Thursday, September 4, 2014

Kamloops emerges as a gateway to wine regions

 Photo: Barrel cellar at Privato Vineyard & Winery

Businesswoman Maatje Stamp-Vincent, who operates Tastefull Excursions, the first wine touring company based in Kamloops, is pitching this interior city as a new gateway to British Columbia wine country.

With a 13-passenger Mercedes-Benz van and a second on order, she is making a serious bet on her contention that Kamloops has a strategic location at the intersection of four highways – the TransCanada, the 97, the Yellowhead and the Coquihalla.

“If you build it, he will come,” is the famous line in the movie, Field of Dreams (referring to a baseball player). Unlike the movie,  this is not fiction. The wineries have been built.

There is a significant string of wineries now across the central interior from Lillooet to Salmon Arm. The driving distance turns this into a two-day wine tour, with an overnight in Kamloops. If you have not been in Kamloops recently, you will be pleasantly surprised to discover that many of the hotels and motels have been updated superbly in the last year or two. You will also discover a number of good restaurants. One recommendation: Terra Restaurant on Victoria Stree in downtown Kamloops.

For want of a better tag, let’s call this the Thompson Shuswap wine region. We begin the tour at the magnificent new winery and tasting room of Fort Berens Estate Winery in Lillooet.

The winery, which was launched five years ago by Rolf de Bruin and Heleen Pannekeok (right), has until now used the facilities of various Okanagan wineries to produce wine.

This fall, Fort Berens will be working in a fully modern winery with a capacity to make 12,000 cases. Rolf and Heleen plan to produce 6,000 cases this fall and grow with subsequent market demand for their wines. The winery’s original 20-acre vineyard, planted with six varietals, is in full production. Another 20-acre plot is being readied for planting, beginning next year.

This summer, Fort Berens also hired an energetic team of South Africans, graduates of that country’s top wine school. Megan DeVillieres is the viticulturist and Danny Hattingh, her partner, is the winemaker (left).

Fort Berens has established credibility for its wines, with numerous gold medals and with a Lieutenant Governor’s Award of Excellence this year (for a Riesling). This is a tasting room well worth the visit.

Our notional tour then heads east through Cache Creek and the 15-year-old Bonaparte Bend fruit winery. Unfortunately, the winery did not open its excellent bistro this year (staffing issues) but the wines have numerous fans. When I was recently signing books in the Discover Wines VQA store in Kamloops, a book buyer enthusiastically recommended the Bonaparte Bend Saskatoon berry wine.

The tour might then take a dog leg to Ashcroft. There, in the middle of ranch country is Left Field Cider Company. In fact, the Garthwaite family who own the cidery also operate a major ranch. If you can’t manage the visit, check the Left Field web site to see where the ciders are available. They are very tasty.

There are four wineries in or near Kamloops. Sagewood Winery, on the north side of the Thompson River and east of the Lafarge cement plant, opened last month.  So far, I have been unable to visit this winery, which claims to be on the oldest commercial vineyard in the Thompson River valley (planted in 2005).

The cement plant shares a long south-facing bench which comprises a promising viticultural area. In 2008 Ed and Vicki Collett (left) began planting a kilometre of so west of the cement plant for their Harper’s Trail Estate Winery. They grow 24 acres of grapes and have just completed a new winery and tasting room. Previously, the wines have been made at Okanagan Crush Pad by Michael Bartier, who continues as their consulting winemaker.

The third winery with vines on that bench is Monte Creek Ranch Estate Winery. This is a winery with vineyards on either side of the Thompson River. A winery is currently under construction on the south side. The tasting room is scheduled to open in the spring of 2015. The 2013 vintage wines were made by consultant Eric von Krosigk. Monte Creek has also hired Michael Alexander (right), a young Calgarian who is finishing his winemaking studies at Niagara College and who will make the 2014s under Eric’s tutelage.

Both Monte Creek and Harper’s Trail have history behind their names. Harper’s Trail is named for Thaddeus Harper, the 19th Century rancher who ran the 40,000-acre Gang Ranch in this area. The Colletts plan to decorate their 900-square-foot tasting room with a few longhorn skulls.

Monte Creek is a tiny community beside the highway east of Kamloops whose moment of fame occurred in 1904. That was when the notorious Bill Miner pulled off his last train robbery at Monte Creek. Bill Miner images and references are all over the labels of the wines.

The Monte Creek vineyards are planted primarily with Maréchal Foch and with Minnesota hybrid varieties –Marquette, Frontenac Noir, Frontenac Blanc, Frontenac Gris, and La Crescent. This is a first in British Columbia. These varieties were developed in Minnesota and Wisconsin to be exceptionally winter hardy. That is the reason why the owners of Monte Creek planted them in Kamloops, where winters can be brutal for vinifera grapes.

However, the sun-bathed slope on the north side of the river, just below a mountain known locally as Lion's Head is being planted with Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and Cabernet Franc. Those varieties have survived five winters at the Harper’s Trail vineyard and make superb wines there.

Privato Winery and Vineyard, the fourth Kamloops winery, began sales in 2012 and also has a new wine shop. Privato is on the west side of the North Thompson River, about half an hour’s drive north of downtown Kamloops. The premium wines are well worth the drive.

John and Debbie Woodward (right), the owners of Privato, began planting their four-acre vineyard in 2010 with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling. Winter damage forced some replanting. Meanwhile, they have contracted Okanagan grapes for their wines which are made with the help of New Zealand-trained winemaker Jacqueline Kemp.

Most of the wineries near Salmon Arm benefit from the moderating effect of Shuswap Lake. But they all played it safe by planting hardy, early-ripening varieties. Maréchal Foch is the primary red at Celista Estate Winery, Recline Ridge Vineyards, Sunnybrae Vineyards, Ovino Winery and Larch Hills Winery. The leading white varietals here include Ortega, Siegerrebe and Madeleine Angevine.

These varietals, along with the Minnesota hybrids, are not the mainstream varieties found in the Okanagan, which is why wine tours in the Thompson Shuswap are full of novel tastings.

On my recent visit to this region, I ran out of time to re-visit the Salmon Arm wineries. However, Graydon and Maureen Ratzlaff, owners of Recline Ridge, brought two of their wines to a winery dinner in Kamloops.

Recline Ridge Siegerrebe 2012 ($18.90) is a textbook example of this variety, which ripens early and which delivers lovely spicy tropical fruit flavours. 90.

Recline Ridge Hummingbird’s Kiss 2012 ($21.90 for a 375 ml bottle). This wonderfully-named wine is a delicious late harvest Optima with a touch of Bacchus. 89.

Here are notes on other wines you could taste on this tour.

Fort Berens Chardonnay 2013 ($19.99 for 602 cases). This wine is from grapes grown in the estate vineyard in Lillooet. About 30% was fermented and aged in French oak and the rest was fermented in stainless steel. The aromas and the flavours are fresh and fruit-forward, with notes of citrus, peach and lychee. There is a hint of minerality on the spine. 90.

Fort Berens Pinot Noir 2012 ($25.99 for 475 cases). The winery grows five clones of Pinot Noir in the Lillooet vineyard. The vines ripened well in the excellent 2012 vintage, producing a medium-bodied wine with 13.5% alcohol. The wine, which was aged in French oak for 12 months, has aromas and flavours of cherry, raspberry and spice. 88.

Fort Berens Merlot 2012 ($25 for 197 cases). The grapes for this wine are from the Sundial Vineyard, one of the oldest and best vineyards on Black Sage Road. This is a new varietal for Fort Berens. Rolf hopes that the 2014 can be made with estate-grown grapes. This wine, with 12 months oak aging, begins with appealing aromas of cassis and blueberry. The palate is juicy, with flavours of  black currant, cherry and chocolate. 90.

Fort Berens Cabernet Franc 2012 ($26.99 for 482 cases). Seventy percent of the grapes are from the Lillooet vineyard; the rest are from Black Sage Bench. The wine already has four awards (gold, silver and two bronze). The wine has aromas and flavours of blackberry, black currant and blueberry, with a savoury note on the finish. 91.

Fort Berens Meritage 2012 ($28.99 for 844 cases). The grapes here are 40% from Lillooet and 60% from the Sundial Vineyard. The blend is 72% Merlot, 18% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Cabernet Franc. The wine was aged in French and American oak for 12 months and is just being released after nine months of bottle age. The wine begins with aromas of dark fruit and sage. On the palate, there are flavours of black currant, with spice and age on the finish. 90-91.

Harper’s Trail Pinot Gris 2013 ($18.90 for 830 cases). This wine begins with appealing aromas of anise, figs and melon, delivering layers of melon and citrus flavours and a spicy finish. The texture is juicy. 90.

Harper’s Trail Chardonnay 2012 ($19.90 for 392 cases). This is a bright Chardonnay with a touch of oak framing the citrus and mineral flavours. There is a hint of cloves on the finish. 89.

Harper’s Trail Gewürztraminer 2013 ($16.90 for 182 cases). This wine begins with aromas of spice and rose petals, leading to intense flavours of grapefruit and lychee and a spicy finish. The wine has a full and juicy texture and is balanced to finish dry. 90.

Harper’s Trail Field Blend White 2013 ($14.90 for 344 cases). This is an assemblage of Pinot Gris, Riesling and Chardonnay which are fermented separately and then blended. Juicy and slightly off-dry, the wine has refreshingly fruity flavours of apple, melon and peach. The finish has a zesty hint of lime. 90.

Harper’s Trail Pioneer Block Dry Riesling 2012 ($19.90 for 450 cases). The winery likes to call this its Rheingau-style Riesling. It is an intense wine with notes of petrol in the aroma and flavour along with citrus flavours. The bracing acidity is balanced with residual sugar so that the wine is almost austere. This is ageworthy. 90-91.

 Harper’s Trail Silver Main Block Riesling 2012 ($19.90 for 513 cases). This is the winery’s Mosel style Riesling, with just 8.5% alcohol. But this also is a wine with intensity and flavours of lime, grapefruit and peach. The 25.4 grams of residual sugar are balanced with fresh acidity. The off-dry finish lingers. 91.

Harper’s Trail Late Harvest Riesling 2012 ($20.90 for 445 cases of 375 ml bottles). The 55.4 grams of residual sugar give this dessert wine ripe and concentrated flavours of apple and lime. The sugar is so subtly balanced with acidity that the sweetness on the finish is refreshing. 91.

Harper’s Trail Rosé 2013 ($18.90 for 117 cases). This is a Cabernet Franc rosé with a touch of Pinot Gris. There are aromas and flavours of strawberry and raspberry with a dry, spicy finish. 88.

Privato Silvio’s Chardonnay 2013 ($25 for 2,844 bottles). This is a crisp and refreshing wine designed to showcase the great purity of the fruit, which is from a vineyard in Kaleden. It begins with aromas of peaches, leading to flavours of apple and citrus. 88.

Privato Chardonnay 2012 ($30 for 2,076 bottles). By using French oak barriques (only 20% new) to age this wine for seven months, the oak aromas and flavours subtly frame the tangerine and apple flavours. The oak also imparted an appealing creaminess to the texture. 90.

Privato Pinot Noir 2011 ($35 for 4,320 bottles). The silky texture of this wine developed nicely during 18 months aging in French oak. The wine has a sensuous aromas and flavours of cherry and strawberry, with lingering spice on the long finish. 91-92.

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