Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Howling Bluff's Pinot Noir epiphany

Photo: Luke Smith

Like Paul on the road to Damascus, Luke Smith, the owner of Naramata Bench’s Howling Bluff Estate Winery, has had a conversion.

Luke once was a collector of Bordeaux wines (until selling his collection at a profit). He had a Bordeaux blend in mind when he began planting Merlot and other Bordeaux varieties in 2004 and 2005.

In a 2005 interview with me, he spoke of his ambition to make a “blockbuster” Merlot. To be sure, he planted some Pinot Noir but it was not central to his ambition for the winery.

It is now. He is switching over most (but not all) of his vineyard to Pinot Noir. When the remaining vines are planted this year, he will own or manage about 6.5 acres of Pinot Noir – or about two thirds of his vineyard.

“Mother Nature is telling me that my vineyard makes a good Pinot Noir,” he has learned after nine years of farming. “Mother Nature could be really pulling my leg, but talking to enough people whose opinions I value, I have come to the conclusion that one out of four years on the Bench you have the possibility of making a world class Bordeaux blend, with just Bench grapes. Three out of four years you have a chance of making a world class Burgundy, or Pinot Noir, on the Bench, because of the weather. So why would I fight that?”

There is no doubt that his property on Three Mile Road produces excellent Pinot Noir. Howling Bluff’s debut Pinot Noir in 2006 won a Lieutenant Governor’s Award of Excellence. The 2008 Pinot Noir, a gold medal winner, was judged the red wine of the year in the 2010 Canadian Wine Awards.

And I have news for you. The 2009 Pinot Noir, which will be released in late April under the Summa Quies label, may well be the best Howling Bluff Pinot Noir so far.

It is not cheap to alter a vineyard’s varietal mix. Fortunately, Luke has the resources to do it, having been a successful stock broker before his career in wine. Credit him also for being open-minded enough to understand what the vineyard was telling him.

Although the varietal mix is shifting, the winery remains tightly focussed, making one white and (mostly) two reds.

The white is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc (70%) and Sémillon. He has been on a learning curve with those vines, too, eventually figuring out that perhaps the vines were not getting enough water or nutrients. Any such farming deficiencies seem to have been worked out, however.

The 2010 Sauvignon Blanc Sémillon ($19) will be released at the end of April. It is a delicious white, with aromas of grapefruit and clover honey. The grapefruit is echoed on the rich palate; and the wine is crisp and tangy on the finish. 90.

Sin Cera, as Howling Bluff calls its Bordeaux blend, originally was to become a 1,000-case production annually. With the vineyard conversion, it is being limited to about 300 cases annually, hand-crafted wine from vines hand-tended to produce a stunning limited quantity red.

A tank sample of Sin Cera 2009 - the wine will be released perhaps this fall for just over $30 – is already impressive and shows great potential to develop in the bottle. It is a chewy, concentrated red with flavours of plums, olives, figs and with long ripe tannins. 90-93.

At centre stage is the Summa Quies Pinot Noir 2009 ($32). This wine begins with glorious aromas of strawberries. Big and fleshy on the palate, yet with the classis silky texture emerging, this seductive wine has flavours of cherry and strawberry that linger and linger. 92.

Summa Quies is the name of Luke Smith’s vineyard. A Latin phrase that Luke once saw in a Hugh Johnson book, it means, more or less, attaining peace. He considered it for the winery name but, after some consumer hesitance, he opted for Howling Bluff, inspired by the winds that howl across his vineyard.

The winery label, with an image of a howling wolf, was a little too much critter label for high-end restaurants. They were willing to list the wines on the basis of their quality but the label proved to be a deterrent. The new Summa Quies label, clean and elegant on textured white paper, has the look of timeless luxury.

Photo: Chris Carson

Credit some of Luke’s conversion to Pinot Noir to his consulting winemaker, Chris Carson. An Edmonton native, he trained and worked in New Zealand. He started advising Howling Bluff just before the 2008 vintage.

“Chris got here late July, August,” Luke told me in 2009. “The first thing he wanted to see was the Pinot Noir.” In no time, the vineyard crew was dropping crop, ensuring the vines would produce high quality fruit.

When it came to vintage, the winemaker introduced Luke to some old-world winemaking tricks including wild yeast, high temperature fermentation and gentle handling of the must. That summer, Luke had spent $15,000 on a new must pump. The winemaker refused to let him pump the must. “He explained we will never use the must pump again,” Luke says. “When the tannins are ripe, the worst thing you can do is put them through a pump.”

What happened next is one of the legends at Howling Bluff.

Luke was ordered to strip to his underwear, get into the tank of wine and grape skins and transfer it to the press bucket by bucket. “I thought it’s a hazing ritual - he’s going to haze his boss,” Luke remembers. “I said, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me!’ He said, ‘no, I’m not.’ I said okay. So I’m in the tank.”

He was still wondering whether it was a leg pull when Jacqueline Kemp, Chris’s wife and also a winemaker, happened to come by.

“I pulled myself up out of the tank and asked, ‘Jacquie, is he hazing me?’ Deadpan, she said, ‘No, that is how you make good wine’.”

It became Canada’s red wine of the year and Luke has never looked back in his passion for Pinot Noir.

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