late August to early October. Meyer was able to start picking Chardonnay on September 12. The reduced yields, however, produced grapes packed with flavour, which is evident in these four wines.
Meyer Anarchist Mountain Vineyard Dekleva Clone Chardonnay 2021 ($32.26 for 175 cases). This vineyard is at an elevation of 518 meters on a west-facing slope above Osoyoos. The Chardonnay vines were planted in 1985 by Anthony Dekleva. Because the clone is unknown – “suitcase clones” according to the back label – it has come to be called the Dekleva clone wherever it grows. The fruit is pressed gently. Fermentation with natural yeast begins in stainless steel and concludes in French oak barrels (25% new). The wine remains in barrel on the lees for eleven months without battonage. Malolactic fermentation occurred naturally in the spring, accounting for the appealing touch of butter in the flavour. The wine has aromas and flavours of stone fruit and apples. The finish lingers. 93.
Meyer Stevens Block Chardonnay 2021 ($27.04 for 230 cases). The Stevens Block is a steep, one-acre parcel of the four-acre Old Main Road vineyard. This parcel was planted in 2006 with Chardonnay clones four and five. Only the purest juice from a gentle pressing was used for this wine, which was fermented with natural yeast for six weeks in stainless steel before being transferred to older French barrels for 10 months. A natural malolactic occurred. The wine begins with aromas of vanilla mingled with apple and citrus. On the palate, the texture is lush and delivers flavours of stone fruit and citrus, with a hint of sea salt on the finish. 95.
Meyer Old Main Road Chardonnay 2021 ($32.26 for 533 cases). The fruit is from a Naramata Bench vineyard planted originally in 1996. The grapes were pressed gently, with the hard press portion kept separate. A long cool ferment began in stainless steel and finished in French oak barrels (22% new). The wine was left on the lees for 11 months without battonage, with a natural malolactic fermentation occurring in the spring. The wine has aromas and flavours of apple and citrus, with a touch of butter and vanilla. The texture is mouth-filling while bright acidity lifts the fruit. 92.
Meyer McLean Creek Road Vineyard Chardonnay 2021 ($32.26 for 500 cases). This vineyard near Okanagan Falls was originally planted in 1994. There are two Chardonnay blocks with differing exposures that impact flavour development and result in more complex wine. The winemaking technique was similar to the Old Main Road Chardonnay. The wine begins with aromas of apple, nectarine and vanilla. With a bit of breathing (or decanting), the expressive flavours are echoed the aromas. There is a lingering finish. 93.

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Rainmaker: new on Black Sage Road

Photo: The new Rainmaker winery on Black Sage Road
Rainmaker Wines is a paradox: when it opened its tasting room last year, it was a new winery on Black Sage Road but also a winery principals have almost two decades of experience in the BC wine industry. The explanation is simple. This is the second winery to be operated by Kim Pullen and his son, John, - or perhaps the third – since they sold Church & State Wines in 2017. While the smart new facility for Rainmaker Wines was being built, they kept a foot in the wine business with Second Chapter Wine Co., located on Tinhorn Creek Road.
A former tax lawyer, Kim got into the wine business in 2004 by buying the failing Victoria Estate Winery near Brentwood Bay on Vancouver Island. When his consulting winemaker advised against transporting Okanagan grapes to the island, Kim leased a packing plant near Oliver for the production wines for the renamed Church & State Winery. He also began developing vineyards. Subsequently, the winery added an attractive winery and tasting room on Black Sage Road. The winery certainly succeeded. It was producing 35,000 cases a year by 2017 when Kim sold it to Sunocean Wineries and Estate, a Vancouver company owned by a Chinese businessman and his daughter.
“It was a great experience,” John Pullen (right) says, “but I think we are happier at a smaller size, focussing on the wines that we do.” The architecturally-smart Rainmaker winery is “the first cellar completely of our own design from the ground up,” John says. The aim is to produce no more than 7,000 cases of premium wine each year. However, the cellar has been designed shrewdly so that it could be expanded to a capacity of 20,000 to 25,000 cases a year. Caroline Schaller, the winemaker who moved last year from Osoyoos Larose to Rainmaker, works in one of the most efficiently laid-out cellars in the Okanagan.
Rainmaker’s wines are all grown in the winery’s four vineyards. The Pullens kept two when they sold Church & State; and they have developed or expanded or purchased two more, for a total vineyard acreage of 22 acres. Two are on the Golden Mile and two are on the Black Sage bench. The Golden Mile vineyards include the Rattlesnake Vineyard, which grows Merlot, Malbec and Viognier. Kim began planting it in 2005. The Second Chapter Vineyard was planted more recently with Cabernet Franc. The former is just below Hester Creek Estate Winery and the latter is on Tinhorn Creek Road. The Rainmaker winery is surrounded by the Rainmaker Vineyard, some of which was planted for the Pullens in 2009. It grows Roussanne, Viognier, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon along with more recent plantings of Tempranillo, Chardonnay Musqué and a little more Syrah.
Roussanne, which had been a component of a Church & State white Rhone blend called Trebella, gets to star on its own at Rainmaker. The winery has a concrete egg in which to ferment half the Roussanne. The other half is fermented in French oak barrels and the two lots are blended. The Pullens also purchased Joseph Boutin’s Gravelbourg Vineyard in the south Okanagan. It is an exceptional Chardonnay vineyard from which they purchased fruit when they owned Church & State. The vineyard was available because Boutin was ready to retire. The vineyard had been named for Boutin’s hometown in Saskatchewan. The Pullens, who have no Saskatchewan connection, have renamed it the Craftsman Vineyard.
Each wine in the Rainmaker portfolio has been assigned a nickname. “We have given each of our wines an identity,” John says: “That gives each wine a personality in our minds that we can build a style around.” Here are notes on some of the wines in the Rainmaker portfolio. (Some, including a sparkling wine, a Malbec rosé, a Merlot and a Cabernet Sauvignon, were sold out when I visited the winery last fall.)
Rainmaker Roussanne 2019 “The Activist” ($30). This golden-hued wine has aromas of stone fruit mingled with honey. On the palate, there are flavours of lemon, ripe pineapple and guava. 91.
Rainmaker Viognier 2019 “The Changemaker” ($30). The fruit is from the Rainmaker Vineyard. The wine shows appealing aromas and flavours of citrus, pineapple and nectarine. Six months in French oak have polished the texture. 91.
Rainmaker Chardonnay 2020 “The Craftsman” ($30). Aged nine months in French oak, the wine is slightly buttery, with spicy notes of citrus and peach. 91.
Rainmaker Syrah Viognier 2019 “The Modernist” ($40). This wine is 75% Syrah and 25% Viognier. It was aged nine months in French oak. The high percentage of Viognier lifts the fruity aromas and flavours of the wine. Dark cherry and fig flavours lead to a slightly peppery finish. 91.
Rainmaker Syrah 2018 “The Motivator” ($40). The fruit for this wine is from the Rainmaker vineyard. The wine was aged 18 months in French oak. Rich on the palate, the wine has aromas of dark fruits leading to flavours of dark cherry, figs and spice. 92.
Rainmaker Malbec 2018 “The Risk Taker” ($40). This wine was aged 22 months in French oak. Spicy on the nose with hints of cedar, the wine is rich in texture and has flavours of black cherry, blackberry and plum. 92.
Rainmaker Malbec Syrah 2018 “The Architect” ($40). The blend is 65% Malbec, 35% Syrah, aged 20 months in French oak. The wine begins with floral notes on the nose, leading to flavours of dark cherry and blackberry. There is an appealing note of pepper on the finish. 92.
Rainmaker Cabernet Franc 2018 “The Titan” ($40). This wine, which was aged 18 months in oak, is described by the winery as “a wine for the bold side of us.” It begins with aromas of brambleberries and spice. The flavours show bright red fruit – black currant mingled with cherry. 92.