Thursday, July 6, 2017

Class of 2017: Forgotten Hill Wine Co.

 Photo: Wine growers Maya and Benoit Gauthier

Forgotten Hill Wine Co.
3960 Cottonwood Lane
Naramata, BC
Tel: 1-250-496-5600

At 2,100 feet above sea level, Forgotten Hill proprietors Maya and Benoit Gauthier have the highest-elevation winery vineyard in the Okanagan.

This Naramata Bench winery, which has just opened its by-appointment tasting room, grows primarily Pinot Gris, with a few rows of Pinot Noir, in a four-acre vineyard. The vines are above the Kettle Valley Railroad right of way, now a popular hiking and biking trail.

The tasting room is adjacent to an elegant bed and breakfast destination, also called Forgotten Hill, which opened five years ago. The view from the B&B is nothing short of breathtaking, encompassing vineyards and wineries along Okanagan Lake from Naramata to Penticton.

It was that view that led Maya’s parents, Denys and Cherry Bouton, to buy this property in 2004.

“There was no name to this hill,” Maya says. “That is why we call it Forgotten Hill. When we first moved here, there was nothing – no power, no water. Nobody knew that this land was available. Everybody thought it was just crown land up in the woods. No, it was land that had been owned by a logging company for 90 years.”

Maya continues the story: “My parents wanted to have family land. Both sides of the family had vineyards and land but over time, everything was lost. My dad is French, from Paris, and my mom is from India. My Mom’s family lost everything in Partition and Dad’s family lost stuff during the war. They both had this dream of having a piece of land for the family. Once we started coming here, we all fell in love with it.”

Maya grew up in North Vancouver and went to Simon Fraser University to earn a degree in English literature and communications. She thought about continuing on to a master’s degree. However, when the decision was made to plant a vineyard in 2008, she enrolled in the viticulture and winemaking program at Okanagan College.

“I spent a year doing viticulture,” she says. “Driving a tractor was too much fun.”

She met Benoit at Okanagan College, where he was also studying winemaking and viticulture after catching the wine bug in California. He was born in 1980 in Rouyn Noranda in Québec. He took a degree in chemistry in a co-operative program at the University of Sherbrooke.

“Every second semester, I had a work placement in industry,” he says. That included experience at a pharmaceutical company and a paint company. One assignment with the federal government in Ottawa had him determining the age of legal documents by analyzing solvents in the ink.

“At the end of my bachelor, I did not see myself going into chemistry, either for a master’s or for a living,” Benoit says. “It was just too specialized and too narrow. I love nature and I love to work with my hands; and I love science. And I love wine, beer and good food. So I just decided to take a pause and go travelling a little bit.”

He spent a month with a friend in San Francisco. “I visited Napa and Sonoma, drank some really good wines and visited some vineyards,” he remembers. “I thought that maybe winemaking would be suitable for me.”

Returning to Canada, he considered Brock University but settled on the practical training at Okanagan College.

“All the teachers are winemakers and viticulturists,” Benoit says. “I thought it was a good way to learn the hands-on experience right away. With my bachelor of chemistry, I also looked at a master in winemaking. Sitting at a desk, you learn good things, but winemaking is really hands on.”

He then spent two years at Wild Goose Vineyards, mentoring with Hagen Kruger, the winemaker and co-proprietor there. Maya, meanwhile, spent two years at Township 7 Vineyards, working with winemaker Brad Cooper.

When Benoit and Maya married in 2009, they spent their honeymoon at a large winery in New Zealand’s Marlborough region, working a vintage.  Returning to Canada, he spent a year at Pentâge Winery and then took a year off to help build the Forgotten Hill bed and breakfast house. Maya worked in winery tasting rooms until the demands of raising two young daughters and managing the B&B took all her time.

When the house building project was concluded, Benoit resumed his winemaking career, joining Noble Ridge Vineyard & Winery in 2011. Since 2014, he has been fulltime winemaker there.

Photo: The view from Forgotten Hill

He and Maya acknowledge that it was controversial to plant their high-elevation vineyard. “Nine years ago, when we were looking to plant our vineyard, there was no information,” Maya says. “You can get charts for the whole valley – temperature, soil, all the information you could want for planting. Everything stopped right at the KVR and there was nothing beyond it. We started calling this ‘forgotten hill’ at that point.”

So they established their own weather station to gather the necessary data. “When we took our own measurements over a few years, we were confident the growing conditions would not be that much different from the vineyards just below us,” Maya says. “We have a big rock face just behind the vineyard that reflects the heat.”

“And the slope is perfect, too,” Benoit says. “It is a gentle slope facing south/southwest.  There is really good air drainage.” In winter, an insulating layer of snow usually remains on the vineyard while vineyards lower on the hillside are often bare.

While the vineyard is planted almost entirely to Pinot Gris, a small block of Pinot Noir was planted as an “experiment,” Benoit says. It proved to be a suitable choice and, with as much as 10 more plantable acres, more Pinot Noir vines will be planted next year. He also purchases varieties such as Merlot and Syrah which would not flourish at this elevation.

Maya and Benoit sold grapes in 2013 but, to assess quality of the fruit, made wine for person consumption in 2012 and 2014. The results led to the production of commercial quantities in 2015 under another winery’s license while getting Forgotten Hill licensed last year.

“In 2016, I think we produced 560 cases,” Benoit says. “This coming vintage, we need to produce about 660 cases. And probably step it up to 750 or 800 cases the year after. We will take it slow and easy to establish ourselves. We are pretty busy.”

Indeed. He is also working the vineyard and making wine at Noble Ridge. Jim and Leslie D’Andrea, owners of Noble Ridge, are rare among winery owners who allow their winemakers to pursue sideline projects.

“This is kind of my weekend project,” Benoit laughs. “Noble Ridge is my fulltime gig. This allows me to experiment with different winemaking methods, different styles. I am doing Syrah here, so it kind of extends my winemaking skills. Who knows, maybe in 10 years? For the time being, I am happy to make small lots and serve them to our guests.”

Here are notes on current releases which, except for the Pinot Noir, can be found in  VQA marketing channels.

Forgotten Hill Pinot Gris 2015 ($19.04 for 185 cases). This wine reflects a warm vintage. It is rich in texture with flavours of ripe pear and almond and with a hint of spice and minerality on the finish. 90.

Forgotten Hill Pinot Gris 2016 ($19.04 for 108 cases). Benoit split the juice into three lots, using a different yeast with each one to achieve complexity. The wine begins with floral and citrus aromas. On the palate, there are flavours of citrus, apples and pears. The bright acidity gives a refreshing lift to both the aromas and the flavours. 91.

Forgotten Hill Rosé ($19.04 for 135 cases). The blend is 81% Merlot, 19% Pinot Noir. The wine has strawberry aromas and flavours with a dry, savoury and herbal finish. 89.

Forgotten Hill Pinot Noir 2015 ($30.35 for 25 cases). The wine begins with aromas of cherry and strawberry. Intense flavours of cherry and vanilla explode on the palate. The wine has a silky and juicy texture with a long lingering finish. The varietal definition shows that this high-elevation vineyard is excellent Pinot Noir terroir. 92.


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