Friday, May 8, 2015

Clos du Soleil builds new winery and tasting room

Photo: Clos du Soleil managing partner and winemaker

Wine touring gets better in the Similkameen Valley in a few weeks when Clos du Soleil Winery opens its new tasting room.

The winery began selling its wines in 2008 without a wine shop because the production was modest at first. A few years ago, a small tasting room was created in a heritage house (left) that was on the property when it was a honey producer. The house is now gone, replaced by a 4,000 square foot winery which incorporates the new wine shop. Siding boards were salvaged from the heritage building for use in the wine shop.

“The entire tasting room, including the façade, is being done in a rustic French aesthetic to tie into the French philosophy of Clos du Soleil,” says Michael Clark, Clos du Soleil’s managing partner and winemaker. “The outside will look like a traditional French store front or café. The inside will tie in with that same wood panelled look, with a French country feel.”

Clos du Soleil was founded by a small group of Francophile wine lovers headed by Vancouver businessman Spencer Massie, a retired Canadian Navy officer. In 2007 the group bought a 10-acre property in the Similkameen Valley and planted Bordeaux varietals on nine of those acres. Ann Sperling, a Kelowna native who had gone to high school with Spencer, agreed to make Clos wines in her Sperling Vineyards winery.

Clos du Soleil, which produced closed to 5,000 cases in 2014, has now outgrown the Sperling facilities. That was one reason for the construction of a new winery on the Similkameen vineyard.

While Ann remains as a consultant, Michael took over making the wine in 2013 after investing in the Clos du Soleil partnership[ the year before. He comes with impressive credentials, including training from the University of California in Davis.

Born in Cambridge, Ontario, in 1972, he grew up in a lawyer’s home. His father had a wine cellar and classified growth Bordeaux wines were often on the Clark table.

“Wine had been my number one passion literally before I could drink wine,” Michael says. He was about 10 years old when he read the George Bain’s  Champagne is for Breakfast, still one of the best and funniest wine books by a Canadian author.

“I don’t know other children who loved to read wine books,” Michael laughs.

Initially, he carved out a career in finance, armed with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in theoretical physics followed by master of business administration from the University of British Columbia. He worked with the Royal Bank before moving to Boston and then Geneva. There he managed portfolios with a hedge fund and then with a bank.

“Eight or nine years ago, I made a commitment to move into winemaking full time,” he says. He studied enology and viticulture at L’Ecole de Changins, a Swiss engineering institute. He did several vintages in Bordeaux and also worked with a Swiss winery. He took the UCDavis distance learning program to get a winemaking certificate.

“To do it took about three years,” he says. “It was excellent, very rigorous, which is what I wanted. Winemaking is such a blend of science and art. That is what draws most people to it, including myself.  UCDavis is very focussed on the science part of it. With my background in physics and chemistry, it’s a natural for me.”

Rigorous also describes his approach at Clos du Soleil. Organic and biodynamic practices apply in the vineyard. The winery has been designed and equipped to make premium wines.   

“We are really happy where Clos du Soleil is, so my job as winemaker is to progress it,” Michael says. “Every year I want every wine to be getting better. There are things we can be doing in the vineyard, learning from the prior year and trying to do better the following year. And likewise in the cellar.”

He continues: “I can give you some examples. The vineyard management is getting better over time, both ours and the growers we work with. We get to know the soils better; we get to know the vines better. The vines are getting older and we are getting better fruit. So every year, whether it is tweaks to the pruning system; tweaks to any fertilization we do; whether it is continuing to build on the usage of the biodynamic system on our own property – all of that. Every year it has been going up.

“We get better fruit that way. Then when it comes into the winery, we are trying to improve the processing every year in terms of being very gentle with the fruit; sorting to have only the very best berries coming in. As we get more and more used to the different vineyard parcels and the characteristics of the fruit that comes from each parcel, I can fine tune how we treat them in the winery.”

He has a definite winemaking style in mind. “To me, delicacy matters,” Michael says. “We like to have at Clos du Soleil firm structure in our wines which makes them food friendly and ageable. We want firm tannins, but it is a matter of not overdoing things.  My philosophy is that our best wines demonstrate their quality in ways other than bigness or heaviness. A great wine, whether you are talking about Clos du Soleil or a classed growth in Bordeaux, has elegance and  complexity, not huge chewy fruit or aggressive tannins.” 

Four current releases from Clos du Soleil exemplify his art as a winemaker.

Clos du Soleil Fumé Blanc 2014 ($19.90 for 432 cases). This is 85% Sauvignon Blanc, 15% Sémillon. It begins with vibrant aromas of lime and lemon, leading to rich flavours of lime and grapefruit. There are subtle notes of herbs and oak, barely noticeable in the explosion of tropical fruit flavours. 92.

Clos du Soleil Pinot Blanc 2014 “Grower’s Series” ($19.90 for 500 cases). The term, Grower’s Series, indicates wines made from grapes grown on non-estate vineyards. This wine begins with appealing aromas of nectarines and ripe Ambrosia apples. On the palate, there are spicy flavours of pear and apple. Good acidity gives this wine a fresh and tangy finish. 91.

Clos du Soleil Rosé 2014 ($19.90 for 867 cases). This is a rare and delicious example of a Cabernet Sauvignon rosé. The appeal begins with the colour, which glows like ruby. The wine has powerful aromas of strawberry and raspberry. On the palate, there are intense flavours of strawberry, cherry and rhubarb. The endless finish is crisp and dry. 92.

Clos du Soleil Estate Reserve White 2013 ($59 for 25 cases). On rare occasions, I have been able to taste the white wines produced by Bordeaux châteaux more famed for their reds. Invariably, they have been great whites with depth and complexity. This wine immediately reminded me of those wines. A blend of 62% Sauvignon Blanc and 38% Sémillon, it likely was barrel-fermented (the winery notes do not say that) and it was fermented entirely with wild yeast. Only one barrel was made.  The bone-dry wine is richly structured, with a good backbone of minerals. The term is this wine has “good bones” and will age well. It has aromas of lime and grapefruit which carry over to the flavour, along with pear and citrus flavours. 95

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