Thursday, June 9, 2016

Monte Creek Ranch shows the potential of Minnesota hybrids

Photo: Monte Creek Ranch Estate Winery

Discrimination against certain grape varieties: it is a startling concept that had not occurred to me until a recent conversation with Erik Fisher, the general manager of Kamloops-based Monte Creek Ranch Estate Winery.

The varieties grown in Monte Creek’s two vineyards (totaling 61 acres on both sides of the Thompson River) include five Minnesota hybrids: Frontenac Blanc, Frontenac Gris, Frontenac Noir, Le Crescent and Marquette.

None is on the approved list of varieties permitted in VQA wines. Erik is trying to have the regulators change that. Not having VQA on all of its wines puts Monte Creek at the significant disadvantage because some of its wines cannot be sold in VQA stores and in VQA-only grocery outlets. And the winery cannot pour these at VQA tastings.

The list of approved varieties is embedded in law in British Columbia. It is not a static list but neither is it easy to change.

When the VQA rules were first established in British Columbia, about 1990, approved varieties were limited to vinifera (or premium European) wine grapes. The object was to severely discourage the continued growing of the French hybrid varieties and labrusca crosses that had been pulled out in the great 1988 vine removal.

The regulators would have been better to let consumers decide who gets voted off the island and who stays. It is unlikely that Chelois would have given Pinot Noir much competition.

Over the years, grapes originally banned have been added to the VQA list, including such varieties as Maréchal Foch and Cayuga. (Vigneti Zanata on the Vancouver Island, the only producer with Cayuga, actually resigned from VQA rather than stop making is signature Cayuga bubble, Glenora Fantasia.) The current list of approved varieties even includes the profoundly mediocre (with just a few exceptions) Blattner hybrids.

Somehow, the Minnesota hybrids were overlooked.  The significant history of these varieties begins with Elmer Swenson, an American plant breeder who died in 2004. He began breeding winter-hardy wine grapes in 1943 at his farm in Osceola, Wisconsin. Later he moved to the University of Minnesota which took over his work. These winter hardy  varieties have been planted in those northern states and extensively in Quebec, where many of the varieties were christened with French names.

Monte Creek planted these varieties precisely to survive the occasionally hard winters near Kamloops. European wine grapes seldom survive -25ºC but these varieties can survive as hard a freeze as -35ºC.

Monte Creek also grows Foch, which is winter hardy, and rolled the dice a bit by planting the hardier vinifera, including Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Erik (below) argues that the Minnesota hybrids need to be on the VQA list not just for Monte Creek’s sake but for the benefit of future wineries.

“The Canadian industry produces seven per cent of the wine that is consumed in Canada,” he says. “If we want to move that number forward, we need to look at emerging regions such as ours; plant the right vines and make high quality juice. That’s one way we will be able to grow. These wines are still 100% BC produced. We are not importing fruit from other countries to blend and bottle here. We hope that the industry backs us in this endeavor.”

There is certainly nothing wrong with the quality of the wines, as the reviews at the end of this blog will attest.

The winery, which made its first vintage in 2013, is owned by Gurjit Sidhu, operator of a major plant nursery in the Fraser Valley. He has also grown blueberries since 2001. In 2007, when Fraser Valley farmland was getting too expensive, he bought the historic Monte Creek Ranch east of Kamloops, near the junction of the TransCanada and Highway 97. Shortly thereafter, he bought the Lion’s Head Ranch on the north side of the Thompson River. He now owns a total of 1,200 acres.

When he discovered that blueberries do not thrive in the hot, dry summers near Kamloops, he switching to grapes. The business has been developed aggressively.   Monte Creek produced 13,ooo cases in 2015, tripling its production in three years to become the largest of the four Kamloops wineries.

It is not just a winery. It is a full-blown agricultural business. Monte Creek produces its own honey. It makes jam from a plot of haskap berries and beef jerky from it herd of grass-fed Black Angus. It also sells beef to one Kamloops butcher shop and to Thompson Rivers University. 

A striking new winery was opened last year, complete with a bell tower and a restaurant. It is set dramatically on a height of land with views of the river valley and the vineyards. Development is continuing. The winery would like to create an amphitheater for concerts, complementing the picnic and yoga sessions already held among the vines.

The winery, with about $1 million of ultra-modern winemaking equipment, has enabled Monte Creek to take full control of production initially done in an Okanagan winery with a consulting winery.

Late in 2014, Erik recruited a seasoned winemaker whose hand shows in the appreciable jump in wine quality in the 2015 vintage. Galen Barnhardt is a North Shuswap native with a science degree from Thompson Rivers University. He acquired a keen knowledge of wine while working in the restaurant industry.

Erik met him there when Erik was selling wine and Galen was a buyer. “I used to taste wine with him,” Erik says. “I thought he had a tremendous palate.”

In 2009, Galen (right) went to Brock University for a degree in winemaking. After a vintage in Niagara, he joined CedarCreek Estate Winery and was an assistant winemaker by the time he left in 2014 to work in Australia and then in Oregon. Erik had been following his career and was able to bring him back to the Thompson River Valley to finish off Monte Creek’s 2014 wines and make the 2015s and subsequent vintages.

Here are notes on those wines.

Monte Creek Ranch Riesling 2015 ($16.99). Crisp and fresh, this wine just sings with aromas and flavours of lemon and lime. There is exquisite balance between the bright acidity and the residual sweetness. 91.

Monte Creek Ranch Hands Up White 2015 ($14.49). This is a blend of 61% Frontenac Blanc, 25% Le Crescent and 14% Viognier. This wine has remarkable aromas and flavours of ripe apricot and peaches. A touch of residual sweetness lifts the aromas and adds weight to the texture. The fruity finish is persistent. 90.

Monte Creek Ranch Frontenac Gris 2015 ($14.49). This wine begins with aromas of crisp, fresh apples. On the palate, there are honeyed flavours suggesting ripe pineapple leaning to marmalade. The wine is off-dry but with enough lively acidity to give it a long fruity finish. 91.

Monte Creek Ranch Rosé 2015 ($16.99). This is made with juice of Marquette grapes. Deep in colour, it is a plump, juicy wine redolent with aromas and flavours of strawberry, with a touch of sweetness on the finish. 90.

Monte Creek Ranch Hands Up Red 2014 ($15.50). This dry red is a blend of 59% Marquette, 23% Frontenac Noir, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 8% Merlot. This is an easy-drinking red, with aromas and flavours of cherry and red currant. 88.

Monte Creek Ranch Cabernet Merlot 2014 ($18.49). The winery buys about 35%  of its grapes - varieties not suitable to the Kamloops region - from the South Okanagan. This Bordeaux blend has a firm enough texture that it benefits from decanting to release the aromas and flavours of black currant and blackberry. 89

Monte Creek Ranch Hand Red 2014 ($29.99). This shows what happens when the winemaker decides to make a blend from the best barrels in the cellar. This is 48% Marquette, 32% Merlot, 16% Frontenac Noir and 4% Cabernet Sauvignon. It is a bold rich red, with aromas and flavours of plum and black cherry. 91.


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