Friday, September 28, 2012

Wine tasting along Naramata Road

Vineyards along Naramata Bench

How much time should you set aside for visiting wineries on the Naramata Bench?

As much as you can. Here are my notes from a day and a half on the Bench, during which I covered perhaps a quarter of the producers. That included a break for a delicious lunch at the bistro at Red Rooster Winery, washed down by a glass of one of the best Pinot Blancs I have yet had in the Okanagan.

As I have the opportunity, I will review other Naramata Bench wines (as I have been doing throughout the year).

Bench 1775 Winery is the new name for the former Soaring Eagle Winery, now under the ownership of Jim Stewart and Peter Wille. The name, quite simply, uses the winery’s address on Naramata Road. The owners are clever in other ways as well: this summer, they hired the excellent Richard Kanazawa as their winemaker.

Bench 1775 Winery Sauvignon Blanc 2011 ($17.90). This is a delicious white and well priced. There is lots of lime and grapefruit on the nose and on the palate, with herbal notes. The finish is refreshingly tangy. 90.

Bench 1775 Winery Chardonnay 2011 ($18.90). Here is a refreshing unoaked Chardonnay, with fruity flavours of peaches and citrus and with a crisp dry finish. 89.

Black Widow Winery is operated by Dick and Shona Lancaster. He is a former amateur winemaker who has made a very successful transition to the professional ranks.

Black Widow Winery Pinot Gris 2011 ($21 for 360 cases). Crisp and refreshing, this wine has flavours of apples, peach and citrus. 90.

Black Widow Winery Gewürztraminer 2011 ($23 for 90 cases and now sold out). Light and crisp, the wine has spicy aromas and spicy lychee flavours. 88.

Black Widow Winery Oasis 2011 ($22 for 320 cases). This is a blend of Schönburger, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris. Not surprisingly, it is quite aromatic, has flavours of herbs and spice and a pleasantly off-dry finish. 88.

Black Widow Winery Schönburger 2011 ($25 for 105 cases, and sold out). This rare varietal appeals for its floral aromas and its spicy citrus flavours. 91.

Black Widow Winery Syrah Rosé 2011 ($22 for 35 cases and sold out). Juicy and refreshing, this off-dry rosé tastes like a mouthful of wild strawberries. 91.

Black Widow Winery Phobia 2010 ($25 for 240 cases). This is 80% Syrah, 20% Merlot. It is an accessible red with flavours of cherry and currants and some leather and coffee on the finish. 88.

Black Widow Winery Merlot 2010 ($28 for 140 cases). A wine that merits cellaring, this still shows youthful grip on the palate, with flavours of black currants. The winery recommends cellaring it for a few months “minimum” but I would cellar it for about three years to let all of the sweet fruit and complexity emerge. 90.

Black Widow Winery Hourglass 2010 ($38 for 100 cases). This is the winery’s signature red. In this vintage, it is 80% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. The flavours are bold and ripe, including black currants, blueberries, chocolate. 92.

Black Widow Winery Vintage One 2010 ($25 for 580 half bottles). This Port-style wine is fortified Merlot aged 20 months in old oak. The flavours are rich; it tastes of figs, plums and chocolate and has a lingering sweetness of fruit on the finish. 88.

Hillside Winery’s Kathy Malone, formerly with Mission Hill, now crafts interesting wines on the Naramata Bench.

Hillside Winery Viognier 2010 ($21.99 for 318 cases). The wine was given a year of bottle age before release, allowing for the development of complexity. The surprise is that the price is not higher! The wine shows herbal aromas and flavours – the winery’s own notes speak of “spring blossoms and honeysuckle, with notes of chai spice.” Having grown up on a farm, I was reminded of fresh hay. The finish is tangy. 89.

Hillside Winery Pinot Gris Reserve 2010 ($19.99 for 357 cases). A quarter of this wine was aged in Hungarian oak but the oak does not cover the juicy fruit aromas and flavours of pears and citrus. 90.

Hillside Winery Syrah 2009 ($25.99 for 300 cases). This is an elegant, Rhone-style Syrah, with a touch of white pepper and with flavours of plum, black cherry and fig. 90.

Hillside Winery Merlot Malbec 2010 ($24.99 for 190 cases). This is primarily anchored around Merlot and is still youthfully firm and should be cellared a few years. The aromas include cherry, plum and spice. The flavours include black currant, chocolate and tobacco. 89-90.

Hillside Winery Gamay 2011 (barrel sample). Hillside consistently makes one of the Okanagan’s best Gamays, with the depth and concentration of a fine Beaujolais Cru. It has aromas and flavours of cherry framed subtly with oak. The texture is almost meaty. 90.

Hillside Winery Pinot Noir 2011 (tank sample). This was tasted just before the wine was bottled. The wine is firm and full on the palate with flavours of cherry and raspberry. I won’t try to score it until it has been in the bottle for a year but it will be a delicious wine.

La Frenz Winery is run by Jeff and Niva Martin (left), who first came to the Okanagan in 1994 from Australia. Jeff’s winemaking put Quails’ Gate on the map before he moved on to his own winery on the Naramata Bench.

La Frenz Winery Sauvignon Blanc 2011 ($22). This is a zesty and racy wine with lime and herbal aromas and refreshing lime flavours; the finish just won’t quit. 91.

La Frenz Winery Sémillon 2011 ($20). This varietal has slightly softer acidity than the Sauvignon Blanc, leading to juicy flavours of lemon and lemon pie. 90.

La Frenz Winery Chardonnay 2011 ($20). This is always quite distinctive, with aromas and flavours of peaches and nectarines, cushioned in buttery and toasty notes. The oak is well in the background, allowing the fruit to be the star. 89.

La Frenz Winery Reserve Chardonnay 2010 ($29).  Here is a full-on, hedonistic, gold medal barrel-fermented Chardonnay, with rich tangerine and cashew flavours. 92.

La Frenz Winery Rosé 2011 ($18). This wine was made by bleeding some juice (a traditional method) from various lots of Merlot, Pinot Noir and Shiraz.  The wine’s colour alone sets you up for a delicious taste experience; on the palate, there are flavours of rhubarb, cranberry and strawberry. 90.

La Frenz Winery Reserve Pinot Noir 2010 ($32). This was a double gold at the All Canadian Wine Championships and was named the best Pinot Noir in the show. Intense and concentrated, the wine has aromas and flavours of black cherry with toasty oak on the background and spice on the finish. 90.

La Frenz Winery Malbec 2010 ($25). This is a big red, with spicy blueberry aromas and with flavours of blueberries and other dark fruits. The tannins are long and ripe, making for a wine that drinks well now but also has several years of development ahead of it. 91.

La Frenz Winery Montage 2010 ($22). Here is an easy drinking blend (not that any of the La Frenz wines are hard to drink) of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Malbec. It has aromas and flavours of black currant and plum with earthy notes of chocolate and liquorice. 90.

La Frenz Winery Merlot 2010 ($26). This is a dark and concentrated wine a nice chewy texture and flavours of black currant, fig, chocolate and tobacco. 91.

La Frenz Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ($28). This has the classic varietal notes of eucalyptus on the nose. On the palate, there are flavours of mint, blackberry and chocolate. The structure is elegant and ageworthy. 91.

La Frenz Winery Grand Total Reserve 2009 ($40). This fine red lives up to its slightly pompous name. It is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet France and Malbec from the excellent 2009 vintage. Inky dark in colour, it is full-bodied, with aromas and flavours of blueberry, black currant, mint, chocolate and vanilla. 93.

Moraine Estate Winery was formerly sardonically named Zero Balance when it was the last winery opened by Keith Holman before going into bankruptcy. It has reopened under the management of Oleg and Svetlana Aristarkhov who, in a change of lifestyle, have moved to the Okanagan from Alberta.  They have retained Jacqueline Kemp as their consulting winemaker.

Moraine Estate Winery Pinot Gris 2011 ($21). Almost austerely dry, this wine shows chalky notes from extensive lees stirring. Flavours of pears and pineapples come through on the finish. 87.

Moraine Estate Winery Cliffhanger White 2011 ($19.50). This is an interesting blend of Pinot Gris and Viognier, with flavours of pear and stone fruit and with a crisp, dry finish. 88.

Moraine Estate Winery Viognier 2011 ($23). The wine has aromas and flavours of lemon and stone fruit with a crisp tangy finish. 88.

Moraine Estate Winery Cliffhanger Red 2011 ($24). This wine is 70% Gamay, 22% Syrah, 7% Merlot with a dash of Dunkelfelder for colour. It is a soft, easy-drinking red, with aromas and flavours of raspberry and blackberry. 88.

Moraine Estate Winery Meritage 2008 ($23). A blend of the five Bordeaux reds, this wine is still a touch firm, with aromas and flavours of black currants and leather. 88.

Perseus Winery & Vineyards is located in a heritage house in Penticton (vineyard view to left). The winemaker is Tom DiBello, formerly the winemaker at CedarCreek Estate Winery. He took over from Lawrence Herder, who made the 2009 and 2010 vintages.

Perseus Sauvignon Blanc 2011 ($17.90). This is a crisp, flinty Sancerre style wine with tangy notes of lemon and lemon rind and with a dry finish. 88.

Perseus Pinot Gris 2011 ($16.90). DiBello says this is his favourite among all the Pinot Gris he has made. It is a crisply focussed wine with aromas and flavours of apples and citrus. 90.

Perseus Merlot 2011 ($21.90). There are simply gobs of juicy berry flavours. The wine has generous ripe textures. The grapes for this come from the winery’s Similkameen Vineyard. 90.

Perseus Shiraz Cabernet 2011 ($21.90). This is another juicy, ripe red with luscious textures on the palate. It tastes of spicy plums and has enough tannin to age for a few years. 89.

Perseus Invictus 2009 ($32.90). This is a blend of  Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, along with small quantities of Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. It is a delicious, mouth-filling red with flavours of spice, vanilla, black currant, cherry and chocolate. 91.

Perseus Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ($50). Only 88 cases were made of this elegant red; the grapes come from Inkameep Vineyard’s U2 block, arguably the most legendary Cabernet Sauvignon in the Okanagan. The wine shows mint, figs and black currants but it would be infanticide to drink this before 2015. 91.

Ruby Blues Winery is where Prudence Mahrer, the co-founder of Red Rooster Winery, now meets the public in one of the liveliest tasting rooms on the Naramata Bench.

Ruby Blues Winery Riesling 2011 ($20). This is a wonderfully intense Riesling, with aromas of green apples and citrus and flavours of citrus spun around a core of minerals. The wine is well-balanced with residual sugar popping the flavours and aromas while the racy acidity give the wine a dry finish. 89.

Ruby Blues Winery Pinot Gris 2011 ($20). Juicy in texture, this wine has aromas ands intense flavours of pears and citrus, with lingering finish. 89.

Ruby Blues Winery Gewürztraminer 2011 ($20). This wine is made from 36-year-old vines. That accounts for its full-bodied intensity, with aromas and  flavours of spice and grapefruit. This won a Lieutenant Governor's award. 90.

Ruby Blues Winery White Stiletto 2011 ($20). This is a blend of 40% Viognier, 40% Chardonnay and 20% Muscat Ottonel. This is a delicious, off-dry sipping wine with aromas and flavours of peaches and apricots. The Muscat adds a delicate floral spice note. 89.

Ruby Blues Winery Red Stiletto N.V. ($25). This is a soft, accessible blend (about 80% Syrah) with flavours of black cherries and raspberries. 88.

Ruby Blues Winery Syrah 2009 ($30 for 120 cases). This wine begins with aromas of spice, white pepper black cherry. On the palate, there are flavours of plum, blackberry and spice. Medium-bodied, the wine is elegant. 90.

Ruby Blues Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 ($30). The grapes for this wine were picked November 7, 2009, with the winery taking full advantage of moderating impact of the lake on the Naramata Bench vineyards. It has aromas of vanilla, blackberry and blueberry, with flavours of black currant and chocolate. There is a hint of liquorice on the finish. 90.

Ruby Blues Winery Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 ($30). There is 55% Merlot in this blend. It is a big ripe red with aromas of vanilla and red berries and with flavours of plum, black currant and chocolate. The finish is long. 90.

Ruby Blues Winery Merlot Grand Reserve 2009 ($40). Dense and concentrated, this is a ripe and complex red with flavours of figs, plums, black currants and chocolate. 91.

3 Mile Estate Winery was opened last year by Jake and Colleen Gunther (left) and Gayle and Darry Rahn. The women are sisters and provided a cheery tasting room welcome all season.

3 Mile Estate Winery Gewürztraminer 2011 ($21.30 for 190 cases). The wine begins with floral and spicy aromas. On the palate, there are flavours of grapefruit and lychee. The finish is defined by a spicy note of Muscat. 88.

3 Mile Estate Winery Pinot Gris 2011 ($19.95). The wine is fresh and juicy with aromas and flavours of peach, ripe pear and guava. 90.

3 Mile Estate Winery Pinot Gris Viognier 2011 ($21.30 for 135 cases). The wine begins with aromas of pear and toastiness from lees contact. It has a rich palate with flavours of tangerine and apple. There is only about six per cent Viognier in the blend but that added significant complexity. 89.

3 Mile Estate Winery Cabernet Merlot 2010 ($24.90 for 160 cases). The wine begins with aromas of cherry, black currant and vanilla. Those are delivered on the palate, along with notes of pepper and chocolate. The tannins are still firm. 89.

3 Mile Estate Winery Trio 2010 ($29.90 for 225 cases). This is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, with a dash of Syrah. The texture is still youthfully tight, suggesting this is an age-worthy red. There are flavours of black cherry, black currant and cedar. 90.

3 Mile Estate Winery Late Harvest Viognier 2011 ($24.95 for a 350 ml bottle; 94 cases made). This delightful dessert wine is sweet, but not overly sweet. There are aromas and flavours of apricot and peach. The balance is clean and refreshing. 89.

Township 7 has an enviable location at the start of Naramata Road. I have stopped at the tasting room many times just on impulse, because it is right there. Many others do the same.

Township 7 Sauvignon Blanc 2007 ($18.99). This is a crisp and tangy white with hints of herbs, grass and green beans. 87.

Township 7 Chardonnay 2009 ($19.99). This is a classic oaked Chardonnay, fat and rich on the palate with notes of caramel, nuts and tangerine. 88.

Township 7 Unoaked Chardonnay 2011 ($17.99 for 388 cases). Crisp and fresh, with aromas and flavours of green apples. This is a tangy, refreshingly dry white that cries for pairing with seafood. 89.

Township 7 2011 7 Blanc ($18.99 for 508 cases). This is a blend of 60% Gewürztraminer and 40% Pinot Gris. The wine is bright and crisp with aromas of citrus, herbs and spice and with flavours of apples and citrus. 89.

Township 7 Rosé 2009 ($15.99 for 465 cases). Salmon pink in colour, the wine has aromas and flavours of strawberry and cherry. 88.

Township 7 Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ($19.99 for 400 cases). This is 75% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon. The latter varietal adds a note of mint to the aromas of black currant, chocolate and tobacco. On the palate, there are flavours of black currant and cherry. Another year of bottle age will polish the firm tannins. 88.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Howling Bluff gets both feet into Pinot Noir

Photo: Howling Bluff's Luke Smith

The Okanagan wine industry is largely populated by individuals who have switched from white collar careers to become wine growers.

Few have plunged more deeply into their new careers than former stock broker Luke Smith, now the owner of Howling Bluff Winery.

Plunged is the operative word. This fall he will be crushing the grapes by foot to make a super-premium Pinot Noir. “We don’t want a machine to touch it,” he says. (You would be surprised how many other wineries do this from time to time.)

This is the ultimate step that Luke has taken in a grape growing odyssey that has seen him switch almost all of the Bordeaux vines he planted in 2003 and 2004 to Pinot Noir. He concluded that his terroir on the Naramata Bench was far better suited to ripening Pinot Noir every year.

The late and cool 2011 vintage was the last straw with his Bordeaux reds. The year forced him to drop so much fruit in an effort to ripen the grapes that he produced just nine barrels for his Sin Cera red blend, down from 24 barrels in 2010.

Future vintages of Sin Cera will be made primarily with grapes purchased from select growers in Oliver and Osoyoos. The Bordeaux varieties ripen more reliably there, Luke believes, that they do on his vineyard. But be believes that he can ripen Pinot Noir – he has 6 ½ acres now – and make outstanding wine every year.

He has the awards, including a Lieutenant Governor’s award of excellence, to prove that his Summa Quies vineyard can grow world-class Pinot Noir.

This summer, he isolated a block of about 1,200 Pinot Noir vines beside the winery for a trial to produce a super-premium wine. The vines are being cropped around one ton an acre in an effort to make a wine of intense flavour and aroma. The remainder of the Summa Quies vineyard is being cropped at about twice than tonnage, more in line with the normal crop load that leading Pinot Noir producers find is adequate for quality wine.

“We are going to pick it separately,” Luke says of the grapes in his trial block. “Daniel [his son] and I are going to get in there and stomp it. It will be whole cluster, stomped on. It will ferment in its own tank, all free run juice. It will be about three barrels’ worth and it will go into one new barrel and two second-fill barrels, for 18 months. It will be bottled and stay in the bottle for another 18 months.”

When he is ready to release the wine in 2016, he intends to have it tasted blind against a selection of $100 Pinot Noirs from international producers and “let it lie where it lies.”

He does not expect to come in last.

Of course, you will want to taste some of his wines before 2016. Here are notes on current releases.

Howling Bluff Summa Quies Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc Sémillon 2011 ($20 for 253 cases). Mostly Sauvignon Blanc, this blend has aromas of herbs and citrus, with a satisfying dollop of sweet fruit on the middle of the palate. The finish is slightly off-dry. While winery owner Luke Smith is happy with the wine, he also intends to make a crisper, drier version in 2012. 88.

Howling Bluff Summa Quies Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010 ($35 for 311 cases). This wine, which is nearly sold out, shows what can be done by cropping Pinot Noir at two tons an acre. The wine’s lovely colour would flatter a jewel case. There is a dramatic explosion of cherries in the aroma, carrying through to spicy, cherry flavours and a silky but concentrated texture. 90.

Howling Bluff Three Sisters Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010 ($28 for 275 cases). Made with purchased grapes, this is a light and charming Pinot Noir with strawberries in the aroma and cherries on the palate. 88.

Howling Bluff Summa Quies Vineyard Sin Cera 2009 ($31 for 300 cases). This is a blend of 37% Malbec, 29% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Franc and 8% Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine is just as impressive as the tank sample I reviewed a year ago. Then, I described it as “a chewy, concentrated red with flavours of plums, olives, figs and with long ripe tannins.” This time, I also picked up spice and black currant with an elegant structure. 92.

Howling Bluff Summa Quies Vineyard Sin Cera 2010 (not yet released). This red is youthfully firm, with cherry and mocha aromas and with flavours of black currant and raspberry. The vivacity of the flavours reflect a vintage that was not as hot and ripe as 2009. Good viticulture still produced good wine. 90.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Class of 2012: Harper’s Trail

Photo: Vicki and Ed Collett

If you dined recently in top Kamloops or Sunpeaks restaurants, you will have noted a new label on the wine lists: Harper’s Trail.

The locals are taking pride – justifiable pride – in the largest of the two new wineries to open near Kamloops this year.

The smaller one is Privato Vineyard & Cellars which is just about to release a very fine Chardonnay 2011 and has a Pinot Noir maturing in bottle. I expect those wines also be snapped up by area restaurants, wine stores and consumers.

Growing vinifera grapes in the Thompson River Valley is a risky proposition. However, these vineyards are figuring out how keep the vines from freezing over the hard winters so that they can mature tasty grapes during the hot, dry summers.

Judging from the three Harper’s Trail releases, all affordably priced, the effort is worth it.

Harper’s Trail has not yet built a winery. It delivered its grapes last fall to Okanagan Crush Pad and Michael Bartier made the wines.

Here are my notes.

Harper’s Trail 2011 Rosé ($16.99). With 10.5% alcohol, this is a light and refreshing wine, ideal for summer drinking and, now that summer is over, for the hot tub. There are aromas and flavours of strawberry and rhubarb; and the wine is balanced to finish dry. Three grape varieties comprise this rosé: Gamay Noir, Pinot Noir and Merlot. 90.

Harper’s Trail 2011 Field Blend White ($16.99). This is a blend of Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc. Again, the wine is light and refreshing, with 10.5% alcohol. There are herbal and citrus aromas, with flavours of citrus and apples. The finish is crisp and dry. 89.

Harper’s Trail 2011 Riesling ($19.99). The limestone gives this attractive Riesling a delicate spine of minerals. The wine has lovely floral and citrus aromas, with crisply focussed flavours of lime, apple and white peaches. 90.

Here is the text of the Harper’s Trail profile from the recent John Schreiner’s Okanagan Wine Tour Guide.


What makes this vineyard special is same thing that has enabled Lafarge to operate a cement plant nearby since 1970: the underlying limestone in the area, which is quarried for cement but also benefits grape growing.  Ed Collett, who owns Harper’s Trail with his wife, Vicki, points to the cliff above the south-sloping vineyards. “That whole side hill is lime rock,” he says.

This property on the north side of the Thompson River is about 16 kilometres (10 miles) east of Kamloops. Formerly, it grew hay and grazed cattle in what is quintessential British Columbia range country. Harper’s Trail is named for Thaddeus Harper, the 19th-century American-born rancher who once owned the vast 15,569-hectare (38,472-acre) Gang Ranch, one of the first farms to use sturdy gang ploughs. Ed bought his modest slice of ranch country in 2007 after he had conceived the idea of developing a winery.

He developed a taste for wine during travels to Chile on business for the mining equipment company he has run since establishing it in 1987. The desire for a winery emerged during Okanagan wine tours. He remembers relaxing at a bed and breakfast overlooking a vineyard and remarking: “I’ve got to get myself one of these.” His brother Jeff, who was briefly involved with the winery, remembers that episode differently, placing it in the restaurant at Quails’ Gate Estate Winery.

Ed began planting vines in 2008. He currently has 7.2 hectares (18 acres) of vines and has plans for as much as another 18 hectares (45 acres), in stages as he and vineyard manager John Dranchuk determine what varieties will succeed. “You have to take baby steps,” Ed notes. “We are further north [than most vineyards] but obviously, it is not a deterrent for us.” 

The cold winters have eliminated   Syrah and created question marks around Merlot and Cabernet Franc. However, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay show early promise for what is the largest vinifera planting in the area.

Two wind machines combat early autumn frost while ginseng shade-cloth on the vineyard’s borders breaks the valley’s constant winds. Even though the nearest residential subdivision is a kilometre away, on the south side of the river, the unfamiliar sounds of grape farming have upset a few neighbours. “All of this is new to the Thompson,” the vineyard manager says. “This is the first vineyard with wind machines and bird bangers.”

The first   wines—Riesling, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay—were produced in 2011 at a custom winery. Ed plans to build a winery and open a tasting room by 2013. Within a few years, he intends to add a restaurant and build walking trails. 

The experience of developing a winery in challenging terroir has given him a whole new appreciation of wine. “Before, we might say, ‘Twenty dollars for a bottle of wine? You have to be kidding me.’ Now, I’ll pay forty dollars,” he laughs. “We’re not going to get rich making wine but we are having a whole bunch of fun.”

Harper’s Trail Estate Winery
2720 Shuswap Road
Kamloops BC V2H 1S9

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Sumac Ridge spins off two iconic brands

Photo: Black Sage Vineyard winemaker Jason James

At 32 years, the Sumac Ridge Estate Winery brand needs some renewing.

At least, that is the conclusion of Constellation Brands Canada, Sumac Ridge’s parent company. Yesterday, Constellation president Eric Morham and his team carved two new brands from Sumac Ridge.

Steller’s Jay, the sparkling wine that Sumac Ridge has made since 1987, now will be a stand-alone brand, releasing between 4,000 and 6,000 cases a year. The logic is that leading sparkling wine houses around the world do not also have a long portfolio of table wines. In a few years, the Sumac Ridge name will disappear from the Steller’s Jay labels.

And Black Sage Vineyard becomes the new brand for reds made from the vineyard of the same name on Black Sage Road, south of Oliver.

The vineyard, originally about 115 acres, was planted in 1993 and 1994 by Sumac Ridge founder Harry McWatters. It was then the single largest block of Bordeaux varietals planted in Canada. That was seen as risky until the grapes enabled the winery to make award-winning wines. Those wines were generally released with the vineyard name on the label, selling at a premium compared to the other wines in the extensive Sumac Ridge portfolio.

McWatters sold Sumac Ridge in 2000 to Vincor, which was subsequently taken over by Constellation Brands, the largest wine company in the world.

The vineyard, however, was owned 50% by McWatters and 50% by Constellation, which also owns the Black Sage Vineyard name.

A few years ago, after McWatters retired from Constellation, the vineyard was divided between the partners. The McWatters half is now called the Sundial Vineyard. Some of the grapes support his new McWatters Collection brand, with additional tonnages sold to other wineries. His obligation to sell to Constellation ended last year.

On its Black Sage Vineyard, Constellation continues to grow Bordeaux reds. The acreage of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc is being grafted over or replanted with more red varieties and with Syrah, supporting the mandate of new label and winemaker Jason James to produce big reds. Potential production is about 5,000 cases a year.

The wines will continue to be made at Sumac Ridge’s Summerland winery. The Sumac Ridge brand will continue to be about 50,000 cases a year, primarily of popularly-priced wines ($12-$20 a bottle). The Black Sage Vineyard wines are priced above that, but not that far above.

The rationale is laid out in the new brand’s literature. “Black Sage Vineyard and wines it creates have always been special,” the brochure explains. “People always remembered the Black Sage Vineyard wines AFTER they tasted them. Consumer research told us that customers were confused by Sumac Ridge’s multiple tiers and many products. Black Sage Vineyard wines were deemed a lesser quality mostly due to the complexity of the portfolio. We believe that Black Sage Vineyard wines are some of the best out there.”

I get the logic. I knew from regular tastings of Sumac Ridge wines that the wines from that vineyard had more flavour and more finesse than similar wines in lower tiers made from purchased grapes. The difference often was dramatic if you tasted the wines side by side.

“To better communicate this to consumers, we have reinvented the Black Sage Vineyard brand with a focus on the merits of the vineyard and the bold winemaking style,” the brochure adds. “… These are premium wines from a premium vineyard.”

In an ideal world, Constellation Brands should build a boutique winery on the Black Sage Vineyard. A small problem is that the Sundial Vineyard has the best frontage on Black Sage Road and McWatters has plans to build a winery.

The new Black Sage Vineyard brand is launching with three red table wines – Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc – from the 2010 vintage. The wines show a youthful vivacity and will benefit from a couple of years of cellaring. James, the winemaker, remarked that his favourite is the Cabernet Franc. I quite agree: the brambly flavours are delicious. It is a 90 pointer for me.

The fourth wine in the Black Sage Vineyard portfolio is 2007 Pipe, the fortified Port-style wine that Sumac Ridge has made for many years with the ripest grapes from the vineyard.

There is also a significant casualty of the restructuring of the portfolio. The production of Pinnacle has ceased. This was the first $50 red icon blend released by any Okanagan winery. It always sold slowly but it served the useful purpose of reducing the price resistance that the winery’s $25 Meritage once encountered.

James says that a Meritage blend is being considered under the Black Sage Vineyard label.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Class of 2012: Tyler Harlton Wines

Photo: Tyler Harlton

Tyler Harlton Wines is a tiny 500-case producer in a Summerland industrial park – so tiny that some of the other Summerland wineries had not even heard of it when I was in that community recently.

There is no tasting room, so the winery is not on any of the touring maps. The wines are sold through the website as well as in a few Summerland area wine stores. Tyler is also getting some distribution in Alberta and in Saskatchewan, where he has contacts and relatives.

He is not trying to go head to head with more established producers. “In this valley,” he acknowledges, “there are a lot of good wines.”

His other business is growing organic vegetables on his farm at Trout Creek and selling them to restaurants and at farmer’s markets.

He is a  bit of a romantic personality (“I really like travelling by train”) who belongs to an artistic family. His sister, Angela Morgan, is a Fernie, B.C., artist who sells her work both across Canada and abroad. Her web site lists a gallery in Switzerland that carries her art. Of course, she has provided the colourful label art for her brother’s wines.

Here are notes on the currant releases.

Thw 2011 Apple Wine ($14.10). Tangy and refreshing, this dry apple wine is made with dessert apples. The result is a pleasant, light-bodied wine with seven per cent alcohol. 88.

Thw 2011 Rosé ($21). This delicious wine was made with Cabernet Franc grapes that Tyler purchased specifically to make rosé. It tastes of wild strawberries with a creamy texture and a dry finish. 90.

Thw 2011 Pinot Gris Viognier ($21). Two-thirds of the blend is Pinot Gris. Tyler and his winemaker did fairly complex winemaking here, fermenting seven separate lots, some in stainless steel and some in barrels. Some of the blend got the benefit of lees stirring; some went through malolactic ferment, some did not.  It is a lot of work for 1,000 bottles but the result is excellent. The wine has aromas and flavours of apricots, with the buttery note of ML. It shows a generous weight on the palate and a crisp, well-defined finish. 90.

Still to be released is 48 cases of a 2011 Pinot Noir for $26. Tyler also is maturing three barrels of Cabernet Franc and two barrels of Merlot, which will be blended into one red for release next year.

His peers should take notice of the new guy on the block.

Here is the profile from the current edition of John Schreiner’s Okanagan Wine Tour Guide.

In 2007, during his final year at McGill’s law school, Tyler Harlton had a semester in Paris. On most weekends, he took the train to a French wine region, rented a bicycle, and explored wineries and vineyards, even helping to pick grapes. He had taken courses in wine appreciation but the French experience was life changing. “Seeing the vines in France really connected with me,” says Tyler, who was born in Saskatchewan in 1976 and grew up on a wheat farm. “I had that in my background. The wine industry is sophisticated and popular but at the same time it has an agricultural tradition.”

When he graduated in 2008, he decided to article with a Penticton law firm, attracted in part by the Okanagan’s wine industry. In short order, Tyler decided against a career in law and became a picker and then a cellar hand at Osoyoos Larose Estate Winery. He moved to the cellar at Le Vieux Pin in 2009 and to Dirty Laundry Vineyards in 2010 while planning for himself a holistic agricultural lifestyle including a winery.

“I rent land and grow ground crops and I sell at farmers’ markets and to local restaurants,” he explains. “My idea is to have a sustainable lifestyle where I get to grow food and make wine. My idea is to be working with vines at the same time as I am growing food. The farming season slows down in September and that is when the grape picking starts. I would like to live an old-fashioned lifestyle doing the things that I love – growing food and making wine.”

He crafted a strategy allowing him to open a winery with limited capital. For a processing facility, he leases about 139 square meters (1,500 square feet) in an industrial building next to Ripley Stainless Ltd., the major supplier of tanks for the wine industry. He has handshake agreements with two growers in the south Okanagan for top quality grapes. And he operates the winery under a commercial license that, unlike a land-based winery license, does not require him to be based on his own vineyard.

In their inaugural vintage, Tyler and his winemaker, William Adams, made about 500 cases (Pinot Gris, Viognier, Cabernet Franc rosé, Pinot Noir and a Merlot/Cabernet Franc blend). And because there are plenty of apples available, they made a trial 100-case lot of cider. “Cider for me is another agricultural product,” Tyler says. “There is a really good cider tradition that has died off.”

Tyler Harlton Wines
#1 - 9576 Cedar Avenue
Summerland BC V0H 1Z2
T 250.494.8334

Monday, September 17, 2012

Road 13 extends its portfolio

Photo: Road 13 winemaker J-M Bouchard

A few years ago, Road 13 Vineyards announced it intended to phase out many of its varietal wines in favour of blends.

Well, you can always make the rationale for blends: the whole is better than the parts. The winery’s excellent big blend brands (Stemwinder, Rockpile and the three Honest John’s wines) are made in enough volume that they are listed in the British Columbia liquor stores. The Honest John wines have entry-level pricing, from $16 to $20. That has given Road 13 a significant presence in the market.

The winery also seems to have discovered that consumers still like varietals. It also could be that J-M Bouchard, the winemaker who took over in 2010, does not entirely share the blending enthusiasm of Michael Bartier, his predecessor; or perhaps that he has the usual winemaker’s urge to make small-lot, showpiece wines.

Whatever the explanation, Road 13 is releasing five excellent reds, all with the varieties named on the label.

Three of them happen to be Pinot Noir, marking this winery as an emerging player with this variety. 

Here are notes on the wines. All of these wines are available from the winery by direct order. Don’t go looking in the LDB stores.

Road 13 Pinot Noir 2011 ($22.99 for 859 cases): In a way, this is a blend. The grapes for this wine are drawn from vineyards in Summerland, Kelowna, Naramata and the Golden Mile, each a distinct terroir. The deep colour and the 13.2% alcohol suggest a full and ripe wine. The aromas are still somewhat mute but the palate delivers flavours of cherry and raspberry, with very good concentration. The tannins are still a bit firm but time will bring the classic silky texture that one expects in a Pinot Noir. 88.

Road 13 Fleet Road Pinot Noir 2011 ($38 for 125 cases). The grapes for this wine come from two vineyards near each other on the Naramata Bench. Alcohol is 12.7%.   The wine has a fine dark hue. On opening, the aroma takes a bit of time to emerge from a touch of sulphur; when it does, there are aromas of black cherries. On the palate, the wine tastes of black cherry with strawberry and spice highlights. The fruit is bright and vibrant. It is a wonderfully concentrated Pinot Noir that is showing the beginnings of an elegant velvet texture. 90

Road 13 Castle Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011 ($38). This one of Road 13’s own vineyards, named for the original castle-like winery. The nose shows rich, dark fruit aromas and that follows through on the palate, with earthy flavours of black cherry and mocha chocolate. The texture is luscious and full; it is still youthfully firm. With an alcohol of 13.6%, this is not a wimpy Pinot. 91

Road 13 Syrah Malbec 2011 ($32 for 550 cases).  This is 66% Syrah, 34% Malbec. The two varietals pair well together. Dark in colour, this wine delivers aromas of cracked black pepper and black cherry, with flavours of red berries, fig, leather and peppery dark chocolate. Medium to full on the palate and with alcohol is 12.8%, this is a deliciously rustic and earthy red. 89-90.

Road 13 Syrah Mourvedre 2011 ($35 for 290 cases).  This is 93% Syrah, 7% Mourvedre, with grapes from the Road 9 Farm on Black Sage Bench, which is managed by Road 13. The wine has a dead-of-night black/purple hue. It is a big, ripe wine with alcohol 13.6%, and with bold, jammy aromas of figs and prune, with dramatic flavours of peppery red fruit – black cherry, mulberry, black berry. This swaggering wine has long, ripe tannins that contribute to the full body and the long finish. 91

Friday, September 14, 2012

JoieFarm’s reserve releases in 2012

Photo: Michael Dinn and Heidi Noble

The current reserve releases from JoieFarm Winery underline a growing commitment to making wines from Burgundian varieties.

Michael Dinn and Heidi Noble believe that the Burgundian grapes – Pinot Noir, Gamay and Chardonnay – are well suited to the Okanagan terroirs from which they get fruit.

Michael also has strong opinions about varieties ill-suited to the Okanagan. Italian varietals just don’t travel well, he says. Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel ripen too late. Many would agree with him – even those making great wine with those varietals.

Since its first vintage in 2004, JoieFarm has focussed on the varieties of Burgundy and Alsace which ripen reliably in the Okanagan and which make wines well suited to the west coast cuisine that Heidi and Michael know so well. She is a chef and he has worked in top Vancouver restaurants before the couple began developing their Naramata winery.

“Before we had even purchased a property, Heidi and I had discussed that we wanted to do a blended white wine, based on Edelswicker,” Michael says.  “We knew that blending worked for a number of reasons: it adds complexity to wine. That was important to us because the vines are still so young here. We were not going to be able to get access to all of the 25-year-old vineyards, right out of the gate.”

When they planted their first Naramata vineyard in 2007, the primary variety was Gewürztraminer.  Last year, they bought Naramata Bench cherry orchard. That has now been converted to a vineyard with five acres of Pinot Noir and three of Chardonnay.

“It is a clone experiment that we will run for the next 10 years,” Michael says. “We planted nine different clones of Pinot Noir and five of Chardonnay. We will do separate bottlings along the way for experimental purposes, along clonal lines. We will determine which clones do the best in that location and then we will graft the vineyard over after a period of time, probably about 10 years.”

The winery, now making about 11,000 cases a year, is also seeking to raise the bar on what has always been a very good portfolio. This is the winery’s first Reserve Pinot Noir and it came about by identifying the best eight barrels of Pinot Noir in that vintage.

The new vineyard should, in time, give JoieFarm additional tools to make even better wine.

“We have been mining a nice high middle, as far as the market goes,” Michael says. “We would like to work the premium end a bit more, not so much from a financial standpoint but from a quality standpoint. Burgundy is one of our great loves.”

Here are notes on the wines, just being released.

JoieFarm Reserve Chardonnay 2010 ($29.90 for 434 cases). The technical notes on this wine illustrate the attention to detail by Heidi Noble and Robert Thielicke, who share the winemaking at JoieFarm. They started with three different clones of Chardonnay from three different vineyards. In the winery, the grapes were whole cluster pressed. Native yeast started the fermentation in French oak barriques and puncheons. The wine was left in contact with the lees, with bi-weekly stirring for 10 months. No wonder this is a complex Burgundian-style white.

For my palate, there is a little too much lees stirring. The texture is excellent but I would like to see more of the ripe citrus fruit pop through the bready aromas and flavours that come with extended lees contact. But remember: that is my palate. I prefer a less cerebral Chardonnay. Having said that, I think this wine will absolutely bloom with a few more years of bottle age, just like a good white Burgundy. 88.

JoieFarm Reserve Gewürztraminer 2010 ($27.90 for 98 cases). Here is a lovely apéritif from the first harvest at the estate vineyard at JoieFarm. The wine is off-dry, with aromas of rose petals and spice and with juicy flavours of white peach and lychee. It is not so sweet that it can’t be paired with food but it is so delicious that you will want to enjoy it on its own. 90.

JoieFarm Reserve Pinot Noir 2010 ($39.90 for 189 cases). This is an elegant Pinot Noir incorporating five different clones from two vineyards – one on the Naramata Bench and one on the Skaha Lake Bench. Just the deep hue alone gives the wine an alluring beauty in the glass. It has aromas of cherry and mocha, leading to flavours of spicy cherries. The wine has a svelte, silky texture. 91.

JoieFarm PTG 2010 ($23.90 for 843 cases). PTG stands for Passe-Tout-Grains, which is what the Burgundians call blends of Pinot Noir and Gamay. This delicious Burgundy-inspired wine is 52% Gamay Noir, 48% Pinot Noir. The deep colour signals the rich but silky weight this had on the palate. It begins with aromas of cherries and pepper, leading to flavours of cherry, spice and pepper. 90.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Inniskillin Okanagan releases in 2012

Photo: Inniskillin Okanagan's Sandor Meyer

The marketing people behind Inniskillin Okanagan are making winemaker Sandor Mayer’s life a little less complicated by paring down the number of wines offered under the winery’s Discovery Series.

The Discovery Series line was launched several vintages ago to explore varietals that had been planted basically in test blocks in Vincor’s Okanagan vineyards.

The object was to determine what varieties succeeded in the vineyards, in the winery and in the marketplace. The first of the Discovery Series varietals, and still one of the top sellers, was Zinfandel.

By now, there has been enough experience, at least for the marketing department, to figure out what will stay in the line and what will go.

On the way out are Sangiovese and Pinotage. The blocks of both varieties are small – so small in the case of Sangiovese that production is about 150 cases a year. Inniskillin bottles its wines at the big Jackson-Triggs winery north of Oliver. It is not worth setting up the bottling line for such a small run; and no additional plantings of these varieties are planned.

“We need a certain volume,” Sandor says. “We are going to wines with a production ranging from 500 cases to 2,000 cases.  You don’t fire up a bottling line for 200 cases.”

The Discovery Series Sangiovese reviewed here likely is the final one. You may want to order it from the Inniskillin Okanagan website. There is not much of it around.

The other wines here are from various tiers. Dark Horse Vineyard is the superb vineyard just above and behind the winery. It has a special place in Sandor’s heart. He was hired to replant this vineyard in 1990, shortly after arriving from Hungary. The red Bordeaux varieties, notably Cabernet Sauvignon, do particularly well here.

Here are notes on the wines.

Inniskillin Okanagan Dark Horse Vineyard Pinot Blanc 2011 ($17.99). Pale straw in colour, this wine has restrained aromas of apple and citrus. On the palate, there are flavours of apple and pear, with a light lemon acidity to give it a crisp finish. On the lingering finish, there are flavours of ripe apples and peaches. 90.

Inniskillin Okanagan Reserve Series Pinot Grigio 2011 ($15.99). The wine begins with aromas of pear and orange. On the palate, the texture is fleshy, with flavours of ripe apple, ripe pear and tangerine. The fruit flavours are persistent in the lingering finish. 90.

Inniskillin Okanagan Reserve Series Chardonnay 2011 ($13.99). Light gold in hue, this barrel-aged wine begins with toasty notes of oak and buttery tangerine. On the palate, there are creamy citrus flavours with unapologetic oak flavours. Perhaps this is no longer the fashionable style for Chardonnay, but there is a fan base for the style ... and the wine is well made. 88.

Inniskillin Okanagan Reserve Merlot 2010 ($16.99). As soon as the cap was twisted off, aromas of blueberry and cassis burst from the bottle. How is that for an argument for screw caps? The wine delivers these flavours on the palate, along with black cherry and vanilla. The ripe tannins give this an accessible texture for such a youthful wine. 90.

Inniskillin Okanagan Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ($16.99). Dark purple in hue, this wine has the classic mint and eucalyptus aromas of the variety (Coonawarra Cabernet sprang to mind!) On the palate, there are flavours of mulberry and cherry. There is a spine of ripe tannin here that suggests this wine should be cellared another year or two to achieve its peak. There is 10%  Merlot in the blend, adding volume to the texture. There is spice on the finish. 89.

Inniskillin Okanagan Dark Horse Vineyard Meritage 2009 ($N/A). This excellent blend, anchored around Merlot, is made with grapes from the vineyard just behind the winery. The 2009 vintage was one of the best. This wine begins with a lovely aroma of cassis mingled with toasty oak. On the palate, there are flavours of black currant. The tannins are long and ripe but the wine also will cellar very well. 91.

Inniskillin Okanagan Discovery Series Sangiovese 2009 ($30.09 for 150 cases). This is one of the varietals being dropped because of the modest volume. There is nothing else wrong with it. This is a rich and elegant wine with a spicy cherry aroma and flavours of spice, cherry, plum and chocolate. 90.

Inniskillin Okanagan Discovery Series Zinfandel 2009 ($26.09 for 1,300 cases). This is a bold, brambly red with a concentrated texture and a brooding personality. There are flavours of blackberry, fig and dark chocolate. The wine merits being cellared a few years to develop fully in the bottle. 91.

Inniskillin Okanagan Discovery Series Malbec 2009 ($25.09 for 900 cases). This is a delicious red beginning with floral and spice aromas that evolve in the glass, taking on notes of rare beef. The fruit flavours just erupt on the palate, with plums, cherries and spice. This wine is a bold, swaggering tour-de-force. 94.

Inniskillin Okanagan Riesling Icewine 2008 ($N/A). Inniskillin’s sister company in Niagara put Canadian Icewine on the map 20 or so years ago. Inniskillin remains one of the world’s premier Icewine brands, with wines like this. The wine has powerful aromas of ripe pineapple, with flavours that suggest a pineapple and lemon conserve, along with honey. The fresh, racy acidity leaves the palate refreshed. 90.