French Door Estate Winery opened in 2020 after owners Audra and Jason Shull acquired the vineyard and the buildings of Montakarn Estate Winery on Black Sage Road. They renovated the former winery, adding superb winemaking equipment that is needed to make both big red wines and whites packed with flavour.
The French Door name reflects at insight the Shulls once had while visiting wineries in Provence. “Why are we even here?” Jason said to his family. “We have Provence in our back yard.” That led them to think of their winery on Black Sage Road as their door on French wine country. “The lavenders, the lake, the orchards, the vineyards … it is identical,” Jason says.
The couple grew up in Osoyoos where they had been high school sweethearts. They had pursued careers away from wine country but always with a desire to get back. Jason, who formerly ran a Vancouver-based firm called Golden Capital Corp., once put in a bid, with some partners, for Hester Creek Estate Winery when it was in a court auction.
Now, Jason can look across the Okanagan Valley at Hester Creek. In 2019, he and Audra took over the property of Montakarn Estate Winery (which has relocated to Okanagan Falls). “I like this side of the valley better,” Jason says. “The vineyard has a southern exposure.”
The winemaker is Paris-born Pascal Madevon, who made big red wines for 10 vintages at Osoyoos Larose and for several more vintages at Culmina Family Estate Winery before hanging out his shingle as a consulting winemaker. Jason interviewed 10 winemaking candidates before turning French Door over to Pascal.
“I was looking for a client that wanted to make this style of wine again … something very big,” Pascal says. “I found some clients like that and one of them is French Door Estate Winery.”
“They have a very good vineyard,” Pascal says of French Door’s seven acres. “They got good equipment. They are precise in the winery. And they are exceptional with the welcome of people in the tasting room. Everything is nice, very clean. They do a very good job.”
On Pascal’s recommendation, Jason installed three 3,000-litre oak fermenters from a premium cooperage in Burgundy. These tanks are critical to making the big red wines.
“When Jason and I started the project, he asked me what do we need to do to make a top wine,” Pascal says. “I said the best way to make big reds is to ferment in wooden tanks. It gives you round tannins during fermentation. I think fermentation in wooden tanks is the key part.”
The white wines are fermented in French oak barrels but Pascal is careful not to let the oak intrude on the pure flavours of the fruit.
The vineyard grows eight reds - Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Pinot Noir and a small block of Cinsault- and three whites - Viognier, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. French Door also purchases grapes from other growers in the valley, tapping the premium growers that Pascal has worked with during his 20 years in the Okanagan.
Here are notes on the current releases.
French Door Sauvignon Blanc 2021 ($32). The wine begins with aromas of herbs and lime. The flavours are intense, with lime, gooseberry and herbs mingled with hints of tropical fruits. The refreshing finish lingers. 93.
French Door Chardonnay 2020 ($40). This a big barrel-fermented Chardonnay for those who appreciate oaked Burgundies. It begins with aromas of citrus and apricot. On the palate, there are flavours of mandarin orange, stone fruit, butter and spice, with a long finish. 92.
French Door Lys 2021 ($26). This is a creative blend of 38% Viognier, 38% Riesling, 14% Chardonnay and 10% Sauvignon Blanc. The wine begins with aromas of citrus, melon and spice. The mouth-filling texture delivers of melon, apricot and ripe pear mingled with lemon. 91.
French Door Rosé 2021 ($32). This is a blend of 50% Mourvedre and 50% Grenache. The wine is fashionably pale with aromas of watermelon and apple. The wine delivers a lot of flavour, notably watermelon and strawberry. The finish is crisp and dry. 92.
French Door Fleur 2021 ($30). This is a blend of 88% Gamay Noir and 4% Pinot Noir, filled in with saignée of Malbec. The wine is reminiscent of Beaujolais Nouveau, with aromas of cherry and flavours of cherry, red plum and blackberry. The wine is best when lightly chilled. 90.
French Door Héritage 2019 ($52). This is a blend of 30% Merlot, 25% each of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Syrah, 6% Petit Verdot and 3% Malbec. The wine was aged 14 months in French oak (40% new). This is a bold, intense red wine, beginning with dramatic aromas of cassis, blackberry and black cherry. On the palate, there are flavours of black cherry, blackberry and blueberry. The finish is very long. 92.
French Door Malbec 2020 ($60 for 140 cases). This is a sturdy wine; a partial bottle was open inadvertently for a week before it was finished. It still was satisfying. The wine was aged 14 months in French oak (45% new). It is a savoury wine, beginning with aromas of blueberry, dark cherry and vanilla. On the palate, there are intense flavours of dark fruit. 92.
French Door Merlot 2020 ($78 for 140 cases). This is a bold, deeply-flavoured wine that was aged in French oak (35% new) for 14 months. It has aromas and flavours of black cherry, blueberry, cassis and plum. The wine is very concentrated. Decant it for drinking now or lay it away for several years. 93.
Ross Wise MW has brought fresh ideas to making the wines at Black Hills Estate Winery since joining the winery three years ago.
The recently-released Nota Bene 2020 is a case in point. This is arguably the most delicious Nota Bene ever made since this iconic red debuted in the 1999 vintage. For the first time in its history, the leading red varietal in the blend is Cabernet Franc. Over the previous 20 vintages, Nota Bene has been anchored by Cabernet Sauvignon, with a few exceptions when Merlot took the lead.
Cabernet Sauvignon also anchored the original plantings at the Black Hills vineyard in 1996. When the winery released one fine Nota Bene after another, there likely did not seem a reason for changing the recipe.
My guess is that the initially modest Cabernet Franc block has been increased in recent years as more and more producers awakened to the potential of the varietal.
In 2017 Andrew Peller Ltd., Canada’s largest publicly traded wine company, acquired Black Hills and its portfolio of exceptional and interesting wines. Peller recruited New Zealand–born Ross Wise as the winemaker. He came to Canada to join Flat Rock Cellars in Ontario in 2009. He left there in 2012 and, for the next four years, consulted with a number of Ontario wineries. He came to the Okanagan in 2016 to join Phantom Creek for three vintages before moving to Black Hills early in 2019. Ross has his winemaking degree from Charles Sturt University in Australia and completed his Master of Wine studies in 2020.
Nota Bene 2020 is, one might say, a masterly wine. Ross has a sure hand in the cellar, as the winery’s other current releases show.
Here are notes.
Black Hills Rosé 2021 ($29.99). The beautifully-packaged rosé is a blend of 70% Syrah, 16% Grenache and 14% Mourvedre. Pale salmon in hue, it begins with aromas of raspberry. On the palate, delicate raspberry and strawberry flavours mingle with notes of herbs and a suggestion of pepper. The wine is dry, with a backbone of minerals. 90.
Black Hills Alibi 2020 ($27.79). This white blend has been the partner to Nota Bene almost from the start. The current vintage is 78% Sauvignon Blanc, 22% Sémillon. Aromas and flavours of lime and herbs mingle with guava on the palate. 90.
Black Hills Chardonnay 2019 ($29.90). Barrel-fermented in French oak, the wine has aromas and flavours of butter, marmalade, apple and stone fruit. Bright acidity keeps the wine fresh and lively. The finish lingers. 91.
Black Hills Carménère 2018 ($68.90). This varietal, planted first in the Okanagan by Black Hills, has developed a remarkable cult following of its own – and is available just to wine club members. The wine begins with aromas of pepper. On the palate, the pepper mingles with leather and fig. The wine is rustic, but in an interesting way. It is a long-lived red. 92.
Black Hills Syrah 2018 ($39.90). This is a fine example of South Okanagan Syrah. It begins with aromas of cherry, plum, boysenberry and pepper. It delivers rich dark fruit flavours to the generously textured palate. 93.
Black Hills Tempranillo 2018 ($59.90). Black Hills is also one of the wineries to give this Spanish red variety a home in the South Okanagan. This is a lean, bright and fresh red with aromas and flavours of huckleberries, cherry and spice. 92.
Black Hills Ipso Facto 2019 ($49.90). This is a fine alternative wine for those who miss out on Nota Bene releases. It is a blend of 53% Syrah and 47% Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine begins with aromas of cassis and cherry mingled with black olive and chocolate. It is full-bodied with flavours of black currant and dark fruits. The finish lingers. 93.
Black Hills Nota Bene 2020 ($69.99). The blend is 42% Cabernet Franc, 33% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Merlot and 1% Petit Verdot. This wine is from the best vintage in a decade, when the season delivered balanced and elegant wines. This wine begins with aromas of black currant, black cherry and spice. The flavours are intense, with dark fruits mingled with plum, blueberry, mint and chocolate. Generous in texture, the wine has long, ripe tannins. The finish persists. The 2020 Nota Bene delivers immediate pleasure but has the structure to deliver even more complexity as it is cellared over the next decade. 95.
Two recent wine industry announcements are confirming the rising importance of the Thompson River Valley to the British Columbia wine industry.
It is also part of a trend that sees major producers try to expand the footprint of winemaking with purchases in the Similkameen Valley and even near Creston.
In mid-June, Monte Creek Winery General manager Erik Fisher announced that his company has invested $10 million in its Kamloops area facility. That announcement wrapped up information that, for the most part, had been disclosed in pieces previously.
The final number is an impressive vote of faith in the Thompson River Valley. Monte Creek’s owners originally bought a large piece of property east of Kamloops in 2007, intending to grow blueberries. When it was discovered that blueberries would not thrive there, the backup plan was grapes, given that there already were a couple of small vineyards established in in the Thompson River Valley. Now, Monte Creek is all in with 75 acres of vineyard (along with another 40 acres in the Similkameen Valley). The original winery, completed in 2015, has been augmented significantly with a gravity-flow production facility and, most recently, a 5,000-square-foot greenhouse.
A few weeks earlier, Andrew Peller Ltd. announced a memorandum of understanding to explore the viticultural potential of the Tranquille farmland near Kamloops. Peller’s initial steps are cautious (as one might expect from a publicly-traded company). However, since Peller is one of Canada’s oldest wine companies, it is hugely significant that it has put its toe into an emerging wine region.
Peller’s MOU was signed with Ignition Tranquille Developments Ltd., which controls the land being assessed for vineyard potential. Over the next two years, Peller will collect microclimate data and do soil analysis. The wine company needs to know how many frost-free days the site has; what are the growing degree days; and, most important, how cold it gets in winter.
“Once these questions are answered, based on robust two-year-data collection, Andrew Peller Ltd. will make recommendations to Ignition and move forward with 5-acre parcels of agreed-to varietals, with an expected planting date of spring 2025,” Peller’s news release said.
Whether there is a smooth road ahead is in question. An environmental coalition called Transition Kamloops Network began marshalling objections last year to developing the Tranquille site.
Currently, there are four wineries in the Thompson River Valley. Sagewood Winery, has a 3 ½ vineyard begun in 2005, opened in 2014. Harper’s Trail Estate Winery opened in 2012, based on a vineyard which was begun in 2008 and has grown to 27 acres in size. Privato Vineyard and Winery also opened in 2012 on a three-acre vineyard begun in 2010.
Monte Creek(above), whose owner Gurjit Sidhu is a major blueberry grower and nurseryman in the Fraser Valley, has emerged as the largest winery in the Kamloops region. Its 75-acres of vines are spread across two vineyards. The one on a south-facing slope on the north side of the Thompson River is planted mostly to vinifera varietals. The one on the plateau on which the winery and tasting room are located grows both vinifera and Minnesota hybrids.
The Minnesota hybrids were developed in Wisconsin and Minnesota to be exceptionally winter hardy. For that reason, these varietals are grown in most Quebec vineyards, where the growers replaced the number identification of the varieties with names appropriate to wine labels. Consequently, Monte Creek grows Frontenac Gris, Frontenac Blanc, La Crescent and Marquette, among others.
Photo: Frontenac Gris grapes
I expect Andrew Peller will want to assess the Minnesota hybrids, depending on the Tranquille Farms site, which is moderated by the nearby Thompson River and Kamloops Lake. It sounds like a site with potential, according to Dan Fritz, the president of Ignition Tranquille Developments Ltd.
Here is his assessment from the news release issued by Peller and Ignition: “One of the things that attracted me to the Tranquille property was its agricultural history and the potential to establish quality vineyards on the property’s southerly sloping, mineral rich but gravelly soil. Only time will tell …”
While the Thompson River Valley has been getting all the recent attention, Anthony von Mandl’s Mark Anthony Group has remained out of the limelight while investing in vineyard land in the Similkameen Valley and, more surprisingly, in Creston.
Ian Galbraith, Mark Anthony’s vice-president of corporate affairs, confirmed some of the details about the Similkameen in an email exchange in February.
“Recently, we have made a few select investments in key parcels of land in the Similkameen Valley to help increase our knowledge and understanding of the unique climate and soils of this region,” he told me. “This particular parcel of land is currently a mixed fruit orchard that has been grown organically for the past 16 years. We see this as an amazing learning opportunity for our viticulture and winemaking teams to gain first-hand insights into the potential to grow high-quality, organic fruit in the Similkameen Valley.”
Through Evan Saunders, the winemaker at Blasted Church Vineyards (left), I confirmed a report that Mark Anthony Group in the summer of 2021 purchased the Mariposa Vineyard at the south end of the Similkameen. Blasted Church had been buying some of the fruit. There had been about 25 acres of vines in plantings begun in 2011 by a trio of partners including Karnail Singh Sidhu, owner of Kalala Organic Estate Winery. The partners once planned a winery but the project never came to completion.
“It is an amazing vineyard with an incredible amount of potential,” Evan told me in February. “I would imagine they [Mark Anthony] will look to replant large pieces of the property. It isn’t in the greatest of health, but the stamp of the terroir is unlike any other vineyard I have worked with. We will certainly miss the fruit. It only produced tiny amounts, but it was a lot of fun and exciting to work with every vintage.”
The Mark Anthony investment in Creston was confirmed to me by David Mutch, the co-owner of William Tell Family Estate Winery in Creston. He was a vineyard technician with Mission Hill from 2001 to 2005 before buying land for his small winery.
David says his former employer appears to have purchased property near two established Creston wineries, Baillie-Grohman Estate Winery and Skimmerhorn Winery and Vineyard. David also believes other properties have been purchased as well by Mark Anthony.
“It makes me feel not as crazy now for buying in 2006,” David laughs.
Tasting the sparkling wine from Play Estate Winery in Penticton somehow made me think of Johann Straus operettas and Vienna.
No doubt, the founders of Play will think they have hit a home run, because the winery’s is themed entirely on references to the theatre. It worked for me.
For some background, here is an except from my 2020 book, Okanagan Wine Tour Guide:
Everything about Play Estate Winery is theatrical, from its perch on a hillside overlooking Skaha Lake to wines with names such as Improv and Ad Lib. The winery is owned by Calgary hotelier Stagewest Hospitality which includes dinner theatres in many of its hotels. The company is managed by Jason and David Pechet, third generation members of a family that got into the business by building hotels along the Alaska Highway. Both are graduates of Cornell University’s renowned hotel management school.
Both are also wine lovers. The winery was conceived Jason and Mohamed Awad, a former hotelier and winery manager in the Okanagan. On land leased from the Penticton Indian Band, they arranged to plant a 4.8-hectare (12-acre) vineyard and build the winery on a slope surrounded by an elegant residential development and close to Penticton’s airport. The winery, which opened with wines from the 2014 vintage, now produces about 5,000 cases a year, with triple that capacity. The winery also includes a year-round bistro, in line with the Stagewest philosophy of including multiple attractions in its properties.
The estate vineyard is planted to Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Orange Muscat and Muscat Ottonel. Play also leases a three-hectare (eight-acre) vineyard in Kaleden which has Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Viognier and White Muscat.
The current releases are wines made by Stephanie Bryers, who joined Play in 2019 and has just moved on. Stephanie formerly was the assistant winemaker at Culmina Family Estate Winery. Born in Ontario in 1988, she acquired a passion for wines while working in a wine shop and taking sommelier training. A 2015 graduate of Niagara College, she made wine in New Zealand, Portugal and Ontario before coming to the Okanagan.
Her successor at Play is Rebecca Ruggeri, who spent the previous four years as assistant winemaker at Hester Creek Estate Winery. Her first university degree was in criminology in 2008 but three years later, she switched to winemaking and viticulture, also at Niagara College.
Here are notes on the wines.
Play Teatro Moscato Frizzante 2021 ($28.99 for 298 cases). The appealing aromatics – citrus and spice – suggest that the wine may be off-dry. The wine is so well-balanced that, with the air of the bubbles, it has a crisp finish. In between the aroma and the finish, there is a delicious mouthful of fruit flavours. Indeed, this is the wine I would drink in a box at the Weiner Staatsoper while watching a Johann Straus operetta. 92.
Play Saignée 2021 ($30.99 for 90 cases). This is 41% Merlot, 22% Syrah, 18% Malbec, 11% Cabernet Franc and 8% Cabernet Sauvignon. This is a Provence-style rosé in an attractive bottle. The wine has aromas and flavours of cherry, strawberry and watermelon. The hint of residual sugar lifts the flavours and the texture. 90.
Play Sauvignon Blanc Sémillon 2021 ($29.99 for 143 cases). This is 66% Sauvignon Blanc and 34% Sémillon. The wine was matured in stainless steel (56%) and French oak (44%). There are aromas and flavours of herbs, lime and apple with a spine of minerality. 91.
Play Merlot 2020 ($37.99 for 200 cases). This wine was aged 16 months in French oak. It is concentrated in texture, with dark fruits and spice in the aroma and on the palate. Decanting is recommended; or cellar the wine for several years to let it develop all the complexity of a fine vintage. 91.
Play Cabernet Merlot 2020 ($38.99 for 108 cases). This is 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot and 22% Cabernet Franc. It was aged 16 months in French oak. The wine is concentrated and full-bodied, with aromas of black currant and spice. On the palate, there are rich flavours of black cherry, fig, dark chocolate and coffee. The ripe tannins give the wine a long finish. This is definitely a wine for cellaring. 92.
Play Spotlight Malbec 2020 ($29.99). This wine, which was aged 16 months in French oak, is a bright, savoury expression of the varietal. It begins with aromas of spice and the classic perfumed notes of Malbec. On the palate, there are flavours of cherry, blueberry and plum. 91.
About two years ago, Cheryl Tan, the sales and marketing manager for an elegant Vancouver retirement complex, tasted some wines from Therapy Vineyards while vacationing at a west coast resort.
That led to her making a proposal to Mike and Jacqueline Boyd, the owners of Therapy, a Naramata Bench winery. She asked if Therapy would produce private label wines for Opal by Element, for sale in the in-house restaurant and to residents.
Two of those wines, a white blend and a rosé, were unveiled at a recent reception by Danica Boyd, Jacqueline and Michael’s daughter. A third wine, a Pinot Noir, is scheduled to be bottled for Opal this summer.
“I think this may be something they will continue with,” says Jacqueline Boyd.
Private labels wines constitute a new market for Therapy, but perhaps not one the winery will pursue aggressively. “I don’t think we are big enough to go after that market,” Jacqueline says.
Therapy opened in 2005 on the site of the original Red Rooster Winery. Mike Boyd bought it in 2017 after his Alberta-based oilfields products company was taken over. The winery may have started as an early retirement project for the Boyds but they have been too dynamic is business to sit on their hands.
Since taking over Therapy, they have renovated and expanded both the winery and the tasting room. In 2018, they also hired the talented New Zealand-trained winemaker Jacqueline Kemp. She had been the winemaker at Moraine Estate Winery since 2012, where she had designed an entirely new winery. She has also consulted to a number of other producers.
One of her reasons for moving to Therapy was the opportunity to make sparkling wines. Soon after moving to the Naramata Bench, the Boyds began developing a 22-acre vineyard to support sparkling wine. They have planted Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay for what they call Silhouette Estate Winery. So far, no tasting room has opened there but the Boyds have opened a satellite Silhouette winery in the District Wine Village just north of Oliver.
Guests at the recent Opal launch were also treated to glasses of the sparkling wine, called Boyd Silhouette Classic Cuvée.
Opal is a $106 million project that opened in 2019, encompassing an entire block on Cambie Street in Vancouver, near the King Edward Station on the Canada line. It has 44 seniors’ residential condominium units, 56 seniors’ rental units and 30 seniors’ complex care units.
The brochure describing Opal says: “Our elegant homes and condos suit a complete continuum of lifestyles, from active independent living to complex care … After all, you’re only retiring from a career, not from life. It’s simply a stage of life you have earned for yourself.”
It is sophisticated locale and the Therapy wines fit the venue well.
For those with no access to Opal, the two private label wines also are in Therapy’s portfolio. The white is a blend Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer, released by Therapy as Freudian Sip. The rosé, made with Merlot grapes, is released by Therapy as Pink Freud.
Here are notes on the wines.
Opal White 2021. This is a zesty, refreshing white, the kind of wine that invited you to have a second glass. Aromas and flavours of pear mingle with notes of lychee. 91.
Opal Rosé 2021. Made with Merlot grapes, the wine presents in the glass with an appealing rose petal hue. There are bright flavours of strawberry and watermelon with a crisp finish. 91.
Boyd Silhouette Classic Cuvée NV. This wine has toasty, brioche notes in both the aroma and flavour. The active bubbles lead to a creamy impression on the palate. 90.