Thursday, November 5, 2009

Howard Soon's Sandhill is winery of the year

Photo: Sandhill winemaster Howard Soon

To those who know Howard Soon’s wines at Sandhill, it is no surprise that Sandhill is this year’s winery of the year at the Canadian Wine Awards.

Sandhill walked away from that competition with 21 medals, including White Wine of the Year (Small Lots 2008 Viognier) and Red Wine of the Year (Small Lots 2007 Syrah). Howard’s title is winemaster and obviously that is no exaggeration.

One can have a chicken-and-egg debate: did Howard’s great talent turn Sandhill into a legend or did the superbly-grown Sandhill grapes make a legend of Howard? In this instance, evolution doesn’t help up. I think God created both on the sixth day so that He would have something good to drink when He rested.

All 12 vintages of Sandhill have been made in the sprawling Calona winery in downtown Kelowna. While a spot has long been reserved on Sandhill’s Black Sage vineyard for a winery, Andrew Peller Ltd., which owns Sandhill, has had that project on hold while investing in Okanagan and Similkameen vineyards instead.

Over the years, however, the Calona winery has been upgraded significantly. Howard now has a new red wine cellar, including new fermentation tanks and a vast array of barrels. In one previous vintage he was able to buy a modern press and that resulted in immediate and dramatic improvements in the quality of the white wines. Howard no longer has to improvise to make good wines, as he did in the early years when Sandhill was undercapitalized.

Howard’s winemaking career began at Calona in 1980. He has been there ever since, first raising the quality of Calona’s wines and then taking on Sandhill when that wine project began in 1997.

Sandhill and Calona are sister wineries. Both have been owned by Andrew Peller Ltd. since 2005. As Peller’s senior winemaker in British Columbia, Howard has a supervisory role in the winemaking for Peller, Calona and Red Rooster. He is the full-time winemaker for Sandhill.

Sandhill grows roughly 200 acres of its own grapes on Black Sage Road, adjacent to the Burrowing Owl Vineyard. The wineries were viticultural partners for several years early this decade and, for most of that period, have used the same superb vineyard managers. That is one reason why Sandhill’s wines have shown many of the positive qualities of the Burrowing Owl wines, even though different winemakers ran the respective cellars. Both vineyards were planted at the same time, beginning in 1993 and 1994.

Sandhill also buys grapes from select vineyards whose operators are tightly aligned with Howard’s objectives. Sandhill makes single vineyard wines exclusively – wines that reflect the specific terroir of where they are grown. It assures wines of unique quality. The Phantom Creek Vineyard is owned by veteran grower Richard Cleave while nearby Osprey Ridge is owned by Robert Goltz who, with son Nathan, has managed the Sandhill Vineyard. King Family is a Naramata Bench vineyard operated by Don and Rod King.

Sandhill’s reserve tier wines are released as Small Lots and include, among other offerings, the only varietals of Sangiovese and Barbera currently available from an Okanagan winery. By definition, Small Lot wines are produced in qualities ranging, generally, between 100 cases and 600 cases.

The wines sell quickly but some are held back for later release. Recently, several older vintages of Small Lots wines were released at the Wineshop (in the Calona winery in downtown Kelowna). These are worth looking for; Sandhill reds benefit from a few years in the bottle before being opened.

Here are notes, either from a recent tasting with Howard or of Sandhill samples that came my way.

Sandhill 2008 Sauvignon Blanc /Sandhill Estate Vineyard ($18).
Crisp and tangy with refreshing citrus and gooseberry aromas and flavours. 1,300 cases were released. 88

Sandhill 2008 Pinot Gris /King Family Vineyard ($18). Crisp and clean, with pear and citrus flavours and a lingering finish. 6,300 cases were released. 88

Sandhill 2008 Viognier Small Lots /Osprey Ridge Vineyard ($24.99). A stunning wine with a peachy, tropical aroma, flavours of peach and apricot, a rich texture and yet so exquisitely balanced and refreshing. 514 cases were released. 92

Sandhill 2008 Chardonnay Small Lots /Sandhill Estate Block B11 ($29.99). Elegant and focussed, this 132-case release was fermented in new French oak which is very nicely integrated with the fruit. The wine has notes of apple, pineapple, citrus with a hint of richness from the oak. The finish is crisp (Howard does not do malolactic fermentation). 93

Sandhill 2008 Rosé/Sandhill Estate Vineyard ($18). The winery released only 372 cases of this seriously dry rosé. With an attractive pink hue, the wine has fruity aromas and flavours of strawberry and pomegranate. The wine is made with Gamay and Cabernet Franc grapes. 86

Sandhill 2006 Malbec Small Lots /Phantom Creek Vineyard ($29.99 – but the 107 cases are sold out). Here is a big satisfying wine to take on the Argentines. It begins with an appealing floral aroma; it delivers flavours of cherry, blueberry and blackberry. The long ripe tannins give it a full texture. 89

Sandhill 2006 Petit Verdot Small Lots /Phantom Creek Vineyard ($29.99). This Bordeaux varietal is seldom released on its own but usually is reserved for making elegant blends. This lovely wine is a bit of the blend as well: 87% Petit Verdot, 8% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Malbec. This is a firm, age-worthy red with spicy aromas and flavours of plums and black currants. 223 cases were released. 90

Sandhill one 2006 Small Lots / Phantom Creek Vineyard ($34.99). This superb wine is 86% Cabernet Sauvignon (three clones) and 7% each of Malbec and Petit Verdot. Deep and rich, the wine begins with aromas of berries and vanilla. The fruit is concentrated, with a lovely core of sweet fruit and hints of cherry and mocha. The finish is very long. 356 cases were released. 92-94

Sandhill two 2006 Small Lots /Sandhill Estate Vineyard ($34.99). This equally superb 428-case release is a blend of 51% Cabernet Sauvignon, 44% Merlot and 5% Syrah. Dark in colour, the wine invites with aromas of black currants, plums, mocha and delivers flavours of mocha, currants and figs, with a core of sweet berries. Generous in texture, the wine has a long finish. 92-94

Sandhill 2007 Syrah Small Lots /Phantom Creek Vineyard ($34.99). This is a great Syrah, period. It is almost aromatic with an array of aromas from pepper and delicatessen meats to iodine. On the palate, the long ripe tannins support layers of red fruit with complex notes of pepper and minerals. 92

Sandhill 2006 Sangiovese Small Lots /Sandhill Estate Vineyard ($29.99). This 644-case releases remains, so far, the Okanagan’s only Sangiovese. It is almost a classic Chianti, with aromas of violets, flavours of cherries and a backbone of dry tannins. 88

Sandhill 2006 Barbera Small Lots /Sandhill Estate Vineyard ($29.99). This deliciously rustic red is also the Okanagan’s only Barbera. Blood red in hue, it has a brambly aroma with hints of tobacco and oak. The flavours deliver a medley of bright fruit – cherry, rose hip, blackberry – against ripe earthy tannins. In the glass, the wine keeps delivering surprises as it opens up. 90

There are additional Sandhill wines, all worth looking for based on previous vintages. In particular, Sandhill three 2006 Small Lots ($34.99) is an excellent Okanagan answer to super-Tuscan wines. This is a blend of 53% Sangiovese, 18.6% Barbera, 15% Merlot, 13.4% Cabernet Sauvignon and it is a very complex wine.

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