Photo: Tantalus general manager and winemaker David Patterson
At the beginning of the Covid pandemic, David Patterson, the general manager and winemaker at Tantalus Vineyards, had the foresight to inquire whether he could insure his senses of taste and smell. Loss of those senses, usually temporary, was one of the consequences of getting Covid. It would be devastating for a winemaker.
David found that insurers in the United States offer that coverage, but apparently no Canadian insurer offers it.
He was right to inquire, however. “I had Covid over bottling,” he told me in June. “It was the first time in 13 years I could not bottle my own wine. I had to rely on my team. They did a good job. It was a scary thing because I lost my taste and smell for four days.”
He had regained his senses fully when we met at the winery. He led me through a tasting of the current releases from Tantalus, including a mini-vertical of Chardonnay to show how well it ages. For the record, if you happen to have a bottle of 2011 Tantalus Chardonnay, it still is drinking well.
Tantalus occupies a storied vineyard in East Kelowna. This is one of the Okanagan’s oldest vineyards, and one of the first to grow wine grapes in quantity. It was planted by horticulturalist J. W. Hughes and then sold to his foreman, Martin Dulik. Martin’s son, Denny, planted Clone 21-B Riesling in 1978, an excellent variety for this terroir. When his granddaughter Susan opened Pinot Reach Cellars, her Old Vines Riesling drew international acclaim.
Vancouver investment dealer Eric Savics bought the property from the Dulik family in 2004. He expanded the Riesling plantings significantly here and on recently acquired adjacent vineyards. The winery farms more than 30 hectares (75 acres). The wines are primarily estate-grown. Old Vines Riesling remains the flagship white at Tantalus.
David Paterson, the New Zealand–trained winemaker who joined Tantalus in 2008, credits the site for the exceptional quality of Old Vines Riesling. “It is all of the terroir,” he says. “The aspect, the elevation, the soils. The root system has gone down a long, long way and draws up a lot of minerality. The root system is so deep now and so established that they buffer themselves against hot and cold vintages. We get a very consistent product. It has very little to do with winemaking. I put my stamp on it, I suppose, but at the end of the day, the grapes are really, really good.”
He puts his stamp on some wines literally as well as figuratively because he stomps the Pinot Noir grapes by foot when making the wine.
“Foot-treading is to what I saw in Burgundy with winemaking,” he says. “What I really want to do was make that more rustic style of Pinot Noir that I love out of Burgundy and out of Oregon. I do 40% whole bunches, only foot-trodden. I find that pumps and punch-downs can really bruise the fruit. Human feet jumping in once a day preserves the integrity of the wine and extracts what we want without extracting any bitter seed tannin or astringency. We’ve gone back to the old school of how our grandfathers used to make their wine. I really like that. Really aromatic, really brambly and beautiful, rather than being big and bruising. The wine still has power – but elegant power.”
While the winery made its reputation initially with Riesling, it is rising force as a Chardonnay producer. This is based, in part, on Bear Chardonnay.
“I created it from the younger block of Chardonnay vines to emulate Chablis in style,” David says. “It is barrel-fermented but no new oak; all done in old puncheons and barriques. It is bottled so there is only about five months élevage. We want to capture that freshness of Chardonnay in this wine.”
Tantalus also made this style to fill a gap in the market for a Chablis-style Chardonnay that restaurants could serve by the glass at a reasonable price. Bear has been so successful that it is the fastest growing wine in Tantalus portfolio. The winery produces more than 2,000 cases of Chardonnay, most of it Bear.
This winery also is notable for its labels, reproducing masks by the Tahltan/ Tlingit artist Dempsey Bob. Even before buying the winery, Eric Savics had assembled a significant collection of Bob’s art.
This summer, visitors to the Tantalus tasting room have also been able to buy a book: Dempsey Bob In His Own Voice. It is extremely interesting recounting of the artist’s career, with stunning reproductions of his work. The book accompanies a major exhibition of Bob’s art currently in the Audain Galley in Whistler.
Here are notes on the current releases from Tantalus.
Tantalus Blanc de Blancs 2019 ($31.30). This is a traditional method sparkling wine made with Chardonnay. It won gold at the National Wine Awards. An elegant wine, it presents with an active display of bubbles which lend a creamy texture to a wine that is otherwise crisp and dry. There are notes of brioche in the aroma and on the palate, along with citrus flavours. 93.
Tantalus Blanc de Noir 2019 ($36.52). This wine is sold out but there still are a few cases at the winery. It is made from a single block of Pinot Noir was planted in 1985. Winter damage in recent vintages, which froze buds but not the plants, limited the winery to produce just 125 cases in 2019. A dash of Pinot Noir dosage has given the wine a hue that Tantalus calls “pale sunset pink.” Close your eyes and the wine transports you to Champagne with its elegantly fruity aroma mingled with brioche. On the creamy palate, there are notes of raspberry and red apple. 93.
Tantalus Riesling 2021 ($27.83). This wine won gold at the National Wine Awards. The small berries produced in the 2021 vintage has result in a wine packed with aromas and flavours of lime, lemon, apple mingled with peaches. 93.
Tantalus Old Vines Riesling 2019 ($39.13). Also a gold medalist at the National Wine Awards, this is the cult wine associated with the property. The old vines, planted in 1978, give the wine both intensity and longevity (15 to 20 years). This wine has begun to develop the classic “petrol” aroma of Riesling. This carries through to the flavour, where it mingles with citrus and minerality. 96.
Tantalus Rosé 2021 ($23.48). This is 65% Pinot Noir and 35% Pinot Meunier. The winemaker suggests that Pinot Meunier gives this pretty rosé lift, texture and charm. There are aromas and flavours of strawberry and pink grapefruit. 92.
Tantalus Bear Chardonnay 2021 ($23.48). This is a vibrant wine with aromas and flavours of peaches and apples. The finish is crisp and refreshing. 91.
Tantalus Chardonnay 2020 ($36.52). This is a classic barrel-fermented Chardonnay, aged 10 months in French oak. However, the oak just frames the sweet fruit flavours of peach, pineapple, apple. There is a hint of clove on the long finish. 94.
Tantalus Pinot Noir 2020 ($40). This wine won silver at the National Wine Awards. This is a complex wine, incorporating seven clones: 114, 115, 667, 777, 828, 37, 943. Multiple parcels are fermented separately, with wild yeast. The wine is aged 16 months in oak barriques (20% new), blended and put in neutral oak for several more months. The wine is dark, with aromas of cherry and cedar. The texture is youthfully firm, which bodes well for ability to age. There are flavours of dark fruit mingled with vanilla and cloves on the finish. 92.
Tantalus Pinot Noir Reserve 2019 ($65.22 for 100 cases). The estate vineyard includes 18 rows of mature clone 667 Pinot Noir, considered by the wine to produce “some of the prettiest parcels of fruit from our single-vineyard estate”. This wine is primarily that clone, with splashes of clones 37 and 777 to enhance the blend. The wine was aged 15 months in French barriques (40% new). The wine begins with alluring, perfumed aromatics mingled with spice and oak. Full-bodied, the wine delivers flavours of dark cherry and plum with a satisfying note of forest floor on savoury finish. 95.
Tasting this wine, which is Red Rooster Winery’s first Semillon, took me back to a memorable tasting I had years ago in the Hunter Valley in Australia at the Lindemans winery with Gerry Sissingh.
Gerry, who died in 2014 at age 78, made legendary Semillon wines that were good on release and got even better with age. He showed me wines 10 or more years in age.
I was somewhat familiar with Semillon, having been a member of the Commanderie de Bordeaux. There in France, the grape is usually blended with Sauvignon Blanc. Next door to Bordeaux in Sauternes, the grape makes the world’s finest dessert wines.
Gerry’s wines were dry, perhaps because the Hunter Valley does not have the conditions that promote noble rot on the grapes; more likely because the dry versions were exceptional and unique.
James Halliday, in his 2006 book, Wine Atlas of Australia, wrote: “Semillon is for many the great wine of the Lower Hunter. It demands time in bottle to build from a thin and vaguely grassy youth to a honeyed, nutty, buttery/toasty mouthfilling richness at 10-20 years of age.”
When I was tasting the Red Rooster wine, I checked my files to find out if Elaine Vickers (pictured), the Canadian-born winemaker, had studied in Australia. She had indeed. She has a graduate diploma in winemaking from the University of Adelaide, which is a long way from the Lower Hunter. "I studied with a gentleman from the Hunter Valley, so I picked his brains about the Sem before I started making it," she told me.
I doubt that the sere terroir of the Okanagan – the grapes are from a vineyard near Oliver - has much in common with the Lower Hunter. Yet this wine rang a Hunter Valley bell for me.
There are not many single varietal Semillons produced in Okanagan or the Similkameen, again because the grape is more often blended with Sauvignon Blanc. Year in and year out, Bartier Bros. makes a Semillon that is memorable for its minerality. I hope Michael Bartier is aging a few vintages.
Anyone who manages to buy a bottle of the Red Rooster Semillon should buy a second one, if not several, and lay the wine down. I think Elaine has made a wine that Gerry Sissingh would admire.
Red Rooster Semillon 2020 ($29.99 for 117 cases). This wine was fermented and aged entirely in stainless steel. It begins with aromas of lemon rind and spice. On the palate, there are layers of fruit – grapefruit, apple, honeydew melon. A backbone of minerality gives the wine structure, with a dry finish. This recalls Hunter Valley Semillon, a varietal renowned for its ability to age. Put some of this away for five years. 92.
Photo: Valeria Tait (courtesy of Gold Hill Winery)
Valeria Tait, an Okanagan viticultural pioneer who honed her winemaking skills at Bench 1775 Winery on Naramata Road, joined Gold Hill Winery two years ago. Her impact in extending the winery’s portfolio has shown up in the recent releases.
Gold Hill, which is celebrating 13 years of winemaking, is owned by brothers Gurbachan and Sant Gill and their families. In previous years, the wines were made by a consultant, Philip Soo. With the expansion of his own winery, Bonamici Cellars, requiring more of his attention, Phil turned the Gold Hill cellar over to Val (as she is known more familiarily).
Born in 1964, Val has an undergraduate degree in biochemistry and a master’s in integrated pest management. She started working at the Summerland research station on plant viruses and then developed her independent consulting business with grape growers in the early 1990s as new vineyards were being planted. “I was lucky to get in on the industry when it was starting to grow,” she told me in 2013, just when she became the general manager of Bench 1775.
She became thoroughly familiar with Gold Hill, having purchased grapes during numerous vintages from the Gill brothers for wines she was making at Bench 1775.
The Gills have a heartwarming immigrant success story. They both grew up in the Indus Valley, an agricultural region in northwest India with a climate somewhat similar to the Okanagan. Sant, born in 1958, arrived in the Okanagan in 1984 with six dollars. Gurbachan, born in 1967, followed him in 1989. After a few years of orchard work, the brothers in 1991 began working in vineyards as well as farming an orchard they bought in 1995 beside the highway north of Osoyoos. When they had mastered grape growing, they converted their orchard to vineyards in 2007. Today, they farm more than 26 hectares (65 acres) throughout the Okanagan Valley.
Most of the vineyards are in the South Okanagan. That is reflected in the bold reds, notably Cabernet Franc, with which the winery’s initial reputation was made. Full of flavour and as high in alcohol as 15%, these are among the most muscular reds made in the South Okanagan.
In recent years, the Gills have developed two vineyards in West Kelowna to grow cool-climate varietals, such as Gamay Noir, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. These are enabling Gold Hill to diversify its portfolio.
Some of the new varietals are being released in a new brand from Gold Hill, called Charisma Wines.
In a note about the current releases, Val Tait says about Charisma: “These carefully crafted wines are fresh, with vibrant acidity, lighter body and lower alcohol, and are perfect for everyday wine drinking. The Charisma-sourced vineyards include our Peachland Cracked Granite Vineyard, one of the highest elevation vineyards in the valley at 680 meters.” Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are grown here.
The West Kelowna vineyards are called Lake Bluff Vineyard and Flying Horse Vineyard. These are also planted with Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Gamay Noir and Pinot Noir. Val describes the vineyards as “short-season, classic cool-climate growing sites.”
The winery has also created a brand called TerreLab, with wines that are released exclusively to the wine club. Production is limited to 50 to 80 cases.
“TerreLab is a creative, playful outlet, allowing for full freedom in both varietal and fermentation and cellar practices,” Val explains. “Under this brand, we have Tempranillo and Tempranillo Rosé as our first offering.”
Future offerings will depend on the season, on fruit expression and on creative winemaking.
“A couple of wines to look out for are our orange Gewürztraminer and our carbonic maceration Malbec,” she writes.
Here are notes on the wines.
Charisma Pinot Gris 2021 ($19.99). The wine is light and crisp, with aromas of citrus and flavours of peach and pear. 89.
Charisma Pinot Noir Rose 2021 ($19.99). This is a refreshing wine, beginning with aromas of strawberry. The lush palate delivers strawberry and peach flavours. 89.
Charisma Malbec 2020 ($24.99). The wine begins with aromas of dark fruits mingled with chocolate. On the palate, there are flavours of cherry, blackberry and chocolate. These soft tannins give the wine a long and rich finish. 91.
Charisma Cabernet Merlot 2021 ($24.99). This wine begins with bold, toasty aromas of dark fruits and chocolate. This is echoed on the palate. The ripe, toasty flavours may reflect the slight impact of smoke in the wine. For my palate, this adds complexity. The wine is delicious for current drinking. I would hesitate to age it, not that I expect anyone will. 88.
TerreLab Tempranillo Rosé 2021 ($24.99 for 80 cases). The wine presents with a pale bronze hue and a restrained aroma. There are notes of the plum and strawberry on the palate. The finish is dry. 90.
TerreLab Tempranillo 2018 ($35.99 for 70 cases). Tempranillo is one of the leading red grapes of Spain but not yet widely planted in the Okanagan. This bold wine makes the case for more Tempranillo in the Okanagan. The wine, dark in colour, begins with aromas of black cherry and dark fruits. The rich palate delivers flavours of black cherry and plum. The long ripe tannins, polished by 18 months of barrel aging, give the wine a long, satisfying finish. 92.
Gold Hill Sauvignon Blanc 2021 ($29.99 for 100 cases). The wine begins with aromas of lemon and lime, leading to flavours of lemon and apple. 89.
Gold Hill Cabernet Franc 2017 ($42.99). The wine begins with appealing aromas of blackberry and dark cherry. There is rich fruit of the spicy palate, including cherry and brambleberry notes. 90.
Gold Hill Cabernet Franc Rosé 2021 ($22.99 for 120 cases). Eighteen hours of skins contact has given the wine a copper hue. The flavours are also robust, with notes of cherry and orange. 90.
Gold Hill Merlot 2018 ($42.99). This is an intense wine that benefits from being decanted. It begins with aromas of cassis and dark cherry. On the palate, there are flavours of plum, cherry, dark fruits and tobacco. 91.
Gold Hill Syrah 2018 ($42.99). This is a typically bold Gold Hill wine, with 14.9% alcohol. It was aged 16 months in French oak barrels. There is 3% Viognier in the blend, lifting the aromas. There are aromas of dark fruits, plum and pepper. On the palate, the wine is full-bodied with deli meat flavours mingled with plum, fig, cherry and pepper. 91.
Gold Hill Grand Vin 2016 ($65 for 450 cases). This is a blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. The wine was aged 18 months in new French oak. The wine has the age to have developed lovely cassis aromas. There are flavours of dark fruits mingled with blackberry, cassis and coffee. The tannins are long and ripe. 93.
Horseshoe Found Winery at Cawston in the Similkameen Valley, which opened last year, does not have a tasting room.
However, don’t be deterred from making an appointment to visit. Pavel and Michaela Horak, the owners, are a charming, down-to-earth couple, hardly the sort to throw visitors off the property. It is just that it is not practical for such a tiny, two-person winery to man a tasting room.
Horseshoe Found is one of British Columbia’s smallest wineries. In the 2020 vintage, the winery made 4,500 litres of wine, the minimum allowed under a winery license. Don’t look for the winery to get much bigger.
“No, we will not do that because we would like to stay small, and maintain production between 4,500 litres and 6,000 litres, so we can focus on the quality of what we would like to do,” Pavel says.
A check of the website provides the addresses of wine shops and restaurants that stock Horseshoe Found wines. Because the wines qualify for VQA, you might even find some in the Save-On-Foods wine shops.
The winery fulfills a dream inspired by his father’s fruit wines and by Pavel’s blackberry wine when, as an immigrant from Czechoslovakia (as the Czech Republic was known then), Pavel established a home in New Westminster. Trained as a mechanical engineer, Pavel, then 24, slipped out of Czechoslovakia in 1980. He spent six months in Austria, securing his visa to come to Canada – and straight to Vancouver. “I was always attracted to Canada's west coast,” he explains. “This was in my opinion the best choice because of the scenery, weather, nature, and opportunities.”
In Vancouver, Pavel had a 20-year career with Creo Inc., a Burnaby producer of digitized plates for the printing industry. The company was taken over in 2005 by Kodak which then moved the production to Mexico four years later. Creo’s former owners established a new company, Kardium Inc., which makes medical products to deal with atrial fibrillation. Pavel joined that company in 2007, working there fulltime until 2016 and parttime now that he and his wife have dedicated themselves to the winery.
Home winemaking in New Westminster, where they had built a house, nourished Pavel’s ambitions. Once they realized that the Lower Mainland is less than ideal for viticulture, they began search for property in the interior. “We decided to get out of the city and go to the Okanagan, or somewhere where we can actually grow grapes and make wine,” Pavel recalls.
In 2006, they found and purchased what was then a hay field near Cawston. Many years earlier, it had been a rodeo ground. That explained why, when he was digging holes for vineyard posts, Pavel turned up a number of rusty horseshoes, inspiring the winery’s name.
The labels were designed with input from Pavel’s artistic father-in-law in Prague, Jarda Vsetecka. Pavel drew on his experience in the graphic arts industry to finish the design. There was one helpful suggestion from a neighbour who pointed out that the horseshoe was upside down on the original design. In equestrian circles, that is considered to be bad luck. Pavel turned the horseshoe the right way up – to keep the luck from falling out.
Pavel and Michaela planted about three acres (there is not much room for more vines), settling on the varieties they like to drink. There is a block of Gewürztraminer, a small block of Muscat, 300 Cabernet Sauvignon vines, and an acre of Pinot Noir. “Pinot Noir is the holy grail of winemaking, in my opinion,” Pavel says. “It is a problematic grape to grow, but when it grows well, you can make some fantastic wine.”
The vineyard is managed by Michaela. Formerly a stage actress in Prague, she now runs her own home-based accounting service in Cawston. “All our activities around vineyards including planting, cultivation, weed control and nutrients are based on biodynamic and organic practices,” Pavel says. “We are not certified organic, but we certainly follow all practices as we believe in nature, good bugs, and harmony between all living organisms. Weed control is all manual, and we do not use chemicals.”
He believes that “excellent wine starts in the vineyard and to keep vines happy it takes time and effort and if done right all these activities will be positively reflected in wine terroir. This is also why we are not planning to expand as we want to enjoy all work when we do it ourselves. This way, for example, we can properly balance each vine in terms of production and future growth. Michaela as vineyard manager can carefully plan all vineyard activities like pruning, applying organic sprays, and nutrients. Each year is different, and that is the beauty of it.”
Here are notes on two recently released wines.
Horseshoe Found Viognier 2020 ($25 for 48 cases). Pavel was able to purchase some topnotch Viognier grapes from a Similkameen grower. The wine had four months aging in barrel. This shows the classic tropical fruit of the varietal: aromas and flavours of guava, mango and apricot. The texture is rich and the finish lingers. 92.
Horseshoe Found Pinot Noir 2020 ($38 for 162 cases). This wine was made with estate-grown fruit. It fermented on the skins for 10 days, with indigenous yeast, and was aged 18 months in new and used French oak barrels. Silky in texture, the wine has aromas and flavours of cherry with a touch of forest floor on the finish. 90.