Thursday, November 26, 2020

Sébastien Hotte becomes winemaker at Harper's Trail

Photo: Sébastien Hotte For the first time since it opened in 2012, Harper’s Trail Estate Winery near Kamloops will have a fulltime winemaker on site. The winery has just announced that Sébastien Hotte has been appointed winemaker and vineyard manager. Harper’s Trail has been relying on consulting winemakers, primarily Michael Bartier, the talented co-owner of Bartier Brothers near Oliver. A consulting winemaker still will be involved with Harper’s Trail – Pascal Madevon, a veteran Okanagan winemaker, has been retained to work with Sébastien. The winery, which made its initial vintages at Okanagan Crush Pad Winery, has been well-served by its consultants. As an example, at the All Canadian Wine Championships this summer, Harper’s Trail won two gold medals and one silver for wines it submitted, Owned by Kamloops business couple Vicki and Ed Collett, Harper’s Trail has a 100-acre property on the north shore of the Thompson River. The vineyard grows Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Gamay Noir, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. Born in Québec, Sébastien began his career as a sommelier after graduating from the École Hôtelière des Laurentides. “Like a lot of French Canadians, I moved out to British Columbia for the mountains and ended up enjoying wine,” he told me several years ago. His sommelier training “offered me opportunities to travel overseas. I lived in Japan, worked at a Michelin-starred restaurant. Here, I have lived in the Kootenays, in Whistler and in Tofino [where he worked at the Wickaninnish Inn].” He began a gradual switch to winemaking while still working as a sommelier. Sébastien began taking Washington State University courses and learning on the job with several Okanagan wineries, including two vintages with winemaker Anthony Buchanan at Eau Vivre Winery at Cawston in 2014 and 2015 and a six-month internship at CheckMate Artisanal Winery in 2016. Then he moved on to become Anthony’s assistant winemaker at Desert Hills Estate Winery for at least two vintages. Then he joined Ricco Bambino, the urban winery in Kelowna, as winemaker, finishing the 2018 wines and making the 2019 vintage. “I found them,” Sébastien told me last year. “I was sitting at Mile Zero, the wine bar in Penticton. I was talking to the people working there and said I was considering moving. I liked Desert Hills but I was looking to just go up the ladder. If you are assistant winemaker and the winemaker is going to be staying there for a while …” He was told that Ricco Bambino was looking for a winemaker. He applied and got the job. However, that job began to evaporate when Ricco Bambino sold its vineyard south of Okanagan Falls and put the Kelowna winery on the market. In May this year, Sébastien told me: “I have been hired as the Technical Director for a project in Romania called Alira winery, which coincidentally is located on the Danube in the Dobrogea region. The hiring was done prior to the Covid-19 outbreak but due to the situation I cannot 100% confirm it will still happen. Winemaking is considered an essential service and travel is allowed for work, so I might get lucky and be able to fulfill my commitment for them.” As it turned out, the pandemic ruined that opportunity for him – but Harper’s Trail has opened a new opportunity for Sébastien that includes working with one of the Okanagan’s most seasoned winemaking consultant. Born and trained in France, Pascal Madevon came to Canada in 1981 as the inaugural winemaker for Osoyoos Larose. After 10 vintages there, he moved to Culmina Family Estate Winery for several years before launching his career as a consulting winemaker. His clients have included One Faith Winery, French Door Estate Winery, Four Shadows Vineyard & Winery, Liber Farm & Winery and now Harper’s Trail. “Sébastien brings with him a low interventionist idealism and emphasis on crafting terroir driven wines,” Harper’s Trail said in a news release. “He will assist the winery in its journey to organic grape growing and farming with attention on soil health utilizing local biodiversity as well as continuing the Harper’s Trail way, of an environment that is herbicide and pesticide free.”

Monday, November 23, 2020

Blue Mountains elegant R.D. sparkling wines

Photo: Blue Mountain's vineyard This year, Blue Mountain Vineyard & Cellars is offering two wine packages for the holidays, with free shipping until December 6. One is a 12-pack, including sparkling wines, for $440 and the other is a six-pack of sparkling wines exclusively for $240. Details can be found on the winery’s website. Three of the sparkling wines have just been released. These wines confirm Blue Mountain’s status as one of the Okanagan’s leading producers of bubble – if not the leading producer. The wines are every bit as fine as many Champagnes but are not as expensive. I can think of no better way of toasting in the New Year – and toasting the increasing number of vaccines against COVID-19 that will might allow the 2021 holiday season to be more normal than this year. Here are notes on the latest trio of Blue Mountain sparkling wines. Note that this are all “R.D.” wines – which means they have been recently disgorged after a period aging on the lees.
Blue Mountain Brut Rosé R.D. 2016 ($40). The blend is 67% Pinot Noir, 33% Chardonnay. This elegant wine was aged 30 months on lees in the bottles in which secondary fermentation took place; and aged a further 12 months before release. It presents in the glass with an appealing bronze/pink hue and active bubbles. The fruity aromas (strawberry) mingle with hints of brioche. The flavour recalls apple and the texture is creamy. 92.
Blue Mountain Blanc de Blancs R.D. 2012 ($50). This wine, made with 100% Chardonnay, aged six and a half years on the lees and then a further 12 months prior to release. Both the aroma and the palate display the toasty and nutty notes acquired on the lees. The wine still has citrus notes on the palate. There is a fine mousse, a creamy mid-palate texture and a crisp finish. 93.
Blue Mountain Reserve Brut R.D. 2012 ($50). The blend is 65% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir. The wine also was aged six and a half years on the lees and a further year in bottle before release. It has aromas of citrus and brioche that are echoed on the palate. There is a lingering finish of apple and citrus, ending crisp and clean. 92.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Bartier Bros. - it's all about the terroir


                                                     Photo: Winemaker Michael Bartier


Michael Bartier, the winemaker and co-owner at Bartier Bros. winery, has a definite house style that expresses clearly in the winery’s current releases.


Every wine is made to showcase the purity of the fruit. Wood flavours never cover the fruit flavours, because the wines are aged just in stainless steel or in neutral oak barrels. These wines are all about expressing the terroir of the Black Sage Bench (or Summerland in the case of the Gewürztraminer).


For some background in the winery, here is an excerpt from The Okanagan Wine Tour Guide, which I released earlier this year with co-author Luke Whittall.


The wine-industry verity that “it’s all about the dirt” is nowhere more obvious than at Bartier Bros. The winery’s 14½-acre Cerqueira Vineyard produces wines with complex flavours with a spine of minerality. The vineyard is on the Black Sage Bench’s gravel bar where the last glacier, as it was retreating 10,000 years ago, laid down a calcium-rich layer of gravel. The vineyard was planted in the early to mid-2000s with Sémillon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah. It began selling fruit to Township 7 when Michael Bartier was the winemaker there.


“I loved the grapes and coveted the property,” Michael says. When the Cerqueira family’s contract with Township 7 ended, they offered it to Michael and his older brother, Don, when Michael began making wine for the brothers’ label in 2009. Subsequently, the brothers bought the vineyard.


They were both born in the Okanagan Valley, Donald in 1958 and Michael in 1967, the sons of an accountant, and initially pursued careers outside of the valley. Don, an Alberta oil-industry executive, planted a small Gewürztraminer vineyard at Summerland in 2010. Michael, after getting a degree in recreational administration and working five years with a Victoria wine agency, returned to the Okanagan to start his winemaking career at Hawthorne Mountain Vineyards in 1995. Over the next two decades, he made wine at Township 7, Road 13, and Okanagan Crush Pad, as well as providing consulting work with other wineries. The brothers began selling their wines in 2011 and established their winery and tasting room after buying the coveted Cerqueira Vineyard in 2015.


The vineyard’s mineral content makes it singular. “All our rocks are crusted white [with calcium], and the small feeder roots from the vines are ‘hugging’ those rocks,” Michael says. “Every vintage, the wines are fresh, fruity, and minerally . . . That limestone ends up in every glass of our wine.”

Here are notes on the wines.


Bartier Bros. Muscat 2019
($17.99 for 242 cases). With just 10.5% alcohol, this is a light, even delicate, wine with spicy aromas and flavours recalling rose petals. While there is a hint of sweetness, the acidity gives the wine a crisp and clean finish. A delicious wine, so good that you may not want to share the bottle. 91.


Bartier Bros. Gewürztraminer 2018 ($18.99 for 273 cases). Fermented cool and aged in stainless steel, this is a wine with a floral aroma and flavours of spice
and peach. There is a hint of residual sugar nicely balanced with moderate acidity. 90.


Bartier Bros. Chardonnay 2019
($22.99 for 233 cases). This is a wine for those who prefer Chardonnay to be lean and fruit forward. The wine was fermented cool and was aged on the lees for six months in stainless steel. It begins with aromas of apples and lemon. On the palate, the texture is surprisingly generous, supporting flavours of apple, peach and pear. The finish is persistent. 91.


Bartier Bros. Sémillon 2019 ($19.99 for 471 cases). Fermented cool and aged six months in stainless steel, this dry white has aromas and flavours of apple, apricot and honeydew melon. 90.


Bartier Bros. Cabernet Franc 2018 ($25.99 for 701 cases). This wine had 19 days of skin contact and was aged 14 months in neutral French oak barrels. It shows the brambly characters of the variety – aromas and flavours of blackberry, black cherry and blueberry. 91.


Bartier Bros. Illegal Curve 2018

($25.99 for 237 cases). This is 93.5% Merlot and 6.5% Cabernet Franc. The wine is a bright expression of fruit. The Merlot portion was aged nine months in stainless steel. The Cabernet Franc was barrel-aged but the oak is imperceptible in the flavours of cherry and raspberry. 90.


Bartier Bros. Merlot 2018
($22.99 for 941 cases). This wine had 19 days of skin contact during fermentation and was then aged 13 months in neutral French oak barrels. The result is a Merlot where the fruit aromas and flavours – cherry and blueberry – are bright and intense. There is a note of minerality to give the wine a good backbone. 91.


Bartier Bros. Syrah 2018 ($29.99 for 634 cases). This wine was fermented in  one-ton open-top fermenters and in a five-ton oak tank with 10% whole clusters. There was 18 days of skin contact and 17 months aging in neutral French oak barrels. The signature notes of black pepper are on the nose and the palate, mingled with flavours of blackberry, black cherry and fig. 92.


Bartier Bros. Orchard Row 2018 ($36.99 for 134 cases). This unusual blend was conceived as the house wine at Bartier Bros. until they were convinced to release it. The blend  is 33% Gamay Noir, 33% Pinot Noir, 17% Cabernet Franc and 16% Merlot. After long skin contact (19 to 23 days), the wine was aged 15 months in neutral French oak barrels. It has aromas and flavours of plum, strawberry, raspberry and blackberry with a hint of spice and leather on the finish. 91.


Bartier Bros. The Goal 2018
($36.99 for 24 cases). The winery’s flagship red, this is a blend of 50% Merlot and 50% Cabernet Franc. The grapes went into one-ton open-top fermenters, macerating for 26 days. On pressing, the wine aged 17 months in neutral French oak. There are aromas of cassis, black cherry and mocha which are echoed on the bold palate, supported by long, ripe tannins. The finish just goes on and on. 93.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

BC's 2020 vintage: great but scarce


                    Photo: Jeff Martin of La Frenz Winery



Here is a tip: when British Columbia wineries begin releasing their 2020 wines next year, stock up.


The quantity of the 2020 wines will be significantly lower than recent vintages but the quality will be among the best in this decade.


Don’t take my word for it. Here is what Jeff Martin, owner of La Frenz Winery, says about the 2020 vintage:


“The critical ripening months of September and October were a total surprise with next to no rainfall, continuous sunshine and temperatures often in the 20's,” he wrote in an email. “This was simply textbook perfect ripening conditions. 2020 was a stellar harvest of excellent quality and the wines produced will rate in the top 3 years of the past decade, if not higher.” 


This stands in contrast to the problematic 2020 wines that will becoming from California, Oregon and perhaps even Washington State. The enormous forest fires in the western United States disrupted the normal ripening and likely also resulted in a lot of wines with smoke taint.


While vintners have figured out how to mitigate smoke taint in wines, it is better not to have it in the first place. On that score, British Columbia was lucky: 2020 was a very moderate forest fire season here. And the dense pall of smoke from the American fires did not persist over our vineyards long enough to cause problems.


The 2020 season in the Okanagan and Similkameen started wet and cool. That made for a smaller fruit set than usual. As a consequence, the grape harvest was reduced and thus the quantity of wine will also be reduced. But the grapes that were picked generally were of top quality.


The Summerland Research Station tracks the growing degree days every year. In 2020, the accumulation for Osoyoos was 1,616 GDD. That is a comfortable seasonal average. It compares to a high this decade of 1,764 in 2015 (the hottest year since 1998) and a low of 1,348 in 2011 (the coolest year in two decades).


Growing degree days measure the sunlight and heat the vines get to mature the fruit they are carrying. The 2020 number is excellent.


Here is what Graham O’Rourke, a viticulturist and co-owner of Tightrope Winery on Naramata Bench, says of the vintage:

“After a slightly slower start than what can be expected as average, we had a brilliant year. The humidity was higher than normal in June and the beginning of July but once the heat came on the weather could not have been better. Here on the Bench there was only one day where temperatures reached 40 degrees. The majority of the days were in the high 20's or low 30's, perfect for grapes. This weather continued into September which allowed very good balance between Brix and Acids for the harvest, which started the third week of September with Pinot Noir Rose fruit and Pinot Gris. Harvest was cut short last week with below freezing temperatures but all in all a very good season.”


Yet another vintner singing the praises of 2020 is Michael Bartier, co-owner of Bartier Brothers on the Black Sage Bench.


“Bud dissections over the winter showed no significant winter damage; all primary buds were healthy,” he writes. “Cool, wet weather in the spring led to a delayed bud burst about 7 – 10 days behind typical (Apr. 7 for Chardonnay). Heavy rains during blossom interrupted pollination, leading to a very poor fruit set.  This became a defining feature of the vintage, with eventual yields being down 20-30% from typical.”  


Michael continues: “Typical hot and dry weather resumed in July and August, allowing ripening to catch up from the delayed start.  Smoke generated from the infamous western United States wildfires drifted north to our region, at one point giving us up to 134 hours of uninterrupted heavy smoke cover.  This was a scare for smoke taint flavours; however subsequent lab testing for these compounds showed low levels.  The local wisdom is that the smoke, having travelled so far, was low in ash solids which dropped before getting to us.  The ash is what will affect the grapes, and eventually the wine, so we’re happy not dealing with this. 


“Harvest was affected by lack of available transient labour due to the Covid-19 pandemic; resulting harvest costs were high.  First frost was recorded in colder areas on Oct. 16, and a significant snowfall on Oct. 23.  Vineyards in close proximity to the heat sink of Okanagan Lake were not affected by either of these events, though by this time, most of the harvest was done.”

“The warm, sunshine-soaked August and September was the ideal climate to advance ripening with great flavours developing on the vine,” agrees Quails’ Gate Estate Winery. “September was full of luminous, dry days which ensured full physiological ripeness.”,


“The grapes from this harvest were really nicely balanced,” writes Rolf de Bruin, co-owner of Fort Berens Estate Winery in Lillooet. “They had a fair amount of acidity and good sugar levels, so we anticipate a new vintage of wines that are fresh, clean, and beautifully fruit-forward. As we look forward, we are very optimistic about our 2020 vintage.”

But Rolf has the same observation as Graham. “Cropping levels were lower than in prior years, with some varietals coming in with yields 20-40% lower than normal. Lower cropping levels meant we had less fruit to work with, and ultimately, we anticipate that this will be one of our smallest crops ever, similar to our 2017 yield.” 

 Judging from the comments from Zac Brown at Alderlea Vineyards near Duncan, the Cowichan Valley vintners had a somewhat more challenging year – but one that turned out fine at the end. 

“April and May were warmer than average and we saw bud break a week earlier than the previous three years,” Zac writes. “Early June saw average weather before turning horrible from mid-month into early July. We experienced a large amount of rain and cooler than average temperatures for weeks. Bad weather in June typically impacts the fruit set in the Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir and 2020 was no exception. We saw a reduction of yield in those two varieties by 10 and 15% respectively. July and most of August saw much improved weather with hot days advancing fruit maturity. Early September through us a wild card: smoke from American fires in the upper atmosphere caused problems. What would have otherwise been hot clear sun was obscured by smoke for a week.

“The impact of this was the longest, most drawn out veraison I have ever seen,” Zac continues. “We let everything hang for 10-15 days longer at Alderlea than any year since 2013. The result? Our whites came in with normal sugar levels and textbook acid levels. The reds saw slightly lower sugar levels and higher acid levels than 2019, however well within the expected range. Overall, I’m happy with the vintage so far.”


That sums it up for British Columbia’s wineries: good to great wines but just not enough of them. Buy early.









































Monday, November 9, 2020

Stag's Hollow's ancient Italians



                                            Photo: Winemaker Keira LeFranc


Keira LeFranc, the fulltime winemaker at Stag’s Hollow Winery since 2018, should be the envy of some of her peers.


She gets to make wine from interesting varietals that are rarely seen in the Okanagan. These include Albariño, a Spanish and Portuguese white; Tempranillo, a Spanish red; and two Italian reds, Dolcetto and Teroldego.


As well, she gets to work with Pinot Noir from two different vineyards, and with mature Merlot dating from 1993 when the founders of the winery grafted Merlot onto hybrid vines in the estate vineyard.


With the exception of Tempranillo, all of these varietals have been on display in Stag’s Hollow’s releases this fall.


These are not always easy wines to review. I do not have a lot of benchmark tastings of Italian wines against which to compare Teroldego and Dolcetto. Even if I did, that might not help because the terroir of Okanagan Falls, where the vineyards are located, bears limited comparison to that of northern Italy.


Albariño is a varietal that I am more comfortable with, having tasted a fair number of Spanish wines over the years. It was also the house white when my wife and I took a river cruise in Russia in 2014. The wine was so delicious that we drank it every day for about 10 days. This fall, when my wife and I were marking an anniversary in our favourite restaurant, we ordered the Stag’s Hollow Albariño from the wine list and were equally pleased with it.


(One other Okanagan winery, Terravista Vineyards, also produces an excellent Albariño from its Naramata Bench Vineyards.)



To understand Teroldego, I resorted to Wine Grapes, the authoritative book by Jancis Robinson (and two colleagues), which was published in 2012. “Teroldego is a very old variety from Trentino in north-east Italy, where the wine was first mentioned on 18 January 1480 in Gagnolo … in a sales contract,” the authors write. They cite DNA work to suggest the varietal is an “uncle/aunt” of Syrah.


They continue: “Wines are deeply coloured, lively and fruity … When yields are restricted and grapes reach full maturity … the rich black-cherry fruit is well-supported by ripe tannins, the acidity is mouth-watering rather than eye-watering …” That pretty much nails the Stag’s Hollow Teroldego.


The variety was nearly extinct when a few Italian winemakers rescued it in the latter years of the 20th century. It has gained a foothold in California and, now, in a few other vineyards around the world including Australia.


I also looked up the grape in another authoritative source: Native Wine Grapes of Italy by Ian D’Agata, published in 2014. He says Teroldego is “the most important red grape variety of Trentino.” For many years, the wine has been used a bulk blender because its dark colour and its perfume can add character to lots of blends.


“Over the last thirty years, however, Teroldego production has improved immeasurably and very fine wines are here to stay,” D’Agata writes.


One applauds Stag’s Hollow for producing another fine example of Teroldego from its Shuttleworth Creek vineyard, which is just at the southern edge of Okanagan Falls. It is, unfortunately, a very modest planting because the winery only has released 96 cases from the 2018 vintage.


Dolcetto vines are also planted in Shuttleworth Creek. This is another ancient Italian variety planted in Piemonte (northwest Italy). According to D’Agata, the acreage has been declining because the varietal is being displaced by higher value varietals such as Barolo. The only other producer in the Okanagan with Dolcetto is Moon Curser Vineyards.


“… It remains a difficult variety to grow as the buds are fragile and break easily,” D’Agata writes. “What’s more, it grows low to the ground, requiring backbreaking vineyard work. It has poor vigor, and tends to give scrawny vines.” And he goes on to diss Dolcetto for several more sentences.


That does not mean it is necessarily a poor choice for the Okanagan. “… To my surprise,” D’Agata writes, “I have found the variety does very well in slightly warmer New World microclimates … The key is large day-night temperature differentials.”


Shuttleworth Creek is one of Stag’s Hollow’s two vineyards. It just a mile or so south of the estate vineyard. However, the soil and other conditions governing terroir are different. This showed up in the differences between the two Pinot Noirs.


Here are notes on current releases.



Stag’s Hollow Albariño 2019 ($24 for 340 cases). The wine was fermented primarily on

concrete, with some in second-use oak barrels. It spent six months aging on the lees with frequent stirring to build texture. It has appealing tropical fruit aromas (guava, mango and grapefruit) leading to flavours of melon, pineapple and guava with a hint of herbs on the finish. Bright acidity leaves the wine refreshing. 91.


Stag’s Hollow Shuttleworth Creek Pinot Noir 2018 ($27 for 470 cases). This wine is a
blend of six Dijon clones, with clone 115 taking the lead at 39%. The clones were all fermented and aged separately (13 months in French oak) before the final wine was assembled. The result is a wine of considerable charm, with aromas of cherry, raspberry and spice leading to vibrant flavours of strawberry and raspberry. The texture is silky and the finish is persistent. 92.


Stag’s Hollow Stag’s Hollow Vineyard Pinot Noir 2018
($22 for 385 cases). The fruit
for this wine comes from 26-year-old vines. This wine is made with equal parts Clone 115 and 667, co-fermented and aged in French oak. The more masculine structure reflects the maturity of the vines. The wine begins with aromas of cherry and raspberry. On the palate, there are notes of cola and bright berry flavours. The wine merits cellaring for several more years. 91.


Stag’s Hollow Dolcetto 2018 ($24 for 658 cases). This a joyful wine – perhaps Italy’s
answer to Beaujolais. It is fruity and bright, both on the nose and on the palate, with flavours of cherry and cranberry, and with soft tannins. 90.


Stag’s Hollow Teroldego 2018 ($42 for 91 cases). Dark in colour, the wine begins with

aromas of spiced dark cherries and mocha. With breathing, the texture develops a pleasing fullness. The wine delivers flavours of plum and cherry with bright acidity. Decanting is a must to help the wine open and display the flavours and aromas. 90-91.


Stag’s Hollow Renaissance Merlot 2017 ($35 for 130 cases). This is a cellar-worthy red which will get better and better over the next decade. It also has 2.4% Cabernet Sauvignon and
2.4% Cabernet Franc in the blend. The wine was matured 18 months in French oak. It begins with aromas of cassis, blackberries and dark cherry. The wine is rich on the palate with flavours of dark cherry, chocolate and spice. 92-94.