Thursday, March 22, 2012

Hillside embraces the Naramata Bench

Photo: Hillside Winery

In 1990, Hillside Winery was one of the first two wineries to open on the Naramata Bench.

 The winery’s early vintages – the first was about 25 cases – were all made with Naramata grapes. As the winery grew under a series of owners, it began purchasing grapes from the south Okanagan as well. But once again, the winery increasingly is embracing the Naramata terroir in its winemaking, notably for its flagship wines: Mosaic, its Bordeaux red icon, and Muscat Ottonel, its cult white wine.

Winemaker Kathy Malone, who moved to Hillside in 2008 after a long career at Mission Hill, sang the praises of the Naramata Bench at a tasting this week for the British Columbia Wine Appreciation Society.

What makes the Naramata Bench unique in the Okanagan is its geography. It is a strip of vineyard land, with fairly complex soil, about 25 km long on the east side of Okanagan Lake. The aspect of most of the bench is a gentle slope facing the west, meaning the vineyards benefit from long days of sunlight, with the lake effect moderating summer heat spikes as well as unseasonable winter cold.

The benefit of the sun is magnified when the rays of late afternoon sun bounce from the lake onto the vines. That can have a pronounced effect, as Kathy noted last fall. In a block of Gamay near the winery, she spotted that bunches on some vines had begun to turn red before fruit on nearby vines. Then she noticed this was true of entire rows. It turns out that those rows get just a little extra exposure to sunlight and the reflected light as the sun sets into a gap in the mountains across the lake.

A small thing, perhaps, but terroir is an accumulation of small things. Even after 30 years of viticulture on the Bench, growers are still discovering details about the terroir. If there is ever going to be a sub-appellation declared for the Bench, a lot of details will need to be nailed down to make the case that the wines are distinctive.

What are the best varieties? That may never be a settled question. Whenever one says that this not the place for Syrah (as an example), you can point to a vineyard block where the variety succeeds. “When I first came to Hillside and they told me they were growing Syrah, I thought they were insane,” Kathy says. After all, Mission Hill grows its Syrah on the Osoyoos Bench and has had some struggles even there.

Hillside grows Syrah in a vineyard above the winery that is something of a heat sink. The winery’s 2008 Syrah, one of the wines at the tasting, displayed the ripe tannins and vibrant fruit flavours that Kathy believes is a mark of the Naramata terroir. The wines she showed to the Society, almost entirely made with Naramata fruit, certainly indicate that Hillside has a good handle on the terroir.

Photo: Winemaker Kathy Malone

Here are some notes.

Hillside Un-oaked Pinot Gris 2009 ($18.99 for a production of 1,000 cases) is so named to distinguish the wine from the winery’s barrel-fermented Reserve Pinot Gris, which includes from fruit from Black Sage Road. Kathy says that Pinot Gris grown on the Naramata Bench makes wines with crisp apple flavours and she did not want to submerge that with the tropical fruit of Black Sage Pinot Gris. And this certainly is a bright, refreshing wine with apple and citrus flavours and with excellent weight on the palate. 88.

Hillside Gewürztraminer 2010 ($18.99 for a production of 685 cases). This is a solid wine, with aromas of spice and grapefruit, flavours of guava and tropical fruit and a dry finish. 90.

Hillside Muscat Ottonel 2011 ($19.99 for a production of 692 cases). Those who snap up this wine every year should know that this is the lowest production in five years (probably because spring conditions impacted badly on flowering and fruit set). The winery made 1,084 cases in 2010 – and that wine sold out. The 2011 shows the usual delicate floral aromas – I say rose petal and the winemaker says baby’s breath. This exotic wine is delicately fruity and is balanced to dryness. 90.

Hillside Rosé 2011 ($18.99). The winery made a virtue from necessity when a block of Merlot refused to ripen enough for a red table wine. It produced a terrific rosé – dark ruby in hue, with aromas and flavours of cherry and strawberry jam. This is about 85% Merlot, with the rest made up of Gamay, Pinot Noir, Malbec and Syrah. 89.

Hillside Gamay Noir 2009 ($24.99). Dark in colour, this is delicious, easy-drinking Gamay spent about nine months in barrel, emerging with round, soft tannins. It has aromas and flavours of black cherries, with a hint of mocha on the finish. 88.

Hillside Pinot Noir 2010 ($24.99 for a production of 300 cases). This is Hillside’s first Pinot Noir and the winery was so impressed with the grapes that fall that it has contracted the vineyard, which is near Naramata. (Several Naramata wineries believe the Bench is great Pinot Noir terroir.) This is a pretty wine with aromas and flavours of raspberry and with a silky texture. You need to join Hillside’s wine club to order this. 89.

Hillside Syrah 2008 ($25.99 for a production of 1,095 cases). This is made with fruit from Hillside’s Hidden Valley vineyard supplemented with a bit of Black Sage fruit. The wine announces itself with a dramatic aroma of spice and vanilla. On the palate, there is a delicious scoop of cherry and vanilla and chocolate, with long, ripe tannins. 90.

Hillside Taylor Vineyard Merlot 2009 and Hillside Hidden Valley Vineyard Merlot 2009 (each $24.99 and each about 200 cases). The vineyards are across the road from each other but produce Merlot so different that the winery has decided to make single vineyard wines. Because there was some ambiguity about the pouring order, I will not offer individual notes. Suffice it to say both are 90 point wines.

Hillside Mosaic 2008 ($39.99 for a production of 840 cases). This is 71% Merlot, 18% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Cabernet Franc, with Malbec and Petit Verdot. This is an oak-aged Bordeaux blend built to age five or ten years beyond the current release. It is approachable now but the vibrant core of red fruit is still developing within its oak frame. Give it two or three years to peak. 90-91.

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