Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Similkameen Wineries: the year-two tasting

Photo: Similkameen Valley crush

In its second annual visit to Vancouver this week, the Similkameen Wineries Association continued the hard work of raising the profile of a region long overshadowed by the Okanagan.

It is obvious why the Similkameen has been overshadowed. The vast majority of B.C.’s 200 wineries are in the Okanagan and wine tourists have acquired the habit of driving straight through the Similkameen on the way to the bigger region next door. Until a few years ago, there were just two wineries in the Similkameen Valley. And the accommodation was more suitable for tree planters than tourists.

Well, there is a breakout happening in the valley. There are now 12 wineries and one of them, Crowsnest Vineyards, also runs an excellent country inn and restaurant. And valley residents tell me that the Benja Thai Restaurant in Keremeos is one of the better Thai restaurants in the province.

There already are more Similkameen Valley wines on the market than we know. About 600 acres of vines are planted there (with plans for several hundred more acres). Most of those grapes end up at wineries in the Okanagan.

Mt. Boucherie, Peller Estates and Kettle Valley are just three examples of Okanagan wineries that own Similkameen vineyards.

Peller is the winery formerly known as André's Winery. In 1960 André's planted an experimental vineyard in the Similkameen. While that planting was not successful (for reasons lost in the mist of time), the winery also launched a brand called Similkameen Superior.

The brand is still around. The irony is that today’s Similkameen Superior is a bottled in Canada blend of imported juice. That is a pity, now that the valley is getting a profile for growing good quality wines.

The Similkameen Valley is already known for quality agricultural products, in part because 40% of the farms are organic. That is believed to be the highest percentage of organic growers for any agricultural region in the world (although that is a hard statistic to nail down). Many of the other valley farmers follow practices that are close to organic.

The valley has the natural conditions that favour organic production. The summers are hot and dry and a persistent wind sweeps through the valley almost every afternoon. That clears away fungus and other causes of plant disease.

The Similkameen’s wine region extends from just north of Keremeos along the river almost to the United States border. The degree days that are crucial for producing good ripe grapes are actually slightly higher here than in either Osoyoos or Oliver. Because of the wind and the clear night skies, there is usually a big difference between day time highs and night time lows. Those temperature swings are critical in preserving the fruit flavours and the acidity in the grapes.

If the Similkameen is a good place for viticulture, it also has its issues. The biggest is risk of hard freezing in winter or even early autumn. Last fall’s Thanksgiving weekend freeze caused a lot of damage because the vines had not yet shut down for winter.

Perhaps winter is what doomed the André's vineyard. However, today’s growers are better prepared to bring their vines through winter. And that is comforting because, based on this week’s tasting, the Similkameen wineries are growing excellent grapes and other fruits.

The dozen wineries there include two fruit accomplished wineries. Please refer to my previous blog for reviews of what Forbidden Fruit Estate Winery is offering.

Currently, only eight of the 12 wineries belong to the association. Those choosing to remain independent are Herder Vineyards and St. Laszlo (the oldest Similkameen winery). Clos du Soleil Estate Winery plans to join the association when it has a tasting room. And K Mountain Vineyards is part of the struggling Holman Lang winery group which seems to be in soft receivership.

Here are notes on some of the wines I tasted.

Photo: Megan Mutch
* Cerelia Vineyards & Estate Winery is a family-owned winery that opened last year near Cawston with family member Megan Mutch making the wines. I reviewed the 2008 reds in a blog on May 13 this year.

Megan is now releasing two new wines. Chardonnay 2009 ($19) is a clean and fresh white, tasting sweetly of apples and citrus but finishing crisply. It is lighter and livelier than the previous vintage because the alcohol, at 13.2%, is appreciably lower than last year’s 13.9%. 88. Pinot Gris 2009 ($18) is similarly crisp and fresh with flavours of pear, apple and citrus and with a hint of anise on the finish. 88.

Photo: Ann Heinecke

* At family-owned Crowsnest Vineyards, German-trained winemaker Ann Heinecke now has made eleven vintages in the Similkameen. The winery’s Chardonnay Stahltank Reserve 2009 ($17.90) is so-called because it is fermented in stainless steel. The wine is crisp and refreshing, with citrus notes. It is light and easy to drink. 88. Riesling Family Reserve 2009 ($19.90) is a tangy, dry white with flavours of lemon and lime. 86. Pinot Gris 2008 ($21.90) has juicy flavours of peaches and nectarines. 87. Merlot 2008 ($20.90) is full-bodied, with flavours of plum and chocolate and hints of pepper and oak. 87.

Photo: Andrew Windsor

* EauVivre Winery & Vineyards was opened last year in Cawston by Saskatchewan oil well driller Dale Wright and his wife, Geraldine Estin, an educator. They were represented at the Vancouver tasting by Andrew Windsor, their new winemaker. A Canadian with a master’s degree in enology from the University of Adelaide, he comes to EauVivre after working at the Mollydooker Winery in Australia.

Andrew takes over from Spencer Kelly who, after a couple of vintages, is going to wine school in the United States. However, the EauVivre wines that Andrew was showing are still from the 2007 vintage which was made by Lawrence Herder. EauVivre was the original Herder Winery and the Wrights bought it when he moved to a new property a few years ago.

The EauVivre 2007 Chardonnay ($18) is bright with tasty citrus notes, thanks to its good acidity. 88. The EauVivre 2007 Pinot Noir ($19) begins with toasty and jammy aromas, shows rich fruit flavours – strawberries, red berries – and a silky texture. 88.

Photo: John Weber

* Orofino Vineyards has achieved a modest cult status since opening in 2005, hence the occasionally aggressive prices. In a career change, John and Virginia Weber moved from Saskatchewan in 2001, taking over a partially established vineyard. Some of their vines are almost 20 years old and it shows in the depth of the wines. They have also persuaded several neighbours to plant grapes, notably Bordeaux reds to support Orofino’s complex blends.

Orofino 2009 Riesling ($19.90) has immediate appeal with aromas of citrus and tropical fruits. Full on the palate, the wine delivers flavours of apricots and citrus fruits, with a well-balanced kiss of sweetness. 90.

The winery’s Pinot Noir 2008 ($31.90) is delicious, rich and silky on the palate, with spicy aromas and flavours of strawberries. 90-91. The Red Bridge Red 2008 ($24.90) is 100% Merlot from a vineyard in Kaleden. The wine shows the classic lush texture that one wants in Merlot – long, ripe tannins. The flavours of plum, black cherry and coffee are framed subtly with oak. The wine has a lingering finish. 90.

The Beleza 2008 ($33.90) is the winery’s Meritage blend, 60% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% each of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot (Beleza means beauty in Portuguese, we are told). Aged 16 months in new French and American oak, the wine is still tight; if you can’t cellar it for a few years, decant it. It begins with an interesting sage aroma. On the palate, there are flavours of currants, coffee and vanilla. 88-90.

The winery also has just released two small lot wines. Petit Verdot Reserva 2007 ($45 and most of the 50 cases have been sold). The wine begins with perfumed spice and fruit aromas. On the rich palate, there are notes of red currant and raspberry. 89-90. The winery also has released 100 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva 2007 ($40), a bright and expressive wine with a firm texture, hints of cassis and an attractive finish of sweet fruit. 91.

* Robin Ridge Winery was opened in 2008 by Caroline and Tim Cottrill, who moved from the Okanagan in the 1990s to develop a brand new vineyard in the Similkameen, not far from the Grist Mill.

The winery’s Chardonnay 2008 ($17.90) begins with lively green apple aromas and delivers flavours of citrus fruits and more green apples. The finish is crisp and refreshing. 88. The winery’s Pinot Noir 2008 ($21.90) is made in the generous “Big Burgundy” style that appeals to those who want some power in their Pinot. It tastes of spicy plums and black cherries. It is beginning to show the classic velvet promise of Pinot Noir but is firm enough that I would cellar it a few more years. 88. Carrying on in the Big Burgundy theme is Gamay Noir 2008 ($19.90), which begins with aromas of pepper and black cherries. On the palate, it delivers bold flavours of plum and cherry enlivened with spice and pepper. 89-90. The Merlot 2007 ($23.90) shows the influence of bold oak aging both in the aroma and on the palate, supporting flavours of black currants and plums and chocolate. 87-88.

Photo: Sara Harker

* Rustic Roots Winery opened two years ago on a family-owned organic farm. The winery occupies part of a fruit stand right on the highway at Cawston. Winemaker Sara Harker had so many wines at her table that the tasting ended before I got through the dessert wines, with the exception of the quite remarkable Mulberry Pear Port ($28.90). The fruit comes from several old mulberry trees on the farm. The berries are macerated in alcohol over the summer and this is used to arrest fermenting pear juice when some sweetness remains. The resulting wine is neither as heavy nor as sweet as Port; perhaps that is why it tastes immediately like you want a second glass. I am at a loss for descriptors for this very successful tour de force. 90.

The table wines are also very good. Peach Nectarine 2008 ($18.90) is the winery’s answer to Pinot Grigio – a delicate white with a refreshing, tangy finish. 88. Apple Pear ($18.90) is a dry, full-bodied wine in which the fruit flavours blend well. 90. Cherry 2009 ($18.90) is a tawny-hued rosé with flavours of cherry and almonds and with a texture rather like Pinot Noir. 88. Plum 2009 $18.90) is another rosé with spicy, fruity flavours and a dry finish. 89.

Photo: George Hanson
* Seven Stones Winery, which also has the good fortune to front the highway, opened in 2007 and has begun to earn a cult following of its own.

The winery’s Pinot Noir 2008 ($27.99) may be the prettiest Pinot Noir from the Similkameen, with bright flavours of raspberry and with a juicy, velvety mouth feel. 90.

On the other hand, the Cabernet Franc 2008 ($24.99) is perhaps the biggest from the Similkameen, a bold wine with aromas of plum and graphite and earth and spicy, brambly flavours that linger. 91.

This year, Seven Stones released its first varietal Merlot, called Row 128 Merlot 2008 ($24.99). It is named for winemaker George Hanson’s favourite part of his vineyard. You will understand why when you taste this rich wine with flavours of spice, black berries and plum. 90.

The winery’s 2007 Meritage ($31.99) is piling up the awards, as did previous vintages of the Meritage. This is 60% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Cabernet Franc, aged 17 months in French oak. The wine is quite concentrated, with flavours of black currants, plum, chocolate, black olives and cedar. 90.

No comments: