Monday, July 31, 2017

Road 13 tilts toward the Rhône

Photo: Road 13's Joe Luckhurst

Last summer, when winemaker Jeff Del Nin took over at Road 13 Vineyard from J-M Bouchard, he remarked to a friend that opportunities like Road 13 don’t come along very often.

It is a striking comment, considering that Jeff had been making wine since 2009 at Church & State Wines, one of the other leading wineries in the south Okanagan.

That remark was echoed by how well Road 13 did in the 2017 National Wine Awards. It was the top BC winery, winning 13 medals. The performance also was among the top 10 Canadian wineries.

What attractions did Road 13 offer?

Perhaps it was that the winery is in a quirky replica of a 19th Century Bavarian castle with a modern production wing attached to it. Perhaps it is the volatile but passionate personality of Mick Luckhurst, one of Road 13’s proprietors.

Perhaps it is neither. Church & State’s production facility is a former fruit cold storage. There is only limited production in the showpiece Robert Mackenzie-designed winery on Black Sage Road. And Kim Pullen the owner of Church & State, is another passionate, volatile vintner.

The real attraction of Road 13 is it access to vineyards, such as the superb Blind Creek Vineyard in the Similkameen, that grow excellent Rhône varietals, among other varietals. Jeff has a track record for producing Rhône varietals, such as the award-winning TreBella, one of Church & State’s best whites. The Australian-trained but Canadian-born winemaker had not worked with Rhône varietals before he joined Church & State. He proved himself a fast learner.

This summer’s releases from Road 13 include an outstanding Marsanne and two excellent Syrahs (the latter would have been made by J-M but finished by Jeff).

Mick’s son, Joseph, who is Road 13’s general manager, told me last summer that he intended to increase Road 13’s focus on Rhône varietals.

“I honestly believe this is where BC can shine,” he said. It is also where Road 13 can establish an identity that differentiates its wines from all of the Bordeaux blends in the South Okanagan. “Very few wineries have become branded for the Rhônes,” he said. “There is room there to be one of the guys.”

Here are notes on the wines.

Road 13 Honest John’s White 2016 ($17 for 1,827 cases). This is a blend of 54% unoaked Chardonnay, 24% Pinot Gris, 10% Kerner, 7% Chenin Blanc, 3% Viognier and 2% Orange Muscat. The result is a dry white with fruit bowl of aromas and flavours (citrus, apples and melon); and with a crisp, spicy finish. 90.

Road 13 Chip off the Old Block Chenin Blanc 2016 ($19 for 249 cases). The wine is so named because the grapes come from a relatively young planting, propagated with cuttings from the winery’s 1968 Chenin Blanc block. The wine begins with dramatic aromas of citrus, apples and stone fruit. That is echoed in the intense fruit flavours. All is wrapped around a spine of minerality. The wine is crisply dry with a lingering finish. 91.

Road 13 Marsanne 2016 ($24 for 75 cases). There is two per cent Viognier added to this wine for what the winery calls “additional aromatic lift and complexity.” The wine begins with aromas of citrus, apples and melons. On the seductive palate, there are honeyed flavours of peach and nectarine, with a hint of vanilla on the finish. 92.

Road 13 Honest John’s Rosé 2016 ($18 for 2,327 cases). This is a robust and dry rosé, assembled from a blend of 54% Merlot, 24% Pinot Noir, 10% Gamay Noir, 5% Viognier, 2% Syrah and 1% Cabernet Franc. The colour is vibrantly pink. There are aromas of strawberry and watermelon leading for mouth-filling cherry and strawberry flavours. 90.

Road 13 Syrah Malbec 2015 ($37 for 347 cases). The blend is 70% Syrah, 24% Malbec, 3% Viognier and 3% Gamay. Dark and concentrated, the wine begins with quite dramatic aromas of ripe red fruits, including cherries, blackberries and boysenberries. The texture is luscious. The wine delivers savoury and ripe flavours of black cherry, black currant, sweet tobacco and mocha. The alcohol is 15% but the wine has the concentration to carry it. 94.

Road 13 Syrah 2015 ($35 for 381 cases). The blend is 94% Syrah, 3% Viognier, 3% Roussanne and 2% Mourvedre. Dark in colour, the wine begins once again with dramatic aromas of black cherry, blueberry, plum and black pepper. On the rich palate, the wine echoes to ripe fruits from the aroma. The finish is long, with a hint of pepper and deli spice. 92.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Singletree releases its first Grüner Veltliner

Photo:Singletree's Andrew Etsell

Abbotsford’s Singletree Winery has released the first Fraser Valley-grown Grüner Veltliner wine.

The renowned white varietal of Austria, Grüner Veltliner has been grown in British Columbia for less than a decade. Today, six wineries are producing wine from the grape, with Singletree the most recent to release a wine from the variety.

Andrew Etsell, who runs Singletree, credits his parents, Garnet and Debbie, for inspiring his interest in Grüner Veltliner.

“My parents go skiing to Austria every winter,” he says. And Laura [Preckel, Andrew’s partner] and myself have also travelled through Austria. We really discovered the grape there. I had not heard of it before, since there was not a lot in BC. I started tasting the Grüner Veltliners from around Austria and I saw how wide a range of styles it is made in there. I thought that Austria has a fairly similar climate to us. Why can’t we grow it here?”

The answer is that, until a decade ago, importers of grape wines could find no sources of vines that were certified virus-free and thus would be allowed into Canada.

“We actually look at planting Grüner Veltliner in 2010,” Andrew says. “It took us until 2013 before we found vines. I believe they came out of Ontario. We only have an acre because that is all that is available. We took what we could.”

He now has one acre of Grüner Veltliner among the 12 acres of vines Singletree has planted since 2010. The major varietal is Siegerrebe, an early-ripening grape well suited to the Fraser Valley. Singletree also grows Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.

On the strength of the winery’s initial release, he is looking for additional sources so he can increase Singletree’s Grüner Veltliner. “We are also looking at working with a nursery. If we can’t find the vines, we would take cuttings from our own vineyard.”

Andrew adds: “I always like growing grapes that are not as mainstream as most. The Siegerrebe and the Grüner Veltliner are not grown by a lot of people. The Grüner Veltliner, with the minerality and the citrus and honey, is just an interesting grape to grow here.”

The winery, which opened its tasting room in 2015, was developed because the underlying Etsell family business, a turkey farm, was judged not big enough to support the elder Etsells and their two sons.

Farming is in their blood. “I have always wanted to farm,” says Garnet Etsell, who once owned a blueberry farm when he was a teenager. “My first degree was actually in animal science, so we went into dairy farming.” Because that business struggled, Garnet got a business degree and switched to accounting. But he never lost the desire to farm.

“In 2001, we decided to purchase a piece of property at the north end of Mt. Lehman Road [near Abbotsford].  “I said to my wife I have always wanted to farm. If I didn’t have a commercial operation by the time I was 45, that was going to be it. Just before I turned 45, we bought our first commercial turkey operation.”

Andrew, meanwhile, studied horticulture with the idea of developing a plant nursery on the family farm. In 2004, he went to Mission Hill Family Estate to gain some practical agriculture experience – and developed a strong interest in winegrowing.

“I started looking at planting down here in 2004, 2005,” he says. “Over the next four or five years, I researched the wineries here in the valley and tried to find out what had done well and what they would not plant again. We also worked with a few consultants.”

More than one suggested he plant some of the same Blattner hybrids that a number of small growers in the Fraser Valley already had. He rebuffed one consultant by challenging him to “bring me one good bottle of Blattner wine and I will plant the variety.”
“They grow great here,” Andrew acknowledges. “They are disease resistant and they ripen early. They are a great grape for the area but you can’t sell the wines.”

But he was impressed with whites made from a two-acre Siegerrebe block a friend had planted at nearby Clearbrook. Andrew leased that block and planted five more acres of that aromatic German vinifera in Singletree’s estate vineyard.

Beginning with the debut 2013 vintage, Singletree arranged to have Okanagan Crush Pad and its winemaker, Matt Dumayne, make the wines. Andrew has since augmented his skills with a two-year winemaking course at the University of California in Davis. Singletree has begun to build its own winemaking facility in time for Andrew to take full responsibility by the 2018 crush.

Here are notes on current releases at Singletree.

Singletree Winery Grüner Veltliner 2016 ($17.30 for 150 cases). The wine begins with lightly honeyed aromas of mango and melon. It has flavours of citrus, melon and apple. Bright acidity and good minerality give the wine a refreshing and tangy dry finish. There is the suggestion of white pepper on the finish, a characteristic of the variety and one that is likely to be more expressive as the vines mature. 91.

Singletree Winery Siggy 2016 ($19.04 for 170 cases). This is the winery’s flagship Siegerrebe white wine with a more consumer-friendly name. Beginning with spicy and fruity aromas, it delivers a basket of tropical fruit flavours. The finish is dry and refreshing. 90.

Singletree Winery Pinot Gris 2015 ($19.04 for 200 cases). This wine was fermented in concrete, enhancing the rich texture. It delivers flavours of pear and apple with a touch of spice on the dry finish. 88.

Singletree Winery Chardonnay 2015 ($20.98 for 300 cases). This wine was fermented in barrels and in stainless steel and aged in barrel (30% new). The subtle oak frames flavours of peach and pear. 89.

Singletree Winery Rosé 2016 ($17.30 for 200 cases). This wine was made with organic Pinot Noir. Aromas of rhubarb and strawberry lead to crisp, refreshing flavours of strawberry and watermelon. 90.

Singletree Winery Harness 2014 ($30.35 for 275 cases). To be released this fall, this is blend of 51.3% Merlot and 48.7% Cabernet Sauvignon. Made with grapes from a great red vintage, this wine was aged in barrel for 18 months. It begins with aromas of cassis, black fruits and spice leading to flavours of blackcurrant and black cherry mingled with notes of leather and chocolate. 91.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Vanessa Vineyard opens a tasting room

Photo: Vanessa owners John Welson and Suki Sekhon

Vanessa Vineyard
1090 Highway 3, Cawston, BC, V0X 1C3
T. 250.499.8811

Vanessa Vineyard’s slogan is “carved from stone, fuelled by sun, a vineyard like no other.”

Now, consumers will have a chance to visit this remarkable vineyard in the Similkameen Valley. The winery, which began selling its wines two years ago to its wine club, has now opened a tasting room at the vineyard.

That has coincided with the release of two additional wines, a Merlot and a Rosé, to double the portfolio.

A ribbon cutting of the tasting room is scheduled for 11 am, August 1, 2017. A grand opening, with food and music, is scheduled for  2 pm to 6 pm on August 11.

Without a public tasting room, Vanessa has flown somewhat below the radar screen. On the strength of its releases, however, Vanessa is a must-stop for those who are touring wineries in the Similkameen.

Here is the profile of the winery from my recent book, Icon: Flagship Wines from British Columbia’s Best Wineries. In the book, Vanessa Meritage was highlighted as a collectible wine.

This 30-hectare (75-acre) Similkameen Valley vineyard was developed on exceptionally rocky raw land. To prepare it for planting in 2006, the vineyard managers brought in a rock crusher more appropriate, perhaps, to a quarry. The machine wore out two sets of teeth while pulverizing the rock. It is not surprising that the red wines from this vineyard have a spine of minerality that should contribute to their longevity.

The specifications released with the first wines outline this terroir: “The vines grow in rows of rocks, stressing the plants, absorbing the day heat and imparting that warmth during the cooler nights. This gives the grapes their unique and complex character. The west to southwest exposure on which the rocky vineyard sits benefits from the afternoon sun, which contributes to lengthening the growing season and producing low yields of intensely ripe fruit.”

Proprietors John Welson and Suki Sekhon did not necessarily have a winery in mind when they bought this property in 2005. Suki is a successful Vancouver developer, while John is a retired stockbroker who is passionate about wine. In his Vancouver business, Suki constructs buildings that are leased to clients. He thought he could develop a vineyard and then lease it to a winery. That is not the wine industry’s usual business model. Wineries need to know the quality of the grapes before committing to buying them. When the vineyard produced fruit, Suki and John began selling grapes to Andrew Peller Ltd., the owner of nearby Rocky Ridge Vineyard and also Sandhill Wines. In 2010, Howard Soon, the Sandhill winemaker, added a Vanessa Cabernet Merlot blend made with their grapes to his portfolio of single-vineyard wines.

That wine helped encourage John and Suki to open a boutique winery. “We kind of went into this initially, basically to build a vineyard, and then, as you get into it, the industry just pulls you along,” John admits. They arranged to have Howard’s colleague, Red Rooster winemaker Karen Gillis, make their initial vintages, beginning with 440 cases of Meritage and 186 cases of Syrah in 2012. This grew to a total of about 3,000 cases in 2014. The intent is to plateau at that level of production of premium wines while continuing to sell grapes.

Except for two acres of Viognier, the Vanessa vineyard is planted entirely to sun-loving reds: Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. Suki had concluded that it is one of the warmest sites in the sunbathed Similkameen and is best suited for red varietals. He will find a cooler site if he and John decide they need white wines in their portfolio.

Old maps show that an easement for a stagecoach road from Osoyoos to Princeton ran by the property. For a time, the partners considered calling the winery Stagecoach Road or Old Stagecoach Road. In the end, they opted for Vanessa, the name of Suki’s eldest daughter.

Karen Gillis continues to make the wines in one of the wineries operated by Peller. Howard Soon, Peller’s recently retired senior winemaker, is a consultant to Vanessa. There is a site for a winery on the Similkameen vineyard. It will be built when sales volumes require a dedicated winery.

Here are notes on the two current releases.

Vanessa Rosé 2016 ($22.99 for 90 cases). This is a dark-hued wine made with 68% Syrah and 32% Merlot grapes given just six hours of skin contact. The wine has aromas and flavours of cherries and red currants. The wine was fermented to complete dryness. One could debate whether a dry rosé this bold might not have benefitted with a touch of residual sugar. This is a wine that is best with food. 88.

Vanessa Merlot 2014 ($34.99 for 570 cases). This wine has 15% Cabernet Franc in the blend. It begins with glass-filling aromas of black currants, cherries and mocha. On the palate, the wine – which has 14.9% alcohol – is rich and full-bodied, with flavours of plum, fig, black currant and spice. The texture has the polish one expects from a bold red that was fermented and aged 26 months in American and French oak barrels (new and one-year old). A big, concentrated powerhouse of a Merlot reflecting this sub-bathed vineyard. 91. A grand opening is scheduled for August 11, 2017.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Pinot Noir bids to be BC's signature grape

Photo: cluster of Pinot Noir grapes

Is Pinot Noir emerging at British Columbia’s signature wine? An increasing number of wineries and consumers would say yes.

It is a longstanding debate whether a signature wine is even possible in a region like British Columbia, which grows well over 100 grape varietals for wine.

Previously, I was not convinced there would ever by a signature wine, given how complicated the terroir of the Okanagan is – never mind the other appellations. It is a terroir that allows producers to grow world-class Riesling, superb Syrah, distinctive Merlot, complex Meritage blends and ever-popular Pinot Gris.

But it is hard to ignore that Pinot Noir succeeds in most BC terroirs, even in the vineyards of Oliver and Osoyoos. Those vineyards are generally too hot for Pinot Noir but good viticulturists seem to have even that under control.

Brent Gushowaty, the man behind the website, estimates that there are now about 150 wineries in BC making Pinot Noir. In a bit of an understatement, JAK Meyer, one of the owners of Meyer Vineyards, remarked recently: “We are starting to see more wineries focussing on Pinot Noir.”

No kidding! That seems enough for a signature variety to me.

Those producers are getting the word out. In June, a group of Cowichan Valley wineries came together at Averill Creek Vineyards for the first Cowichan Valley Pinot Noir Festival. The quality of the wines was high.

On August 19, the third annual BC Pinot Noir Celebration takes place at Linden Gardens in Kaleden. This year, 48 wineries applied to take part. The adjudicators chose the 32 they considered the best.

Making those choices would have been daunting. I estimate that I have tasted a minimum of 50 different BC Pinot Noirs since Christmas, when we enjoyed a Foxtrot 2014 Pinot Noir with our dinner.
Foxtrot, of course, is a legendary Pinot Noir producer. The first vintage was 2004. In a very short time, the wines had acquired almost a cult following, joining Blue Mountain Vineyards and Quails’ Gate Estate Winery as early leaders in B.C. Pinot Noir.

Because Foxtrot encompasses the recent history of the rise of BC Pinot Noir, here is an excerpt from my recent book, Icon: Flagship Wines from British Columbia’s Best Wineries.

Foxtrot Vineyards’ proprietor Torsten Allander was apprehensive when a friend he was dining with in 2015 produced a 1999 Kettle Valley Pinot Noir made with Foxtrot Vineyards grapes. He expected a wine that old would be over the hill. “They cracked it and it was fantastic,” recounts Torsten’s son, Gustav. “It was not past its peak.” This confirms the age-worthiness of the legendary Burgundy-style wines that the Allander family, including Kicki, Torsten’s wife, began producing in 2004 from this Naramata Bench property.
The 1.4-hectare (3.5-acre) vineyard was planted in 1994 and 1995 by Don and Carol Munro, academics from Vancouver who had retired to the Okanagan. They chose just Clone 115 Pinot Noir, one of the best all-around clones. The vineyard got its name when a bear ambled among the vines in a manner that recalled the foxtrot.
“The entire vineyard is own-rooted,” Gustav said in 2015. “I think that is good. The vines are now 20 years old. We have not seen any struggle.” The Allander family, which bought the vineyard in 2002, has since doubled its size by planting an adjacent property. Most of the vines are cuttings from the original Clone 115 plants, and all are self-rooted.
New to viticulture, Torsten, who is a retired pulp and paper engineer, sold the grapes for several years. In the 2004 vintage, he started a winemaking trial at the nearby Lake Breeze winery. He wanted to determine whether a world-class Pinot Noir could be produced on the Naramata Bench if one applied the resources (including premium French oak and a state-of-the-art press) to his fruit. When the answer was yes, Torsten built his own cellar in 2008 on the Foxtrot property. Gustav, who was studying engineering in Sweden when his parents bought the vineyard, returned home to become the winemaker. He was mentored by his wife, Nadine, a New Zealand–trained winemaker.
Foxtrot Pinot Noir quickly became the most coveted and collectible of Okanagan Pinot Noirs. The wine invariably has richly seductive fruit and a sultry texture with refreshing acidity. “I want to make a wine that you are going to be able to lay down and let it evolve over time,” Gustav says. “You can drink the wine now, but I prefer that people hold on to it for a bit.”

The wine is aged 18 to 20 months in barrel, two to four months longer than most Okanagan Pinot Noirs. “We are exclusively using François Frères barrels,” Gustav says. “We have worked with them since day one. It is one of the cooperages of choice for top Pinot Noir producers around the world.” Until 2012, the wine was aged entirely in new barrels. Gustav now ages 40 percent of each vintage in second-fill barrels, moderating the oak to better reveal the fruit flavours.

Foxtrot is tightly focused. Intending to cap production at 3,000 cases a year, the winery makes vineyard-designated Pinot Noir from the Foxtrot vineyard. Waltz Pinot Noir is made from purchased grapes or from the fruit of young vines. The portfolio is rounded out with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir rosé.

Needless to say, Foxtrot will be one of the wineries participating in the Pinot Noir festival.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Summerhill's versatile winemaking

Photo: The Summerhill wine-aging pyramid (Courtesy Edward Ross Photography

Kelowna’s Summerhill Pyramid Winery is on a roll this year. Examples:

·       The winery’s 2013 ‘Small Lot’ Sémillon Icewine received 100 points and a double gold at the San Francisco International Wine Competition this year.

·       In May, Summerhill’s 2014 Chardonnay Icewine was judged the best of the icewines at the Chardonnay du Monde competition in Europe.

·       And with its latest releases, Summerhill has joined the ranks of the Okanagan’s serious Pinot Noir producers.

This marks Summerhill a versatile producer, with a portfolio extending from Icewine to sparkling wine and still encompassing heritage varieties such as Foch.

Of course, the winery, which opened in 1992, continues to specialize in sparkling wines. If founder Stephen Cipes had his way, he would call these wines Champagne. The Summerhill sparkling wines are all, I believe, traditional method wines – fermented in bottle just like Champagne. However, Champagne is a term now limited to the French wine region of that name.

The Maréchal Foch is one of the wines in Summerhill’s Heritage Series of wines. “The Heritage Series was established to celebrate the history of BC’s wine industry, demonstrating that beautiful wines can be produced with grapes that are rarely used in modern winemaking,” the winery explains.

Foch is a robust red French hybrid that was one of the mainstays of the wine industry before the 1988 vine pullout in the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys. The object of that pullout was to eliminate the hybrids from BC vineyards in the belief that they produced mediocre wines.

The main reason those grapes made such poor wines is that they were not being grown to make quality wine. The hybrids were overcropped as a matter of routine and wineries, by and large, had to accept the grapes.

The hybrids still in the vineyards today are being cropped at the same tonnages as the vinifera grapes. That is why delicious wines are being made from the surviving French hybrids.

The grapes for the Summerhill wine are from an Oliver vineyard operated by veteran organic grape grower Hans Buchler, whom I profiled in British Columbia Wine Companion in 1996. Since the book is out of print, here is an excerpt:

Buchler, Hans (1947-):  One of the leading organic grapegrowers in the Okanagan, the lean, lanky Buchler farms a seventeen-acre vineyard tucked into a bucolic, pine-covered valley high above Oliver. In Berne, Switzerland, where he was born, his father was a doctor and his mother a teacher. When he finished college, Buchler spent some time traveling before returning to Switzerland and marrying Christine, a nurse. They lived and worked on his father-in-law's organic vegetable farm in the Swiss winegrowing region known by the appellation La Cot, where his interest in grapes and wine began. Land prices being prohibitive in Switzerland, Buchler and his wife emigrated, choosing Canada over New Zealand because Buchler had traveled across Canada in 1976. "I was just overwhelmed by the beauty of British Columbia," he recalls. The raw land they purchased near Oliver was planted to grapes in 1983 after Buchler negotiated a contract to sell the fruit to Mission Hill.  They originally planted  foch,  Okanagan riesling and verdelet, along with only two vinifera (gewurztraminer and white riesling). The Okanagan riesling was the first to be replaced -- with chardonnay, pinot noir and semillon; half of the foch was uprooted later and the verdelet was pulled out  after the 1995 harvest, to be replaced by pinot noir and gamay. The remaining foch plants may have gained a lease on life by the return of this variety to favor. As well, Mission Hill has had commercial success marketing an organic foch wine, made from Buchler's grapes.

The vineyard has been organic since 1988, after Buchler had used herbicicides and synthetic fertilizers in the first two years.  "But that does not agree with my outlook on farming," he says. Now he gets nutrients into his soils by growing legume cover crops such as peas, vetch and clover, so successfully that some parts of the vineyard are at risk of having excessive nitrogen (which causes the vines to grow too vigorously).  Weeds are kept under control with cultivation and by incinerating the young weeds with blasts from a portable propane-fueled flame thrower. The most devastating insect pest in vineyards is the leaf hopper. Buchler has found the populations of these can be reduced with insecticidal soaps and by introducing parasites, some of which are commercially available while others -- notably a microscopic wasp called Anagrus epos -- occur naturally. None of the controls is complete but Buchler is satisfied with establishing a balance between nature and an acceptable amount of damage. "I always have to find the solution which is the least labor intensive," he says.

Dedicated to organic principles, Buchler is a member of the Similkameen-Okanagan Organic Growers Association and has been president of the Association of Certified Organic Growers of British Columbia. With three wineries fully organic in 1995 and with many requests for information from growers, Buchler knows he is no longer pioneering the concept.

He is now selling grapes to Summerhill, one of the earliest wineries to commit to organic production. Indeed, Stephen Cipes would like to have the entire industry to commit to organic production.

Organic or not, well grown hybrids can produce good wine. My guests at dinner recently had the Summerhill wine side by side with a Syrah. The consensus? The Maréchal Foch was better.

Here are notes on recent Summerhill releases.

Summerhill Cipes Brut Rosé NV ($30.48). This traditional method sparkling wine is made with organic Pinot Noir. The wine rested about three years on the fermentation lees before being finished. It has a lovely rose petal hue, with aromas and flavours of strawberry accented with a hint of breadiness. The finish is refreshingly crisp and dry. 90.

Summerhill Organic Maréchal Foch 2013 ($25.99). This wine, aged nine months in French and American oak, is bold, with aromas of ripe dark fruit and flavours of black cherry, plum, blueberry and chocolate. The ripe tannins give the wine a juicy texture. 90.  

Summerhill Pinot Noir 2013 ($29.89 for 962 cases). This wine was aged for 33 months in neutral French oak barrels. The wine begins with aromas of cherry and raspberry. On the palate, there are flavours of cherry, strawberry and vanilla. It is savoury on the finish with notes of forest floor. 88.

Summerhill Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013 (N/A). The notes identify the vineyard as Chandra Vineyard. This wine was aged 32 months in neutral French oak. Whether it is because of evaporation in barrel or ripe fruit, the wine has 14.7% alcohol and is ever so slightly porty. Perhaps that is not a typical Pinot Noir but this bold wine is pretty tasty, with a concentrated texture, aromas and flavours of cherry and plum. There is a touch of vanilla and spice on the finish. 90-91.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Howling Bluff goes solar

Photo: Pinot Noir producer Luke Smith

It appears that the experience of growing wine has turned former stockbroker Luke Smith, the proprietor of Howling Bluff Estate Wines, into an environmentalist.

The Naramata Bench vineyard that he began planting in 2004 is, Luke says, ‘dedicated to becoming a fully sustainable and earth friendly winery.”

Howling Bluff uses neither pesticides or chemical fungicides. It uses drip irrigation, not overhead irrigation. It mulches its prunings, putting them back into the vineyard or shipping them to Penticton’s composting plant.

“As of the spring,” Luke writes, “we started on the next project with the installation of the first of four phases of solar panels. Howling Bluff has a goal to be a Net Zero winery within the next half decade.”

That puts Howling Bluff on the leading edge with a growing number of wineries moving in this direction. Off The Grid Organic Winery in West Kelowna, with a straw bale wine shop and solar panels, is still connected to the grid only because the local municipality insisted on it. Others with solar panels include Orofino Vineyards at Cawston and Burrowing Owl Winery near Oliver.

Undoubtedly, there are others, given how much sunshine there is in the Okanagan and the Similkameen – at least in the summer. It might be another matter on those winter days when the valleys are socked in.

There also is some good winemaking at Howling Bluff. The winery has now won three Lieutenant Governor’s Awards of excellence for its Pinot Noirs. Most recently, the 2013 vintage of its Century Block Pinot Noir took that award this summer.

Here are notes on recent releases:

Howling Bluff Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($20 for 611 cases). This was fermented in stainless steel at a cool temperature, resulting in a wine with excellent fruit aromas and flavours. It begins with aromas of lime and grapefruit. On the palate, there are flavours of grapefruit and gooseberry mingled with herbs and spice on the crisp, tangy finish. 91.

Howling Bluff Three Mile Creek Reserve Sauvignon Blanc ($25 for 322 cases). This is a complex Graves style white. Sixty percent of the juice was fermented in and aged four months in new French oak puncheons while the remainder was fermented in stainless steel. A modest volume of Sémillon in the blend adds complexity. There are aromas and flavours of herbs and grapefruit with a subtle hint of smoky oak in the background, along with a spine of minerality. The finish is crisp and dry. 92.

Howling Bluff Pinot Noir Rosé 2016 ($20 for 405 cases). This is a robust rosé, unapologetically dark in hue (readers will know I prefer dark rosés, not pale ones). This wine was the result of bleeding juice from tanks of crushed Pinot Noir and then fermenting the juice in stainless steel at cool temperatures. The wine has aromas and flavours of cherries and strawberries. A slight touch of tannin is on the dry finish. I think this gives a good structure. This is a rosé for year-round drinking. 90.

Howling Bluff Acta Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014 ($35 for 277 cases). This is clone 777, planted on a western-facing slope that was once a beach of an ancient lake. Acta is Latin for beach. This wine was aged 12 months in French oak (30% new, 35% each in second and third fill barrels). With bright fruit flavours and silken textures, this is a very appealing Pinot Noir. It has aromas and flavours of cherry and raspberry. It is juicy on the palate and spicy on the finish. 92.

Howling Bluff Summa Quies Pinot Noir 2014 ($35 for 250 cases). This wine is made with clones 114, 667 and 777. It had a similar barrel regime to the previous wine. It begins with aromas of cherry, subtle spicy oak and herbal, forest floor notes. On the palate, there are flavours of cherry, strawberry and vanilla. The colour is deep and the texture is both rich and silky. 92.

Howling Bluff Century Block Pinot Noir 2014 ($N/A for 83 cases). The 2013 vintage of Century Block was priced at $75. This wine is called Century Block because in the 1980s 100 different varieties of apples grew on this site. Now, it is planted with 1,200 vines, clones 666 and 777. This wine was aged for 12 months in new French oak. It begins with aromas of mint, cloves and red fruit. On the palate, there are flavours of black cherry and ripe strawberry mingled with a hint of oak. The concentrated texture suggests a wine of considerable potential to age. 93.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Class of 2016: Liber Farm & Winery

Photo: Liber owners Mike and Nicole Dowell, with son Connor

Liber Farm & Winery
156 Sumac Road
Cawston, BC, V0X 1C3
T: 250.499.5305

When Mike and Nicole Dowell opened the Liber Farm tasting room in July 2016, they realized a dream that had been snuffed out by the temperance-minded British Columbia regulators of the 1960s.

The Liber winery and its seven-acre vineyard occupies a subdivided portion of the historic Mariposa Farm which, in the early 1960s, was the first farm in British Columbia to be certified organic. It blazed the trail for Similkameen agriculture: half the farms in the valley are now organic.

Bob McFadyen, the original owner, had become interested in vineyards and wine while serving with the Canadian Army in Italy during World War II.

Lee McFadyen, his widow, recounted the story in a 2009 note included in a financing package for Mariposa Vineyard, a stillborn winery not connected with Liber Farm. “In 1962 … Bob ended his 10-year-search through B.C. for the ideal location to plant a vineyard,” she wrote. “About 25 acres of grapes were planted, with planning for a further 40 acres to supply the future winery. The politics of the 1960’s, however, stood in the way of a license being issued. The government of the day did not see room for expansion beyond the two existing B.C. wineries.”

She exaggerated – there were actually three wineries at the time.

The couple fell back on selling grapes but the price the McFadyens received for grapes often was below the cost of production. The dream of a winery died. There is a gap in the story but it is probable that the vineyard was pulled out during the great pullout of 1988.

Some of the productive land was subdivided between Lee’s sons. Craig Erickson, the son who took over what later became the Liber farm, grew apples and vegetables.

About 2007, he revisited Bob’s dream. He planted three and a half acres each of Chardonnay and Merlot. After selling grapes for several vintages, he licensed Sleeping Lady Winery (named for the nearby mountain overlooking the Similkameen River) and, with the help of a consultant, began making wine. However, he put the property on the market late in 2015 when he decided to move to Nova Scotia.

Enter the Dowells. Mike, born in 1974 just outside Edmonton, has been a manager with a heating and air conditioning company. Nicole, born in 1977 in Edmonton, has a degree in chemistry and had once worked in a family home-building business. They are also entrepreneurs as importers of premium Colombian rum.

A wine tour in the Okanagan in 2005 followed by a 2006 wine tour in California sparked their interest in wine. “We vacationed in the Okanagan every year from that point forward,” Mike says. “And we purchased a seasonal property in Naramata, so we got exposure to a lot of wineries up there.”

Changes in their personal lives, including a strong interest in organic food, led them to begin looking for a winery or an orchard in wine country. “I remember being stuck in traffic, driving to work in the snow and saying, enough is enough,” Mike says.

“When we did the research, we found this valley was all one and two in the grape atlas,” Mike continues. Bob McFadyen clearly had found excellent grape-growing terroir.  

“Here, everything is class one,” confirms Pascal Madevon, Liber’s consulting winemaker (right). “It could be very hot in the day but at the end of the day, there is the river here and it cools the valley down fast. That is perfect for the Chardonnay and the Merlot. For me, this is an incredible spot for Chardonnay.”

It was the flavour of the Chardonnay that clinched the deal for the Dowells. They took over Sleeping Lady in March 2016 and changed the name to Liber, also the name of their rum distribution business. They preferred that to Sleeping Lady because Liber is one of names the Romans had for their wine god. “And Bacchus was taken,” Mike says.

One of their first moves was to recruit Pascal, a top-notch French-trained winemaker who worked at Osoyoos Larose Winery and Culmina Family Estate before setting up a consulting practice last year.

“Nicole and I are old enough to know that if we don’t like it, we won’t bottle it,” Mike says. “We wanted to hire someone who could help us learn. Our number one fear is that if somebody comes in here and does not like our wine, the chance of them trying our wine again are probably zero. We felt we needed to make sure our first vintage was good. We had to hire the best person we could.”

They took over an inventory of 16,000 litres of 2015 wines made by another excellent consultant. Pascal joined them in June, 2016, in time to help finish those wines and launch into the 2016 vintage. The 1,800 cases of 2016 wines included wines made with purchased fruit.

They opened the Liber tasting room in July, 2016. “We just had three wines to start with,” Mike says. “So we decided we should make more wine. With Pascal’s help, we secured grapes in 2016 from Naramata, Oliver and our area.”

Liber has been able to augment its portfolio this season with those grapes. Some of the wines are bottled under informal sounding labels (Hello Sunshine is an example).

“We are starting a new line called Off Your Rocker Merlot – because we were off our rockers when we bought this place,” Mike laughs. “We have fun with our labels. We don’t take ourselves too seriously.”

Nicole corrects the impression that comment leaves. “The presentation is still meant to be classy,” she says. “When you see that label [Off Your Rocker], it is the fun wine. There are the more serious wines, getting down to business.” In fact, Liber has just bottled a Reserve Merlot for future release.

Here are notes on the wines.

Liber Everyday Chardonnay 2016 ($18 for 410 cases). This unoaked Chardonnay is a delicious wine with aromas and flavours of peaches and ripe apples, all wrapped around a backbone of crisp minerality. 90.

Liber Hello Sunshine 2016 ($19 for 153 cases). This is a blend of 55% Viognier, 35% Pinot Gris and 10% Gewürztraminer. The wine has aromas of apricot, apple and melon which are echoed on the palate. The finish is crisp and dry, punctuated with a touch of spiciness. 88.

Liber Sauvignon Blanc Sémillon 2016 ($22 for 120 cases). This dry and herbal Bordeaux-style blend shows the influence of the French winemaker. The wine begins with lots of drama on the nose. On the palate, it has flavours of grapefruit and mango with a hint of oak. The finish is at once savoury and tangy. 90.

Liber Chardonnay 2016 (to be released late this year). Half of this was aged in stainless steel and half went through malolactic fermentation and aging in French oak. The wine begins with aromas of citrus, honey and vanilla. It is generous on the palate, with buttery undertones to the citrus flavours. Bright acidity gives the wine a crisp, clean finish. 91.

Liber Rosé 2016 ($22 for 132 cases). This is a saignée style wine made with Merlot grapes. The lovely salmon hue is immediately appealing in the glass. It has aromas and flavours of strawberry and raspberry, with a dry finish. 91.

Liber Signature Red 2015 ($25 for 584 cases). This organic wine is a blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot. It begins with aromas of raspberry and cassis, leading to lively brambly flavours. 90.

Liber Let me be franc 2015 ($23 for 301 cases). This is organic Cabernet Franc. It is a spicy, brambly red with flavours of blackberries and cherries. 88.

Liber Cabernet Franc 2016 (unreleased). This has a fuller palate than the 2015 and delivers classic flavours of black cherries and blackberries with a spicy finish. 90.

Liber Off Your Rocker 2016 (unreleased). This is 100% Merlot. Still youthfully firm, it has aromas and flavours of black cherry and blueberry. 90.

Liber Reserve Merlot 2016 (barrel sample). The wine begins with a remarkably perfumed and fruity aroma. The texture is concentrated. The wine delivers flavours of black cherry and dark fruits reminiscent of Christmas spices. 92.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Clos du Soleil will plant second vineyard

Photo: Chicken foraging  in Clos du Soleil's organic vineyard

There is good news for those who never get enough of their favourite wines from Clos du Soleil Winery: this Similkameen winery with a 10-acre estate vineyard has purchased another 10 acres just west of the current vineyard.

The new vineyard is called Les Collines. Half will be planted next spring with Sauvignon Blanc (three clones) and Sémillon, both of which already grow on the estate vineyard. When the new vines are producing, the winery will be able to increase the volumes of its elegant Bordeaux-inspired white wines. The other half of the property will be left in its natural state.

French for “hills,” the Les Collines name was inspired by the rugged nature of the property. “The land is hilly terrain comprised of several steep ridges which is ideal terroir for growing Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon grapes,” says Michael Clark, the general manager and winemaker at Clos du Soleil.  

Like the estate vineyard, the property is certified organic. Michael will continue to maintain organic certification for Les Collines and also will be practicing biodynamics here. He believes that living soils are crucial to maintaining vine health and for producing grapes that most truly represent their place.

“For grape growing,” Michael continues, “the soil composition is of paramount importance for establishing a vineyard. The soil at Les Collines is extremely rocky with high levels of angular rocks within the gravelly loam, and is similar in composition to the upper bench Similkameen soil series seen on the estate vineyard. In addition, the organic practices already in place on this property have contributed to maintaining soil health and quality.”

The announcement came shortly after the release of three 2016 wines and a 2014 Syrah. The fruit sources are a mix of estate grapes and purchased grapes, primarily from vineyards in the Similkameen Valley.

Here are notes on the wines.

Clos du Soleil Capella 2015 ($27.90 for 20 barrels). This is 80% Sauvignon Blanc, 20% Sémillon. The wine was fermented in barrel (55% French oak puncheons, 45% stainless steel). Half the wine was fermented with wild yeast and one-third of the barrels went through malolactic fermentation. All lots were barrel-aged on the lees for nine months. The result: a rich and complex dry white. It begins with herbal and grapefruit aromas. There is good weight on the palate, with layered flavours of  grapefruit, lime, passionfruit and quince. 91.

Clos du Soleil Sémillon 2016 (wine club only; 110 cases). This wine was fermented and aged eight months in concrete, with minimal handling. It begins with floral aromas along with notes of lime. On the palate, the texture is elegant and polished, with flavours of lemon, lime, wet stone around a backbone of minerality. The finish is dry. 91.

Clos du Soleil Fumé Blanc 2016 ($20.90 for 860 cases). For this wine, grapes were purchased from two Similkameen vineyards and one in Oliver. The blend is 88% Sauvignon Blanc and 12% Sémillon. Both were blended after fermentation was completed in stainless steel, with light oak contact for the Sauvignon Blanc. It is a delicious and complex white, beginning with herbal and grapefruit aromas. The wine is rich on the palate, with flavours of grapefruit, apples and pears. Bright acidity gives the wine a crisp, refreshing finish. 91.

Clos du Soleil Grower’s Series Pinot Blanc 2016 ($20.90 for 522 cases). The Pinot Blanc variety deserves a better profile, given how well in grows in the Okanagan and the Similkameen. This is one of the best examples, a top-flight Pinot Blanc with fresh and floral aromas that reminded me of morning in a hay field after a spring rain. On the palate, it has flavours of crisp apples mingled with hints of citrus. 91.

Clos du Soleil Rosé 2016 ($19.90 for 544 cases). This is a blend of 60% Cabernet Franc, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, grown specifically to make rosé. The appeal begins with its dark ruby hue in the glass (a rosé that actually looks like one!).  It has aromas and flavours of wild strawberries, cherries and red plums. A touch of tannin and minerality gives the wine backbone and body. The wine is delicious now but is also a rosé to enjoy with food the whole year. 91.

Clos du Soleil Grower’s Series Syrah 2014 ($26.90 for 250 cases). This is the winery’s first Syrah. It may be a departure from the Bordeaux template at Clos du Soleil, but it is a fine departure. The grapes are from the same Keremeos vineyard that supplies the Pinot Blanc. The appeal begins with the deep, rich colour and the aromas of black cherry, plum and raspberry. On the palate, there are flavours of plum, black cherry and cola, with a hint of cloves and white pepper on the finish. 91.

Clos du Soleil Célestiale 2014 ($26.90 for 57 barrels). This is 38% Merlot, 36% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc, 5% Malbec and 1% Petit Verdot, aged 15 months in French oak. This is a very approachable Bordeaux blend, beginning with aromas of black currant, cherry and raspberry, followed by flavours of black cherry, blueberry and plums. The long ripe tannins give the wine easy elegance. 92.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Stag's Hollow champions Vidal

Photo: a bunch of Vidal grapes

Larry Gerelus and Linda Pruegger took over a vineyard already growing Vidal when they established Stag’s Hollow Winery & Vineyard in 1995.

Vidal is a white French hybrid white varietal. The conventional wisdom at the time held that French hybrids needed to be replaced with vinifera grapes that make better wine. Most of the hybrids, in fact, were pulled from Okanagan vineyards in 1988.

There are a few exceptions and one happens to be Vidal. The variety, much more widely planted in Ontario than in British Columbia, has been the backbone of Canadian Icewine production since the 1980s. The variety tended to be overlooked as a table wine grape.

Larry and Linda initially bought into that received wisdom. They grafted a substantial part of the vineyard’s Vidal to Chardonnay and started calling table wine from the remaining vines “Tragically Vidal” because the variety was thought to be on its way out.

Then a strange thing happened. The well-made Vidal table wine at Stag’s Hollow developed something of a cult following. At the same time, the “anything but Chardonnay” bias infected a lot of consumers. Larry and Linda has to remove some of the Chardonnay grafts and let the Vidal vines regenerate from the roots. A few years later, they actually planted more Vidal when establishing their new Shuttleworth Creek Vineyard at Okanagan Falls.

Dwight Sick, the winemaker they hired in 2008, also takes Vidal very seriously. The 2016 Tragically Vidal still has all of the tropical fruit flavours that made this a cult wine. But he has tweaked it to achieve more complexity.

This wine is made from two lots of Vidal. The lot from the Stag’s Hollow Vineyard was fermented in stainless steel for 30 days at cool temperatures until it was totally dry. The second lot, from the Shuttleworth Creek Vineyard, was fermented in stainless steel at slightly warmer temperatures. Fermentation was arrested to leave a hint of sweetness. As well, about a quarter of the fruit had botrytis, or noble rot, which is rare in the Okanagan. The wine was finished by blending in 14% Orange Muscat.

The only thing tragic about this delicious wine is that it will be sold out before most of us can get our hands on it.

Here are notes on that wine and two other recent Stag’s Hollow releases.

Stag’s Hollow Muscat Frizzante 2016 ($22). This is a blend of 57% Muscat Ottonel, 5% Orange Muscat and 38% Riesling 2015. The lively bubbles propel floral and spice aromas and flavours; and give the wine a creamy texture. The modest touch of residual sugar is nicely balanced with bright acidity. This is a wine crying out for a Sunday brunch. 91.

Stag’s Hollow Tragically Vidal 2016 ($17). This is a blend of 86% Vidal and 14% Orange Muscat. The wine begins with aromas of grapefruit. On the generous the palate, there are flavours of honey and grapefruit with a hint of residual sugar. A portion of the fruit was affected by botrytis, accounting for the complex honey and tobacco notes on the finish. 90.

Stag’s Hollow Merlot 2014 ($18.99). This wine began its fermentation on one-ton fermenters but was transferred to American and French oak barrels (50/50) to finish fermenting. It was aged in barrel for 18 months. Dark in colour, the wine begins with toasty aromas, along with black cherry and fig. One the palate, there are concentrated flavours of dark fruit – figs, plums, black cherries. Long ripe tannins give this wine a generous texture and finish. 90.