Photo: Dark Horse Vineyard winemaker Derek Kontkanen
During the past several years, Arterra Wines Canada has been raising the profile of its choice Okanagan vineyards by releasing vineyard-designated wines.
The first was Black Sage Vineyards. The wines from that historic Bordeaux block on Black Sage Road, formerly released under the Sumac Ridge label, now are a stand-alone brand.
The second was SunRock Vineyards, spun off last year from Jackson-Triggs Wines. This recognizes the exceptional terroir of the SunRock Vineyard north of Osoyoos.
The third is Dark Horse Vineyard, emerging from Inniskillin Okanagan also as a stand-alone brand with four outstanding wines, including the legendary Meritage.
The winery explains: “Dark Horse Vineyard was formerly a tier within the Inniskillin Okanagan VQA portfolio. This tier represented some of the best wines made from grapes grown on a very special site found on the golden mile: a site known for complex soils with sun-baked slopes facing south and southeast.… In 2019, we recognized that this small portfolio of exquisite wines deserved their own identity and the chance to tell their own story and our tenacity to rise to the top.”
In my 2017 book, Icon, I singled out the Dark Horse Vineyard Meritage as an eminently collectible red wine. The winery became producing the wine as early as 1995. I could not find the specifications for every vintage, but that did not surprise me. In those early years of the B.C. wine industry revival, record-keeping seemed to have had a low priority when producers were not sure of their longevity. That is no longer the case.
Here is an except from Icon that profiles Dark Horse Vineyard.
Inniskillin’s Dark Horse Vineyard is one of the best terroirs in the South Okanagan for big red wines. “Cabernet Sauvignon loves this place,” says Sandor Mayer, the winemaker who unlocked the potential of the site.
The 9.3-hectare (23-acre) vineyard was first planted with hybrid varieties in the 1970s for a winery called Vinitera, which opened in 1979. It failed twice before it was taken over in 1987 by Alan Tyabji, who promptly uprooted the hybrids in the 1988 grape pullout and then hired Sandor to replant with vinifera varieties.
Born in Hungary in 1958, Sandor had grown up on a farm with a modest vineyard. That led him to study horticulture and ultimately earn a degree in oenology and viticulture from a leading Hungarian university. He immigrated to Canada and the Okanagan in 1988 (he had relatives there), superbly equipped for the nascent wine industry, which had few jobs because two-thirds of the vineyards had just been pulled out.
Reviving the Dark Horse Vineyard was one of the few jobs available. Sandor arrived in 1989 to find that he first had to clean up a tangle of dead vines, trellis posts, and wire. He accelerated the work by setting fire to the dead vines. The blaze was only prevented from incinerating nearby hillsides by the arrival of the Oliver fire department. Sandor feared he would be fired. He was retained to replant the vineyard. He made his first vintage there in 1992 and spent almost all of his Canadian winemaking career at Inniskillin, as the winery has been known since 1996. When Sandor returned to his native Hungary in 2014, he was succeeded by Derek Kontkanen, a Brock University graduate whose career had focused on making white wines at Jackson-Triggs, a sister winery to Inniskillin (Inniskillin also has an Ontario branch in the Niagara region). He is also an authority on icewine (his university thesis was on that topic). Inniskillin’s icewine is as renowned as the reds from Dark Horse Vineyard.
Several factors make Dark Horse Vineyard special. The soils are complex and laden with volcanic minerals. The vineyard is nestled slightly in a bowl, with sun-bathed slopes facing south and southeast. In the early years, Sandor discovered the vineyard was too hot for a few of the varieties planted there, notably Gewürztraminer. But the heat units are ideal for the Bordeaux red varietals now dominating the vineyard. The wines invariably have ripe flavours of dark fruit, with an earthy structure and firm tannins that make them ideal for aging. The technical notes indicate a shift in style, with more robust alcohol levels since 2002 that suggest riper, fuller flavours. “The lower alcohol level in early vintages was due to above-average crop [yields] and a vineyard that was still young,” Sandor explains. With the exception of 1995 and perhaps one other vintage, he made every wine through the 2013 vintage.
Sandor’s Dark Horse Meritage was selling for $25 a bottle. With the 2016 Dark Horse Meritage, Derek’s wine now sells for $60 – and is worth it. The specifications as well as the taste suggest that, as good as Sandor’s wines were, the winery has since raised the bar. For example, the Meritage now gets 16 months of barrel-aging, up from 12 months. No doubt, there have been other tweaks in both viticulture and winemaking.
Here are notes on the wines.
Dark Horse Vineyard Chardonnay 2018 ($40 for 500 cases). This wine was fermented in barrel (20% new French oak) and aged sur lie for 11 months. The wine aromas of apple and pineapple mingles with citrus and a hint of oak. The palate offers flavours of apple with a note of butter and vanilla. The oak is very well integrated and frames bright fruit. The finish lingers. 92.
Dark Horse Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017 ($45 for 300 cases). This wine was aged eight months in French and American oak. Dark in hue, it begins with aromas of spice and cherries that are echoed on the palate. There are rich flavours of dark fruits, vanilla and cloves with a silky texture. The lingering finish has touches of mocha. 91..
Dark Horse Vineyard Cabernet Franc 2016 ($45 for 450 cases). The wine was aged 16 months in French and American oak barrels. Dark in colour, the wine begins with aromas of blackberry and plum mingled with savoury herbs. On the palate, the wine delivers bright brambly berry flavours on a firm structure. A wine this delicious deserves to be decanted. 92.
Dark Horse Vineyard Meritage 2016 ($60 for 250 cases). This wine is 65% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Cabernet Franc. It was aged 16 months in French and American oak. The deep colour signals that this is a bold, concentrated wine. It begins with aromas of black cherry, vanilla and spice. The palate delivers flavours of plum, black currant, tobacco and spice. The finish is long and the texture is generous; a very elegant wine. 94.