Photo: Winemaker Jen Oishi (Credit Mackenzie Dempsey)
Credit Gray Monk Estate Winery for the fact that Pinot Gris has become the most widely planted white varietal in the Okanagan. In 1976, Gray Monk founder George Heiss was the first to plant the grape in the valley.
George and Trudy, his wife, had been hair stylists in Edmonton when they decided to change careers. They began developing a vineyard in 1972 in what is now Lake Country. The impetus had come from Hugo Peter, Trudy’s father, who has started a vineyard there four years earlier.
At the time, George was a novice at viticulture. “I knew how to get the content in a bottle out of the bottle and into myself,” he once told me. “We were so bloody ignorant. We had not even figured out at that time the positive influence of the lake on our vineyard. That was way beyond us. One thing we did figure out right off the bat: if cherries, apricots and peaches survived here, grapes would definitely survive.”
He was given has initial planting advice from an industry almost as green as he was. Initially, George planted two hybrid varietals, Maréchal Foch and Seibel 1000. He soon discovered that these would produce mediocre wines.
“I don’t think they were imported from France,” George said later. “I think they were deported from France.”
Fortunately, for George, his father-on-law, who went to Europe on vacation in 1975, agreed to source premium varietals. He had the Colmar research station in Alsace ship modest amounts of vine stock of four varietals: Pinot Auxerrois, Gewürztraminer, Kerner and Pinot Gris.
While Auxerrois and Kerner remain bit players in British Columbia vineyards, Gewürztraminer became the third most widely planted white and, as I wrote above, Pinot Gris is number one, ahead of Chardonnay in second place.
There was serendipity that Pinot Gris should emerge as a signature wine both for British Columbia and for Gray Monk. George Heiss was born in Vienna. In Austria, one of the names for Pinot Gris is Grauer Mönch, German for Gray Monk. It is believed this was what inspired the winery name when the Heisses launched their winery in 1982.
When they retired in 2017, the winery was purchased by Andrew Peller Ltd. Under the new owners, winemaker Jen Oishi has continued to craft an award-winning portfolio that includes Pinot Gris and rosé.
The winery’s autobiography says: “Jen Oishi was born and raised in the Okanagan, immersed in the Okanagan way of life. Growing up surrounded by orchards and vineyards piqued her interest in the wine industry. After completing her degree in Microbiology from the University of British Columbia, Jen joined the Gray Monk team in 2011. It was here that she was able to pair her love of science with the artistic side of winemaking. Jen worked closely with long time winemaker, Roger Wong. Under his mentorship she learned many aspects of winemaking from the vineyard to the glass, becoming assistant winemaker in 2015 and winemaker in 2020.”
Here are notes on the wines.
Gray Monk Pinot Gris 2021 ($19.99). This wine is a staple for Pinot Gris lovers: it is listed in all 197 stores of the B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch. In making this wine, Jen usually gives 12 hours of contact of the juice on the skins, extracting more flavour and a hint of colour. The wine begins with aromas of pear and citrus, leading to flavours of peach and pear. The finish is slightly off-dry. 90.
Gray Monk Rosé 2021 ($19.99). This wine will be in liquor stores by July. It is a blend of 46% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc, 8.5% Syrah, 8.5% Gamay Noir, 8.5% Rotberger, 8% Pinot Noir and 6.5% Malbec. The varietal in that lineup that may be unfamiliar is Rotberger, a cross of Riesling and Trollinger developed at the Geisenheim research station in 1928. Gray Monk also was the first (in 1978) to plant the vine and for many years released it as a single varietal rosé. In this blend, Jen has created a more complex and fruitier rosé, employing a cool 21-day ferment in stainless steel to preserve the fruitiness. There are aromas and flavours of cherry, strawberry and watermelon with hints of pink grapefruit on the refreshing finish. 91.
In their two Penticton area vineyards, Pentâge Winery owners Julie Rennie and Paul Gardner grow 19 different varietals in 35 acres.
It would be difficult to find another Okanagan producer with as many varietals, perhaps with the exception of Moon Curser Vineyards of Osoyoos.
Having that many varietals speaks to the viticultural curiosity of the winery owners. It also says something of the Okanagan’s versatility as a grape-growing area. It would be hard to find a wine region in the world with more varietals – likely more than 100 – in such a small area.
That frustrates some wine critics who think the Okanagan needs to settle on a signature varietal. But it pleases consumers who prefer novelty to same-old. As great as their Sauvignon Blancs are, New Zealand wine consumers surely must get a bit bored.
Paul Gardner, who is also the winemaker at Pentâge, gets to work with varietals that usually are found in different countries in the Old World. His Hiatus Red blend makes the point. The grapes in the blend are more often found in Spain (Tempranillo), the Rhône (Mourvedre, Petite Sirah), Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot). Paul grows these in his two vineyards near the winery.
The winery’s recent releases touch on other Old World sources: Pinot Gris is found in Alsace; Sauvignon Blanc in the Loire; and Roussanne and Marsanne grow in the Rhône. There is nothing boring about the wine offerings from Pentâge.
The winery itself is an experience to visit. Paul spent 10 years digging a 5,000-square-foot cave into the natural rock of the mountain side. Even if a tour is not always available, there is a great view of the cellar through glass of the massive northern-facing doors. The winery’s tasting and sales room is in a separate building.
Here are notes on the wines.
Pentâge Sauvignon Blanc 2020 ($20). Both the aromas and the flavours of this wine have a sit-up and take notice intensity. There is lime and grapefruit on the nose, leading to flavours of lime and passionfruit. Bright acidity gives the wine a zesty, refreshing finish. 91.
Pentâge Pinot Gris 2019 ($19.13). Four different fermentations in stainless steel enable Paul to craft a complex Pinot Gris. This wine begins with aromas of and spice. Richly textured, it has flavours of ripe pear, apple and guava. 91.
Pentâge Roussanne/Marsanne 2016 ($30.44). This is 70% Roussanne and 30% Marsanne. Fermentation began in stainless steel, with 50% of the wine then transferred to French oak (second and third fill). The latter portion also went through malolactic fermentation. The wine is rich and complex, beginning with aromas of ripe pineapple. On the palate, there are flavours of stone fruits, pineapple and citrus. 91.
Pentâge Hiatus Red 2016 ($23.48). This is a blend of 36% Petite Sirah, 32% Tempranillo, 10% Petit Verdot, 8% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Mourvedre and 7% Merlot. The winemaking for this was incredibly complex. Each varietal was fermented and barrel-aged separately for 18 months in new and neutral American and French oak before the final blend was assembled. The wine begins with aromas of cassis, cherries and raspberries. On the palate, there is a medley of fruits including cherry, black currant, plum. The finish is marked with spice and chocolate. 91.
Consumers appear to have gotten over the “anything but Chardonnay” phobia that began in the 1990s in apparent reaction to over-oaked Chardonnays.
I have no independent market data to back up my assertion. I am basing it simply on the quality of Chardonnays being made by British Columbia wineries. No one would invest so much in viticulture and winemaking as most producers do if consumers were not buying the wines.
Township 7 Vineyards & Winery is one of those producers that has made an effort to produce great Chardonnays. The case in point is the winery’s 2020 Reserve Chardonnay.
Mary McDermott, the winemaker, began by combining fruit from three vineyards – the estate vineyard just outside of Penticton and two south of Oliver, the winery’s Hidden Terrace Vineyard and the Becker Vineyard, which is farmed by Phantom Creek Estates. The point of combining fruit, Mary explains, was to achieve “layers of complexity” in the wine.
After the fruit was crushed, the juice went into French oak barrels (15% new), where fermentation was done with indigenous yeast. The wine in the barrels was hand-stirred for eight weeks, increasing lees contact and adding flesh to the texture.
“The battonage process, as well as the partial malolactic fermentation, softened any harsh acids [and produced] a rich and textured mouthfeel,” Mary writes.
This is a lot of work for a wine that retails for $31.97 (and is available only the Township 7 wine club). The quality is on a par with the superb Chardonnays from CheckMate Artisanal Winery – which sell for three times as much. I wonder if Township 7’s club members realize how lucky they are.
Those who have not joined the club can sample Mary’s skill with Chardonnay by buying the winery’s Provenance Series Chardonnay 2019 at $22.97. It is available at either of Township 7’s wineries, at the winery’s online store and at select private wine stores.
The two Chardonnays, which were released this spring, total about 1,000 cases. I bet both are sold out by this summer now that Chardonnay is back in fashion.
Here are notes on those wines and two other releases.
Township 7 Benchmark Series Gewürztraminer 2019 ($26.97 for 348 cases). A portion of the fruit for this wine was fermented spontaneously in neutral French oak barrels while another portion was fermented over four weeks at about 12◦C in stainless steel. The object is to craft a wine in the style of Alsace. This wine begins with aromas of honey mingled with orange peel, spice and lychee. On the palate, there are hints of ginger and orange. The finish is dry with a touch of bitterness. 89.
Township 7 Provenance Series Chardonnay 2019 ($22.97 for 598 cases). This wine was fermented 50% in French oak barriques and 50% in stainless steel. Only the former was allowed malolactic fermentation. The result is a crisp wine with bright acidity and just a hint of butteriness. The wine begins with aromas of apple and citrus which are echoed on the palate. 90.
Township 7 Benchmark Series Reserve Chardonnay 2020 ($31.97 for 326 cases). This is an exceptional Chardonnay from an exceptional vintage. The wine was fermented with indigenous yeast in French oak barrels (15% new). The wine was stirred on the lees in barrel for eight weeks and allowed partial malolactic fermentation. The texture is rich and creamy. The wine has aromas of butter, apple and ripe apricots. On the palate, stone fruit flavours mingle with guava, mango, pineapple and vanilla. The finish simply does not quit. 94.
Township 7 Provenance Merlot 2019 ($26.97 for 798 cases). This is a bold red, benefitting from two to three weeks of maceration on the skins. The wine was aged 18 months in American and French oak barrels. It begins with aromas of cassis, cherry and plum, all of which is echoed in the layers of fruit on the palate. Decanting brings out additional complexity. 91.
Over the years, Hester Creek Estate Winery has invested in a lot of stainless steel cooperage. Those tanks certainly paid off in the 2021 vintage, judging from all of the wines just released which are brimming with clean, fresh fruit flavours.
The 2021 season was one of the hottest in the past 20 years, with the vines actually pausing the development of fruit during the intense heat dome in early July. That had two consequences, one good, one not quite so.
The negative was the low yield. Nearly every grower has reported a reduction in the quantity of fruit produced in the vineyards. On average, the crop was down 25%-30%, and the berries were small.
The positive is that the small crop and the small berries has resulted in vivid flavours. The 2021 grapes, aside from the few that suffered smoke taint, invariably show intense aromas and flavours. Hester Creek grows fruit on some of the oldest vines in the Okanagan, which adds to the intensity of flavours.
And that brings me to the stainless steel tanks. The wines reviewed here all were fermented in stainless steel at cold temperatures (often 10◦ C) for about a month. That technique preserves fresh aromas and flavours. It also ties up a lot of cooperage. Happily, Hester Creek has a lot.
These are among the most delicious wines from any Okanagan winery this spring.
Here are my notes.
Hester Creek Character White 2021 ($16.99). This is a blend of 66% Pinot Gris and 34% Gewürztraminer. The wine has aromas and flavours of pear, apple and spice, leaving the impression of tropical fruits on the palate. The texture is juicy but the finish is dry. 90.
Hester Creek Pinot Gris 2021 ($17.99). A long, cool fermentation in stainless steel captured the varietal’s bright fruit. The wine begins with aromas of quince, pear and apple, leading to flavours of pear, apple and citrus with a lovely hint of anise on the finish. 92.
Hester Creek Old Vine Pinot Blanc 2021 ($17.99). The wine shows the intensity of aroma and flavour that old vines can deliver. The grapes were fermented cool for 27 days in stainless steel. The wine begins with aromas of honeydew melon and apple, leading to flavours of apple, melon and stone fruits wrapped around a spine of minerality. The finish is crisp. 92.
Hester Creek Cabernet Franc Rosé 2021 ($18.99). This wine presents in the glass with a vibrant hue, the result of giving the whole grapes four days of cold soaking before pressing. A long (22-day) fermentation at a cool temperature preserved the fresh flavours and aromas – there are aromas of cherry, red plum and strawberry, leading to flavours of strawberry, raspberry and tart cherries. 92.
Hester Creek Pinot Gris Viognier 2021 ($19.99). This wine is available in selected Save-On Food stores. The blend is 67% Pinot Gris and 33% Viognier. The grapes were fermented cold for 29 days in stainless steel. The wine is brimming with aromas of apples and citrus fruits. On the palate, there are flavours of apple, pear and lime. The finish is crisp. 91.
Hester Creek Old Vine Trebbiano 2021 ($23.99). This wine, made with the Italian varietal first planted in the vineyard in 1968, is always the white that steals the scene in Hester Creek’s spring release. This wine is intensely fruity, in part because the juice was fermented cold for 32 days. The wine begins with aromas of pear, nectarine and grapefruit. The palate is a fruit bowl laden with flavours of grapefruit, apple and peach. The texture is generous and the finish lingers. 93.
Cabernet Franc is the fourth-most planted red varietal in British Columbia, at 12% of all the reds compared with the leader, Merlot, at 28%.
With many wineries, Cabernet Franc has played a supporting role in blends with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, in common with the practices of French and American vintners.
But Bordertown Vineyards and Estate Winery in Osoyoos has hung its hat on Cabernet Franc. Proprietor Mohan Gill has 35 acres of Cabernet Franc, representing 38% of Bordertown’s total vineyards. The first plantings were done in 2009, with additional acreage added through to 2020. The winery produced 7,000 cases of this varietal in 2021.
“Mohan chose Cabernet Franc as the flagship red and cornerstone product for the winery due to the perceived growing demand for this varietal at the time, and the fact that it grows exceptionally well in the south Okanagan,” explains Paul Jordan, Bordertown’s wine representative in Vancouver. “He appears to have chosen wisely, as this product is highly recognized and a best seller.”
Bordertown is one of the Okanagan’s largest producers of single varietal Cabernet Franc and likely has a competitive edge as consumer interest in this wine has grown.
“It certainly was the wine that I keyed in on when I first took on agency representation of the winery,” Paul says. “I knew that it would be the basis upon which we would grow the business. I felt that the winery needed at least one recognizable wine that consumers would associate as being of high quality, which would then spread by reputation to the other wines available.”
The Bordertown Cabernet Franc is listed by the Liquor Distribution Branch and is available in more than 125 stores.
Here are notes on that wine and other recent releases from Bordertown.
Bordertown Dry Riesling 2021 ($18). The wine begins with aromas of lemon and guava. On the palate, it delivers lemon and grapefruit flavours around a spine of minerals. The finish is dry but also tangy and refreshing. 89.
Bordertown Rosé 2021 ($23). This is a Cabernet Franc rosé made in what the winery calls the “classic French Provence style” – which means delicately pale. The wine begins with aromas of wild strawberry. Given the pale hue, the flavours take one by surprise – luscious in texture, tasting of strawberry and watermelon. 90.
Bordertown Desert Sage Big Red 2020 ($20). This is a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. This is a juicy, easy drinking red with aromas and flavours dark cherry, black currant and plum. There is a long finish with a touch of spice. 90.
Bordertown Cabernet Franc 2019 ($25 for 4,988 cases). This wine is packed full of the classic brambly characters of Cabernet Franc. The wine begins with aromas of cherry, cassis and spice. On the palate, there are flavours of blackberry, cherry and raspberry, with a hint of coffee, licorice and oak. 93.
Bordertown Living Desert Red 2018 ($27 for 995 cases). This concentrated, cellar-worthy wine is a blend of six red varietals: 28% Syrah, 22% Cabernet Franc, 22% Malbec, 12% Petit Verdot, 9% Merlot and 7% Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine has aromas of plum, fig, coffee and dark chocolate. Decanting is recommended to bring out the black cherry and black currant notes. 92.
Bordertown Cabernet Franc Reserve 2019 ($50). This wine benefits from being decanted. It begins with aromas of blackberry, dark cherry and spice. Rich and concentrated on the palate, it delivers flavours of black currant and black cherry mingled with vanilla and a hint of pepper. 93.