Monday, July 16, 2018

Nk'Mip Cellars bolsters premium wine tier

Photo: Randy Picton of Nk'Mip Cellars

The Osoyoos Indian Band, the 51% owner of Nk’Mip Cellars, had a stroke of good luck two decades ago when they applied for a casino license.

They were turned down.

They regrouped to build North America’s first aboriginal-owned winery (in partnership with Vincor, now known as Arterra). Nk’Mip Cellars, now making nearly 20,000 cases a year, is undoubtedly one of the top wineries in the Okanagan. Throngs of visitors, none of them apparently interested in laundering money, crowd the elegant wine shop all season.

The winery is a solid business success, a source of pride and employment for the 500-member band. Under the mentorship of senior winemaker Randy Picton, Justin Hall, a member of the band, has become a winemaker and, in 2017, took over responsibility for the white wine portfolio. Aaron Crey, a member of a Fraser Valley band, is the cellar supervisor. This team has worked together for a long time.

“One of the things I am most proud about with our wines is the consistency across the portfolio,” Randy says. “I think they are all good wines. There is a consistency there; and the fact that we have been a team for 15 years is one of the reasons.”

There is no sign that either the Band or Arterra want to unwind of the most successful partnerships in the Okanagan wine industry.

The relationship dates from about 1980 when T.G. Bright & Co. leased land north of Oliver and built a winery. The production of alcoholic beverages on Indigenous land was contentious at the time. That modest 1980 winery, a great commercial success, now is a sprawling production facility for five or six million cases annually. Numerous band members have had successful careers there.

The relationship expanded in the early 1990s when Vincor, as the company was then called, leased about 1,000 acres of raw land from the band for the vineyards that now supply the Arterra wineries, including Nk’Mip.

“What is nice about this winery is that we are so tied to the land,” Randy says. “100% of the grapes for these wines are grown on Osoyoos Indian Band land. It is an important part of our mandate.”

Nk’Mip Cellars opened in 2002. The winery has since anchored the development of a resort with condominiums, a golf course and an exceptional cultural interpretation centre.

The initial Nk’Mip vintages (2000 and 2001) were made by Bruce Nicholson, then the winemaker at the Jackson-Triggs winery in the big Oliver complex. Randy was recruited in 2002 from CedarCreek Estate Winery.

Randy took a circuitous route to winemaking.  Born in Yorkton, Sk, in 1958, he has a business administration diploma from Calgary’s Mount Royal College. After an industry recession derailed his first job in the purchasing department of a lumber company, Randy and his wife ran a Penticton campground and motel. When that business was sold, Picton spent 10 years as a tree planter. “It was extremely physically demanding work,” he told me in one interview. “I decided I should start looking at other options.”

He enrolled in the inaugural winery assistant program at Okanagan University College in 1995. “At the time what I knew about wine was that it was either white or red,” he said. He worked the 1995 vintage with CedarCreek and that led to a job in the cellar. Within five years, he was the associate winemaker. On several occasions, he filled in as interim winemaker during staff changes. He had solid hands-on experience when Nk’Mip hired him.

The winery that he joined 16 years ago now is running at capacity. While consideration has been given to expanding the production capacity, Nk’Mip instead has been elevating its portfolio. More of its wines now are released in the premium-priced Qwam Qwmt tier (Salish for achieving excellence). The winery can do that because it has access to premium-quality grapes.

“Grapes are not an issue for us,” Randy says. “The band has 1,500 acres under production and they will give us whatever we need.”

Current releases span several strong vintages.  “The 2017 vintage was the nicest vintage we have seen in a while,” Randy told me during a recent tasting at the winery. “There are some beautifully concentrated reds down in the cellar and the whites are fresh and fruit forward.”

Here are notes on the wines.

Nk’Mip Winemaker’s Series Pinot Blanc 2017 ($17.99). The wine begins with aromas of green apples and citrus, leading to flavours of flavours of apple and peach. The finish is crisp. 91.

Nk’Mip Winemaker’s Series Chardonnay 2016 ($18.99). Lightly oaked, this is a refreshing wine with aromas of citrus and flavours of cloves and ripe pineapple. 91.

Nk’Mip Winemaker’s Series Dreamcatcher 2017 ($17.99). This is a blend of 60% Riesling and 20% each of Sauvignon Blanc and Ehrenfelser. The wine is fresh and lively, beginning with aromas of citrus leading to flavours of citrus, peach and pineapple. The racy acidity, well balanced with residual sugar, gives the wine great lift on the palate. 91.

Nk’Mip Winemaker’s Series Rosé 2017 ($17.99). This is a saignée of Merlot, Pinot Noir and other red varietals. It has aromas of cherry and rhubarb, leading to flavours of strawberry and cherry. The finish is dry. 90.

Nk’Mip Winemaker’s Series Pinot Noir 2015 ($23.99). This full-bodied Pinot Noir begins with aromas of cherry and spice, leading to flavours of cherry and cola. The texture is silky. 90.

Nk’Mip Winemaker’s Series Merlot 2015 ($21.99). The wine begins with aromas of plum, black cherry and blueberry. The palate is plump, with flavours of cassis, black cherry and plum. 90.

Nk’Mip Winemaker’s Series Talon 2015 ($23.99). This blend is 30% Syrah, 22% Merlot, 21% Malbec, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Cabernet Franc and 1% Pinot Noir. The wines were fermented separately, aging 18 months in French and American oak before being blended. The wine has aromas and flavours of plum, fig and black currant. 90.

Nk’Mip Qwam Qwmt Chardonnay 2016 ($24.99). This wine has already won a gold medal at the Chardonnay Du Monde competition. The oak is very subtle (“I don’t want to smell oak,” Randy says), with bright fruit aromas and flavours front and centre. The wine has flavours of pineapple, apple and citrus with a delicate hint of clove on the finish. 92.

Nk’Mip Qwam Qwmt Riesling 2016 ($23.99). This dry, age-worthy Riesling begins with aromas of lime with hints of petrol and wet stone. The concentrated flavours are a medley of nectarine, lemon and peach. 92.

Nk’Mip Qwam Qwmt Pinot Noir 2016 ($32.99). The wine was aged for 10 months in French oak (30% new). The perfumed aroma displays strawberry, raspberry and spice. On the palate there are flavours of cherry and raspberry with lightly toasted oak on the finish. Silky tannins define the polished texture. 93.

Nk’Mip Qwam Qwmt Merlot 2015 ($25.99). This plush, mouth-filling Merlot has aromas and flavours of plum, black cherry, black currant and chocolate. 91.

Nk’Mip Qwam Qwmt Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($Sold out). Because of the east/west orientation of the rows, the two sides of the vine are picked at different time to assure peak flavour and ripeness of all the fruit. In this vintage, the sun-bathed south side of the rows was picked October 13, while the north side was picked October 16. The two lots were fermented separately and aged 18 months in barrel before final blending. This wine begins with aromas and flavours of mint and black currant. The long, ripe tannins will give this wine some longevity in the cellar. 92.

Nk’Mip Qwam Qwmt Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($N/A). This elegant and complex wine definitely should be cellared; it likely will peak in 2026. The aromas of cassis and black cherry lead to flavours of dark fruits mingled with tobacco and chocolate. 94.

Nk’Mip Qwam Qwmt Syrah 2015 ($32.99). This is a bold, ripe expression of a hot vintage. It begins with aromas of black pepper and black cherry, leading to a medley of sweet berry flavours, with undertones of dark chocolate. 92.

Nk’Mip White Mer’r’iym 2016 ($29.99). This is a new wine in the portfolio, to complement the winery’s flagship red. This is a blend of 70% Sauvignon Blanc (fermented in stainless steel) and 30% Sémillon (fermented in new French oak).  The wine begins with aromas of lime and herbs. On the palate, the tropical fruit flavours are led by lime with a subtle hint of oak. The finish is crisp and zesty. 91.

Nk’Mip Mer’r’iym 2015 ($54.99). This is a blend of 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 21% Malbec, 16% Merlot and 6% Cabernet Franc. The wine was aged 18 months in barrel, mostly French. The wine begins with aromas of cassis, blackberry, mint and cedar. The rich, dark fruits on the palate include flavours of black currant, black cherry and chocolate. 95.

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