For the past decade, John Skinner has worked hard, with success, at getting the wines of Painted Rock into the European market. He is represented by six agents in Europe and his wines are on the lists of Michelin-starred restaurants.
One of his ambitions is to raise the profile of Okanagan wines in general, so that Painted Rock and other B.C. wines would have a category of their own on wine lists rather than being lumped into the “other” category.
“Exporting for me is more about building a generational brand that it is about selling wine,” John says. “I can sell all my wine to my wine club. But I want to be a winery from a wine region that is internationally recognized.”
John realized early that he was unlikely to win that battle on his own. So he invited other premium Okanagan wineries to join him in the Okanagan Wine Initiative. A group of wineries is likely to have more success at getting enough wines into the market to earn their own category.
The market in which the Okanagan has made significant gains in recent years is Britain. Canada House in London sponsors an annual Canadian wine fair aimed at the trade and at wine enthusiasts.
London is a hotbed of wine influencers. Each year, Painted Rock and the other wineries in the Wine Initiative have invited some of these, including Jancis Robinson MW, to a tasting and dinner. Robinson had had a somewhat frosty relationship with British Columbia wines. However, the repeated opportunities to taste those wines showed to her, and her colleagues, how quickly the wines have been improving.
At one of the dinners, she told John that he had “worn her down.” She wrote a complimentary, and influential article, on Okanagan wines in The Financial Times.
It is recognition of how far Canadian wines have come since the 1970s when there was an ill-fated attempt to export Baby Duck, then Canada’s best-selling wine, to Britain. The wines now being sent to London are a far cry from Baby Duck.
Here are notes on current Painted Rock wines.
Painted Rock Chardonnay 2020 ($42.99 for 320 cases). The craftsmanship that went into this wine is remarkable. The winery did four micro-harvests over two weeks to achieve a palette of flavours. Some 82% of the blend was aged in French oak (73% new, 27% used) for six months. The rest of the blend was aged in stainless steel; and just 27% of this was allowed to go through malolactic fermentation. The wine begins with appealing aromas of peach, nectarine and apple with a subtle hint of oak. In the flavour, the oak is even more subtle and integrated. The fruit is quite expressive: apple, stone fruits. There is a touch of butter. And the finish is long. 92.
Painted Rock Cabernet Franc 2019 ($54.99). This wine was aged 18 months in French oak (40% new). The wine delivers layer upon layer of fruit, with aromas of cherries, plums and spice. The rich palate has flavours of plum, blackberry, dark cherry and cedar. 93.
Painted Rock Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 ($54.99 for 245 cases). This wine was aged in French oak (30% new) for 18 months.The wine begins with aromas of black currants, dark cherry and blueberry which are echoed on the palate along with touches of spice. Long, ripe tannins give elegance to the texture. If you must drink this wine now, decant it and let it breathe for a few hours. 93.
Painted Rock Merlot 2019 ($49.99). This rich and concentrated wine was aged 18 months in French oak (30% new). Aromas of plum, dark cherry and spice bound from the glass. On the palate, there are flavours of dark red fruits mingled with spice. The finish lingers. 93.
Painted Rock Malbec 2019 ($59.99 for 145 cases). This wine was aged for 18 months in French oak (30% new). The wine begins with aromas that are both floral and bold, suggesting blueberries, plums and cherries. The concentrated palate delivers flavours of plums and black currants, with a note of pepper on the finish. 92.
Painted Rock Syrah 2019 ($49.99). This wine was aged 18 months in oak. Thirty per cent of the barrels were new (80% were French oak, 20% were American oak). The remaining 70% barrels were used French oak. The wine begins with aromas of plum and chocolate accented with pepper. That leads to a full-bodied wine with earthy flavours of dark fruits. 92.
Painted Rock Syrah Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 ($49.99 for 220 cases). This is a blend of 79% Syrah, 21% Cabernet Sauvignon. The varietals were fermented separately, aged in French oak (30% new) and blended just before bottling. This is an appealing wine with aromas of dark cherry and cassis accented with pepper. The flavours echo the aroma, with spice and chocolate on the finish. 93.
Painted Rock Red Icon 2019 ($79.99). The blend for Painted Rock’s flagship is 42% Merlot, 19% Cabernet Franc, 15% Petit Verdot, 14% Malbec and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. The batches were aged in French oak (30% new) for 18 months, with blending prior to bottling. The wine begins with bold aromas of dark cherry, cassis and chocolate. On the palate, there are flavours of dark cherry, blackberry, blueberry and spice. The tannins are long and elegant. Bright acidity gives the wine a refreshing fruit on the finish. 94.
Two years before his death in 2019, Harry McWatters was involved in making the cuvée for the sparkling wine that would celebrate his 50 vintages in the business.
That wine, McWatters Collection Brut 2017, has just been released TIME Winery in Penticton, along with four other sparkling wines. It is a great tribute to Harry.
In 1989, when he was then president of Sumac Ridge Estate Winery, that winery created Steller’s Jay Brut, the Okanagan’s first sparking wine made in the traditional Champagne method. That is the technique where the bubbles are created when the wine does a second fermentation in bottle. Champagnes all get their fine bubbles and complex flavours in the bottle.
For some years, award-winning Steller’s Jay Brut was one of a very few sparkling wines in the Okanagan, and one of the best. Sumac Ridge, which Harry sold in 2000, still makes the wine and it is still good.
Harry loved sparkling wine. It was, he said, the wine he drank while he was deciding what wine to drink with dinner.
He also delighted in “sabering” bottles of sparkling wine. This involves breaking off the neck of the bottle with a sharp tap from a saber or a big knife. The result is a bang and a spectacular foaming of wine. I saw Harry do it dozens of times but I never mastered the trick.
Harry, whose enthusiasm for the British Columbia wine industry was boundless, launched TIME in 2015 on Black Sage Road and moved it a few years later to downtown Penticton. Nine months after his death, the project’s debts triggered the sale of the winery to new owners. They recapitalized the business while maintaining the continuity by installing Harry’s daughter, Christa-Lee, as president. They have also begun to rebrand the wines, with Chronos gradually succeeding TIME on the labels. Evolve, the budget label, has been retained.
Here are notes on the wines.
Evolve Cellars Effervescence NV ($22.99 for 1,000 cases). This is a blend of 70% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Blanc (fermented separately). This wine has active bubbles that lift the fruity aromas and flavours (citrus and peach). 89.
Evolve Cellars Pink Effervescence NV ($22.99 for 800 cases). This is a blend of 70% Chardonnay, 28% Pinot Blanc and 2% Syrah for colour). There is a touch of strawberry in this pink, easy-drinking fruity wine. 88.
Chronos Brut NV ($34.99 for 465 cases). This is 80% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Noir. The varietals were fermented separately and, after blending, finished fermenting in the cuvée close method. The wine has active bubbles, aromas of citrus and bread and flavours of green apple and citrus. There is bracing acidity on the finish. 90.
Time Winery Brut 2018 ($34.99). This is 55% Pinot Noir, 45% Chardonnay. The base wines were fermented in neutral French oak barrels, stainless steel barrels, and stainless steel tanks. The fine bubbles give the wine a creamy texture. There are notes of brioche and lees on both the nose and palate. The finish is crisp and dry. 90.
McWatters Collection Brut 2017 ($64.99 for 480 cases). This is 65% Chardonnay, 25% Pinot Noir and 10% Pinot Blanc. The wine was made in the traditional method and was on the lees in bottle 42 months before being disgorged. The time in bottle has left this wine with a delightful note of brioche in the aroma and on the palate. The texture is creamy; the bubbles are fine; and there are flavours of citrus and apple. 93.
Shane Munn, the winemaker at Martin’s Lane Winery in East Kelowna, makes no apology for the $100 or more that the winery asks for its Pinot Noir wines.
Nor should he. These wines rank in quality with top Pinot Noirs from Burgundy or Oregon, many of which sell for considerably more.
“We do a lot of benchmarking against Burgundy and against New World wines,” Shane says. “Sometimes, they make our wines look like they are great value. We think our wines are worth it, with the efforts we put into growing the grapes.”
Consumers who have discovered the Martin’s Lane wines clearly agree. The four wines reviewed here are close to sold out.
The winery, which opened in 2017 after three years of construction, is owned by Anthony von Mandl, who also owns Mission Hill Family Winery. The winery is named after Anthony’s late father, Martin. The winery is said to be one of the most radical designs for a Pinot Noir winery, with the intent of producing of premium wines.
“The wines are made very respectfully,” Shane says. “They are not overly manipulated. They are not overly handled. When the fruit and the juice is in the winery, it is always moved by gravity. I think that helps keep the elegance there. That is the luxury of having a beautiful winery like this.”
The grapes are fermented with indigenous yeast. “To this day, we have never used any commercial yeasts in the building, ever,” Shane says. “That is something we strive for … not just because it makes better wine. It makes more individual and complex wines as well.”
The cooperage in the winery is from Austrian cooper Fassbinderei Stockinger GmbH, which Jancis Robinson once called “the winemaker’s Strad.”
“Stockinger is well known in Austria,” Shane says. “I think the species of oak they use is pretty much the same species as in Burgundy. It is exciting. You don’t see a lot of that cooperage used around here but it does give the wines a unique personality.
We use their standard 228-litre barriques. They are the same shape as a Burgundy barrel. Once wines go into those barrels, they stay there for their lifetime. They are not racked in and out.”
Sebastian Farms, Anthony von Mandl’s viticulture company, operates vineyards throughout the Okanagan, all of which have now transitioned to organic status. Shane suggests that is also important to quality and to the individuality of the Martin’s Lane Pinot Noirs, all of which are single vineyard or even single vineyard block wines.
‘They are all completely different,” Shane says of the wines. “They all have a different perfume, a different weight, a different texture, and different tannins as well. The Pinots are all unfined and unfiltered. They always have been, they always will be. It is part of letting the natural texture show its personality.”
The 2017 Pinot Noirs, the most recent release, represent four different vineyards. Martin’s Lane also produces Riesling wines from these same vineyards. These are not to subject of this essay.
Fritzi’s Vineyard in West Kelowna is on the slope below Mission Hill. Named for Anthony’s mother, it was planted in 1997. There is just one clone here but it is the reliable clone 115, the backbone of so many Okanagan Pinot Noirs.
“Fritzi’s is still a warm site,” Shane says. “It is on the west side. It gets more early morning sun. The concentration and the elegance are what you get from the older vines at Fritzi’s. It is always a wine that has a wild perfume with a bit more structure.”
The Dehart and Simes Vineyards are both on the east side of Okanagan Lake, southeast of Kelowna. Both were planted in 2008, primarily with Pinot Noir. The Simes vineyard originally was called the Lakeshore Vineyard but was subsequently renamed to honour John Simes, the long-time, now retired, Mission Hill winemaker.
Both are cooler sites, ideal for Pinot Noir. Dehart is planted to clone 667 and 777, which are co-fermented. Simes, where there is also a small block of Riesling, is planted with seven clones of Pinot Noir.
The fourth vineyard producing Pinot Noir for the 2017s is the Naramata Ranch Vineyard, a dramatically scenic site fronting on Okanagan Lake at the north end of the Naramata Bench. “It is a slightly more southern vineyard,” Shane says. “Most of the Naramata Ranch blocks capture the afternoon sun and the afternoon heat a lot more than the Simes and Dehart Vineyards which are much farther north.” Four clones of Pinot Noir were planted here in 2008 and a subsequent block has been developed there since.
Simes and Naramata produced about 400 cases of Pinot Noir each in 2017 while Fritzi’s and Dehart produced about 170 cases each. That also explains why the wines are hard to find.
There will be more Martin’s Lane Pinot Noir in the future. Three additional vineyards have been planted for the winery: the estate vineyard just north of the winery; another one in East Kelowna; and one in Lake Country. There is also at least one new block at the Naramata Ranch that is coming into production.
Here are notes on the wines.
Martin’s Lane Dehart Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017 ($100). This is the most feminine in style of these four wines, a delicate and pretty wine with aromas and flavours of cherry, cranberry and raspberry. 92.
Martin’s Lane Simes Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017 ($100). This is a complex wine, beginning with aromas of cherry and plum. On the palate, there are concentrated sweet flavours of black cherry and plum with spice on the finish. A backbone of minerality enhances the structure. 94.
Martin’s Lane Naramata Ranch Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017 ($100). This is a bold and voluptuous wine. It begins with aromas of spice, cherry and chocolate. On the rich palate, there are flavours of dark fruit mingled with classic notes of forest floor. The texture is silky. 97.
Martin’s Lane Fritzi’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017 ($150). This is an intense wine, with dark fruit aromas recalling candied cherries mingled with chocolate and spice. On the palate, the luscious ripe fruit flavours are full of dark cherry notes. There is enough grip here to suggest this is the wine to lay down for another five to 10 years. 97.
Photo: Quails' Gate president Tony Stewart (courtesy Quails' Gate Estate Winery)
Quails’ Gate Estate Winery is a rare example – perhaps the only one – of a Canadian winery which also operates winery assets in California.
Quails’ Gate president Tony Stewart and his family dipped a toe into California in 2011, when they entered into a joint venture in Napa called Plume. While the wines were distributed in Canada for several years, a collapse in the value of the Canadian dollar eroded the margins and the brand, which had no production facility of its own, was shelved for several years. The brand has now returned to this market (to private wine stores) with a Plume Napa Valley Chardonnay and a Plume Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
In 2012, the Stewart family purchased two historic Sonoma wineries, Lake Sonoma and Valley of the Moon, from F. Korbel & Bros. Four years later, the Stewarts bought a third Sonoma producer, primarily to get a production facility and tasting room for Lake Sonoma.
Subsequently, the Lake Sonoma wines have begun to show up in Canadian wine stores. Three samples recently were sent to me for review, along with three current releases.
The Stewarts believe their wine business benefits from the synergies of operating in two wine regions.
“We have gained a lot of intellectual capital,” Tony Stewart told me in 2016. “Our knowledge of markets in the U.S. has made us much more aware of how the changes in British Columbia may affect us, with grocery stores coming into play.”
He continued: “Every year we are getting together as a leadership team and meeting winemakers and management from both wineries. We communicate how we are handling club business or the wine shops and production issues. The wine club business in the U.S. is much more developed than Canada, so that has been a huge eye-opener to us as to what we have to try and do at Quails’ Gate in order to keep up with the consumer who is looking for something more than the club that offers discounts. They want some unique attributes to the club. We are adding a whole bunch of things at the Quails’ Gate wine club to take us to the next level.”
Here are notes on the wines.
Lake Sonoma Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2018 ($25.99 plus tax). This wine is available both in the Liquor Distribution Branch and in private retail stores. The wine has an appealing brambly and spice character with sweet flavours of blackberry and raspberry. 90.
Lake Sonoma Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2018 ($29.99 plus tax). This wine in private retail stores in B.C. The wine begins with rich aromas of cherry and plum, leading to flavours of cherry, ripe strawberry and spice. The tannins are long and silky. 90.
b>Lake Sonoma Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($29.99 plus tax). This wine is available both the Liquor Distribution Branch and private retail stores in B.C. The wine was aged 16 months in a combination of French and American oak barrels. The wine begins with aromas of black currant and blueberry. On the palate, there are flavours of cherry, dark fruits, chocolate and spice. The supple tannins give the wine immediate drinkability. 90.
Quails’ Gate Stewart Family Reserve Chardonnay 2019 ($45). This wine, which is the flagship white at Quails’ Gate, is fermented in French oak (new and used barrels). This is a technique which integrates the oak with the fruit to yield a seamless wine. It begins with rich buttery aromas mingled with tangerine and nectarine. The palate echoes the aromas. This full-bodied wine has a long, appealing finish. 92.
Quails’ Gate Stewart Family Reserve Pinot Noir 2019 ($55). This is the flagship red wine at Quails’ Gate, with grapes from premium blocks at the estate vineyard. Some of the vines date from the 1970s. The wine spent 17 days on the skins during fermentation and was then aged 17 months in French and neutral oak. The wine begins with aromas of cherry, raspberry, mocha and spice. The full, silky texture delivers flavours of cherry and plum, with a persistent finish. 92.
Quails’ Gate Old Vines Foch 2019 ($25.99). This wine was aged 16 months in American oak (both new and neutral). The wine begins with aromas of cherry and tobacco. On the palate, there are flavours of plum, cherry and tobacco with a wild, earthy undertone on the finish. The wine benefits from being decanted. 90.
The three Quails’ Gate wines are available at the West Kelowna winery and periodically in the Liquor Distribution Branch and at private wine stores.
Every day, we hear of, or experience, rises in food prices. There is no doubt that the trend is real.
But if Hester Creek Estate Winery is any example, wine prices are still stable. The cost of the wines reviewed here have not changed since the previous vintage, and perhaps not for several years. Winemaker Mark Hopley and his team continue to quality wines that we can afford.
My advice is stock up on these wines, because they are good value and because several are from the 2019 and 2020 vintages, two of the best recent Okanagan vintages.
Prices might well be revisited by the industry when wines begin to be released in 2022, if only because overall wine production was down somewhat in 2021 – and not just here but in other wine regions as well, due to climate change issues.
And then there has been the phenomenol success of wine clubs among the wineries in the Okanagan and the Similkameen valleys. If you don’t belong to a club, you will not even have access to many wines.
While Hester Creek has a wine club, all of the wines reviewed here are available at the winery, on-line and at liquor stores, including in several examples, at the BC Liquor Distribution Branch stores.
Here are notes on the wines.
Hester Creek Select Vineyards Merlot 2020 ($17.99). To make this wine, the winemaker put whole berries into Hester Creek’s Ganimede fermenters for a two-week ferment. The wine was then aged eight months in barrel (60% French, 40% American). Juicy and easy drinking, the wine begins with aromas of dark berries. On the palate, there are flavours of cherry and black currant mingled with a hint of chocolate. 90.
Hester Creek Select Vineyards Cabernet Merlot 2020 ($17.99). This is a blend of 48% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc and 22% Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine was aged eight months in barrel (75% French, 25% American). The wine has a full, generous texture, beginning with aromas of plum and cherry. On the palate, there are flavours of plum, black currant. 90
Hester Creek Character Red 2020 ($18.99). This is a blend of Italian Merlot, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Malbec. The lots were blended after fermentation and aged eight months in barrel (75% French, 25% American). This wine has always overdelivered and does it again from the superb 2020 vintage. It begins with aromas of spice, cherry and blueberry. On the palate, the wine delivers rich flavours of plum, cherry and black pepper. 91.
Hester Creek Old Vine Merlot 2019 ($25.99). Fruit from vines that are about a quarter of a century old has produced a concentrated wine with dramatic aromas of plum, black currant and vanilla. The palate delivers generous fruit flavours, with plum, and dark cherry mingled with a hint of sweet oak. The barrels in which this wine was aged for 18 months included new French oak. The wine is delicious now but will age to even great elegance over the next five to seven years. 93.
Hester Creek Old Vine Cabernet Franc 2019 ($25.99). By limiting production from old vines (some dating from 1968), the winery has crafted a wine that is concentrated and complex. The wine was aged 18 months in barrel (75% French, 25% American. The wine begins with classic brambleberry and spice aromas. On the palate, the wine delivers flavours of raspberry, cherry and blackberry. 92.
Hester Creek Old Vine Late Harvest Pinot Blanc 2019 ($16.99 for 200 ml bottle). The flavour intensity of this dessert wine is because the grapes remained on the vines until November 11, 2019, after a cold snap created near icewine conditions. The wine delivers luscious honeyed flavours of nectarine, peach and pineapple. Bright acidity balances the residual sugar, so that the wine has a long, refreshing finish. The ideal pairing for this wine is soft blue cheese. 93.