Friday, June 17, 2016

Ancient Hill champions Baco Noir

Photo: Ancient Hill owners Richard and Jitske Kamphuys

When Richard Kamphuys and his wife, Jitske, opened this winery in 2011, they were wise enough to ignore a piece of free advice I offered them.

The winery is on a cool hillside east of Kelowna International Airport. Richard made appropriate choices for his 15-acre site in 2005 when he replaced an orchard with grape vines.

The single largest block is a winter hardy red French hybrid called Baco Noir. My advice: give it a proprietary name because “you will never get more than $18 a bottle if you release it as Baco Noir.”

Ancient Hill’s Baco Noir sells for $25 a bottle and is the most popular wine in the tasting room. It was easy to confound my prediction: Ancient Hill arguably makes the best Baco Noir in British Columbia. To be sure, there are not many other producers – but is an excellent wine and worth every penny.

To fill in the back story, here is what I wrote about the winery in my most recent edition of John Schreiner’s Okanagan Wine Tour Guide. The proprietary name I suggested to Richard was The Rittich. The except tells why that name resonated with me, if not with Richard.

This splendid Robert Mackenzie-designed winery overlooking Kelowna International Airport returns viticulture to where it began in the north Okanagan when the Rittich brothers planted grapes near here in 1930. Natives of Hungary, Eugene and Virgil Rittich concluded that vinifera grapes could succeed and wrote a book (British Columba’s first wine book) on how to grow grapes and make wine. Severe winters that occurred periodically doomed those pioneering trials in the Ellison district, as it was known.

The modern-day pioneers are Richard and Jitske Kamphuys (rhymes with compass) who came from Holland in 1992 and bought an apple orchard. Richard, who was born in 1963, completed an advanced economics degree at the historic Erasmus University in Amsterdam before deciding he wanted a rural lifestyle for himself and his family.

He considered growing grapes as soon as he and Jitske, a former doctor’s assistant, bought the orchard but was put off by general pessimism at that time about the future of British Columbia’s wineries. The previous owners, encouraged by the Rittich trials, planted grapes on the hillside in 1944, abandoning the vineyard when the hard 1949-1950 winter killed many of the vines and even some apple trees. About 40 of those ancient vines, probably Okanagan Riesling, still survive.

Richard and Jitske replaced the orchard in 2005 with 27,000 vines over about six hectares (15 acres). They have chosen mid-season ripening varieties: Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Lemberger, Zweigelt and Pinot Noir. The biggest block, more than a quarter of the vineyard, is Baco Noir, a winter-hardy red French hybrid. “I should have had more Baco Noir and less Zweigelt,” Richard says. He has begun to plant Baco Noir among the Zweigelt vines, easing into a vineyard transition.

“That hybrid seems suited to this area,” he believes. “It came through in a lesser year as well as in a good year.” To make the point, he pours a glass of Baco Noir from 2010, a cool year. The wine is full-bodied with rich flavours of plum and chocolate. The visitors to Ancient Hills’s baronial tasting room almost always favour Baco Noir.

Ironically, Richard did come up with a proprietary name for a blend of two reds, Zweigelt and Lemberger. The wine is called Lazerus. I don’t know how that name is working for him – but he is now planning to make individual red varietals as well from those two.

He can afford to expand is focussed portfolio a bit but he will never have a list as long as some of his peers. Ancient Hill produces a total of 2,500 cases of wine. “I have no desire to get to 10,000 cases,” Richard says.

Here are notes on current releases. Prices do not include tax.

Ancient Hill Pinot Gris 2014 ($15.65). This wine is crisply fresh, with aromas and flavours of pear. The wine, which finishes dry, has good weight on the palate. 90.

Ancient Hill Gewürztraminer 2013 ($16.52). The wine begins with aromas of spice and lychee. Rich and full-textured, it has flavours of lychee and grapefruit. It is balanced to dryness. 90.

Ancient Hill Rosé 2014 ($14.78). This is a blend of 74% Zweigelt, 12% Gewürztraminer, and 7% each of Baco Noir and Pinot Noir. The ruby-hued wine has appealing aromas of red berries with a hint of red licorice. A touch of spice lifts the flavours of currants and cranberries. The finish is dry. 90.

Ancient Hill Lazerus 2011 ($14.78). This is a lean, spicy red with aromas and flavours of cherry and red berries. There is a hint of chocolate on the finish. 88.

Ancient Hill Pinot Noir 2012 ($17.39). The aromas of raspberry and cherry are echoed in the flavours of this medium-bodied wine. This is a touch of spice on the finish. 89.

Ancient Hill Baco Noir 2012 ($21.79). Almost black in colour, this wine is robust and rich, with aromas of plum and flavours of plum, black cherry and chocolate. The soft, ripe tannins give the wine a rich velvet finish. 91.

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