Friday, August 17, 2018

Monte Creek expanding with new winery, Similkameen vineyard

 Photo: Monte Creek general manager Erik Fisher

Monte Creek Ranch Winery, already making 18,000 cases a year, has embarked on a major expansion a little more than a decade after planting its first vineyards beside the TransCanada Highway east of Kamloops.

Adjacent to its current winery, Monte Creek plans to break ground next April on a $6.5 million gravity-flow winery, taking advantage of the 40-foot cliff at the winery and tasting room. The new facility, with a targeted completion of June 2020, will be designed to handle Pinot Noir, the varietal that is the emerging focus at Monte Creek. The capacity will be 54,000 cases.

Much of that Pinot Noir will be grown at Monte Creek’s recently acquired 92-acre property on the south bank of the Similkameen River, just east of Keremeos.

“We are planting mostly Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Noir,” Monte Creek general manager Erik Fisher says.  By next season, 16 ½ acres will be planted, mostly Pinot Noir. A shortage of vine material from nurseries is holding back the pace at which Monte Creek can plant. “We’re ordering for 2020 and beyond at this point,” Erik says.

Monte Creek already has 70 acres under vine (not all in production yet) in its two Kamloops area vineyards – the 20-acre Lion’s Head Vineyard on the north side of Thompson River and the larger Monte Creek Ranch Vineyard south of the river.

The booming winery sells almost half its wines from a very busy tasting room and restaurant on its property overlooking the TransCanada.

This all started in 2007 when Gurjit  Sidhu, a Fraser Valley blueberry grower and nursery man, bought a 900-acre ranch east of Kamloops. He was looking for a new blueberry site. When he found out too late that blueberries do not thrive in the Thompson Valley’s near desert, he decided to grow grapes.

He was advised that vinifera grapes might be killed by winter cold in Kamloops. So, beginning in 2010, he planted the first, and so far, only major block of winter-hardy Minnesota hybrid grapes in British Columbia. The varietals include Marquette, Le Crescent and three members of the Frontenac grape family. Even though one of these varietals are familiar to wine consumers in British Columbia, the wines are selling well.

Monte Creek hedged its bets, however, by planting a block of Maréchal Foch and. On the slope of Lion’s Head, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer. With growing evidence that some vinifera varietals can survive in the Thompson Valley, the winery last year planted another 10 acres of vinifera (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling) in the Monte Creek Ranch Vineyard.

There are no plans to add more Minnesota hybrids. “I think we are maxed on what the market is willing to embrace at this point,” Erik says. “The wines are scoring well and consumers like them. But we have 60 acres planted and a lot of that is still coming into production. We have our hands full for a little while.”

The Keremeos property has been, at various times of its history a ranch and an orchard. In recent years, it was producing hay.

For advice on developing the vineyard, Monte Creek engaged Pedro Parra, the Chilean consulting viticulturist who has given extensive advice to Okanagan Crush Pad Winery. The soil has been mapped, with Parra analyzing 32 different soil pits – both to help with planting decisions and for laying out the irrigation.

There is a logic to planting Pinot Noir here. “There is a considerable amount of limestone in some of those rocks, which we think will go a long way to producing premium quality Pinot Noir,” Erik says.

As well, the vineyard has a northern aspect and likely is one of the cooler sites in the Similkameen. “The fact that it is north-facing means it has a lot of early morning and afternoon sun, but it tends to be a little cooler in the evenings with the high mountain behind it,” Erik says. “We think it is well-suited for Pinot Noir.”

The Monte Creek winemaker is Galen Barnhardt (right), 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.

In 2009, Galen 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 some of those wines.

Monte Creek Riesling 2017 ($17.49). The wine begins with aromas of citrus. On the palate, there are flavours of lime and lemon. Bright acidity gives this wine a refreshing, dry finish. The wine will also cellar well. 90.

Monte Creek Chardonnay Reserve 2016 ($24.99). This is a barrel-fermented wine (a small portion of the barrels were stainless steel). Only a third of the wine went through malolactic fermentation. As a result, the wine has good texture and a slight buttery note on the nose, with lively and refreshing flavours of apple and citrus. 92.

Monte Creek Hands Up White 2017 ($15.99). This is a blend of 61% Frontenac Blanc, 23% La Crescent and 17% Frontenac Gris. The wine begins with fruity aromas leading to flavours of pear, apple and quince. A touch of residual sugar gives the wine a rich texture; but there is bright acidity to balance the wine. 90.

Monte Creek Rosé 2017 ($17.49). This is made entirely with Marquette grapes. It is a robust rosé, both in color and in flavour. It begins with cherry aromas leading to flavours of plum and cherry. 88.

Monte Creek Pinot Noir 2016 ($19.99). The wine begins with aromas of cherry mingled with a hint of oak. Medium-bodied, it shows bright berry flavours - cherry and strawberry. The wine has a silky texture. I recommend chilling the wine slightly. 88 - 90.

Monte Creek Hands Up Red 2016 ($16.99). This is a blend of 82% Merlot, 8% Marquette, 8% Frontenac Noir and 2% Cabernet Sauvignon. Full-bodied, the wine has aromas of black cherry and flavours of cherry, black currant, chocolate and spice. 90.


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