Photo: Niche's James and Joanna Schlosser
In December, Niche Wine Company of West Kelowna, which has been open since 2011, released its first unfiltered Pinot Noir.
Other Okanagan wineries have been releasing unfiltered wines routinely but James Schlosser, the co-owner of Niche, is a risk-averse winemaker despite his degree from Brock University, Canada’s top wine making school.
“Filtering has always been a de facto winemaking style at Niche Wine Company,” the winery said in its release announcement. “The winemaker loves the clarity and sparkle it brings to his wines and he sleeps better at night knowing his wines are nice and stable. That being said, there are two sides to every coin. Filtration by its very nature, removes things from the wine (the good and the bad).”
Only 50 cases of unfiltered Pinot Noir have been released. More may be made, depending on the reception. I predict the reception will be good. This is one of the best Pinot Noirs so far from Niche.
As the name implies, this is a small winery that currently produces about 1,500 cases a year. But James and his wife, Joanna, are planning to increase that production to 3,000 cases within the next five years.
For a little more background, here is an excerpt from the 2014 edition of John Schreiner’s Okanagan Wine Tour Guide.
The vineyard is off the beaten path, well up a mountain side at an elevation of 706 meters (2,316 feet), with only one other vineyard nearby. “The property appears to be an ecological niche at certain times of the year,” says James as he waxes lyrical about the colourful dragonflies in August.
And the winery is small enough that two people can fit it in together with other careers. “When you look up the definition of niche, it is about fit,” Joanna says. “We feel this business fits with our life, and our wine fits with everything we do.”
The four-hectare (ten acre) vineyard is on a farm owned since 1978 by James’s parents, Jerold and Kathleen Schlosser, both of them Kelowna lawyers. Jerold began planting vines about 1997, starting with two clones of Pinot Noir, now the dominant variety grown here. James, who was born in Vancouver in 1975, began working in the vineyard after completing a science degree at the University of Victoria. His father seized on this apparent aptitude for grapes by enrolling James in the winemaking program at Brock University, which he earned a master’s degree in enology. Since James returned to the Okanagan in 2002, the selection of varieties in the vineyard was increased to include Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Riesling and Maréchal Foch and he began making trial lots of wine. At the same time, his background in science has taken him to a parallel career as a technology development officer with the British Columbia Cancer Agency.
Joanna, who was born in North Vancouver, is equally adept at juggling several interests at once. During a 13-year career as an Air Canada flight attendant, she also earned a communications degree from Simon Fraser University. More recently, she has studied graphic design, equipping herself to develop websites for Niche and for other wineries.
James makes the Niche wines in a rustic former stable, a charming wooden building constructed entirely without nails. The building underlines the artisan ideals that James brings to winemaking. He declares on the website: “Our wines are made without fancy equipment, and instead benefit from gravity, smarts, and a few strong hands.”
Several years after that was written, the couple adjusted their careers and moved to the Okanagan. “In the five years that we have been in the Okanagan now, we have built a lot of connections with the wine industry that we didn’t have when we were not living here,” Joanna told me recently. “If there is one thing we can say about the Okanagan wine industry, it is that it is very collaborative. Wineries support each other and we have benefited greatly from that, in terms of where to source things.”
They have taken advantage of consulting services from Sandra Oldfield, the former president of Tinhorn Creek Vineyards. In fact, she may have put James at ease about making unfiltered wine by offering a simple stability test: drive around with a bottle of the wine in the trunk of the car for a month or two. If it referments, the wine is not stable.
Of course, she was not serious. As a graduate of the University of California Davis, she is aware – as is James – that samples can be tested for stability in a professional wine laboratory. It is what James will do if he ramps up production of this wine.
The other change since the 2014 profile was written is that James and Joanna are designing an addition to the former stable. They need more space to accommodate increasing production.
They also want to open a wine shop at the winery, subject to the approval of the District of West Kelowna. Currently, they reach the public with tastings at selected Save-On Foods VQA stores and with direct sales to selected restaurants.
“The building we are looking at designing right now could so somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 cases,” James says. “We are going to try to stick with gravity [for handling wine] and all the things we currently do. We still don’t have a must pump.”
The three wines recently released are two Pinot Noirs and a Maréchal Foch. “It is my dad’s favourite wine,” James says of the Foch. The dark-fleshed grape is so versatile that James has even made a rosé and a sparkling wine with the variety. (Both are currently sold out.) In the 2018 vintage, he supplemented the small Foch planting in the Niche vineyard with grapes purchased from Monte Creek Winery near Kamloops.
Here are notes on the wines.
Niche Pinot Noir 2018 ($25.15 for 110 cases). This wine is a blend of clones 115 and 667. This is a bright, fruit forward Pinot Noir with minimal oak aging. It begins with aromas of cherry and flavours of red currant and strawberry. The texture is silky. 90.
Niche Pinot Noir – No Filter 2018 ($31.15 for 50 cases). Select blocks of fruit was picked for this wine and was treated very gently, coming into the winery in 20-pound boxes and, after crushing, was fermented in small lots with several commercial yeasts. The wine has a significantly more fleshy texture and a darker colour than its filtered brother. The cherry aromas and flavours mingle with notes of spice. The finish lingers. 93.
Niche 2018 ($27.99). Big and bold, the wine is dark in colour. In the mouth, there are aromas and flavours of blackberry, plum, dark cherry and chocolate. 91.