Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Crowsnest Vineyards calls itself The Similkameen's original winery

Photo: Sascha and Anna Heinecke
Crowsnest Vineyards is a rare example of a British Columbia winery where ownership has successfully transferred to the next generation. In 2018, Sascha and Anna Heinecke, who are brother and sister, purchased the winery from their parents, Olaf and Sabine Heinecke. “They were ready to sell a long time ago,” Anna says. (The winery was first put on the market in 2013.) “It is a lot of work, and you get tired of it. They wanted to retire.” The first change the brother and sister made was to convert the vineyard from overhead irrigation to drip irrigation.
It was the second winery in the Similkameen when it opened in 1995 (the first has since closed). Three years later, Crowsnest was acquired by the Heinecke family, immigrants from Germany. They rescued a struggling winery and stamped a European flavour all over it by adding a Bavarian-themed restaurant and a seven-room country inn. Sascha put his diploma in hotel management to good use. He also became a skilled baker, making fresh bread daily for the restaurant and for sale both in the tasting room and in community retail outlets. Anna, who has a diploma from the German winemaking school at Weinsberg, makes the focused portfolio exclusively from estate-grown grapes. The 6-hectare (15-acre) vineyard is planted primarily with Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Auxerrois. The latter grape, a leading variety in Alsace, has struggled to find favour in British Columbia.
Both the wines and hospitality services here have earned Crowsnest very good reviews on such sites as TripAdvisor. Here is a typical 2018 review: “Gem hidden in the gardens of Similkameen Valley. Neat rooms, renovated in ‘modern rustic’ style, spacious but cosy. Awesome food made mostly of the farm products, including local bakery. Excellent wine . . . Scenery landscape appealing to long walks after indulgent dinner. Friendly hostess and delicious homemade jams available along with local wine at the souvenir shop on the premises.” The list goes on and on, but you get the idea. The winery’s current releases include smartly refreshed label designs that make Crowsnest wines stand out on liquor store shelves. Here are notes. There are no prices because they are not on the website.
Crowsnest The Nest Prosecco 2019. This is a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Auxerrois and Riesling. The wine begins with a bready aroma. On the palate, flavours of citrus mingle with bready notes. The wine is almost austerely dry. 87.
Crowsnest Gewürztraminer Frizzante 2020. The wine presents in the glass with a rush of active bubbles. There are appealing aromas of peach and apricot, which are echoed in the rich and honeyed palate. Good acidity gives the wine a lingering, balanced finish. 90.
Crowsnest Similkameen Sunset Sparkling 2020. This is a blend of Pinot Auxerrois and Pinot Noir. The wine presents in the glass with a rose hue and a rush of bubbles. It begins with strawberry aromas, leading to flavours strawberry and plum. The finish is crisp and refreshing. 90.
Crowsnest Chardonnay Stahltank 2021. The name means steel tank; this is an unoaked Chardonnay. Crisply dry, the wine has aromas and flavours of apple with a touch of minerality on the finish. 87.
Crowsnest Riesling 2020. This wine begins with the classic notes of petrol and citrus in the aroma. There are flavours of lemon and green apple with minerality. Bright acidity gives the wine a tangy finish. 88.
Crowsnest Similkameen Sunset Rosé 2021. This is a blend of Pinot Auxerrois and Pinot Noir. It has a rose hue in the glass with aromas and flavours of strawberry, red cherry and watermelon. The wine has good weight on the palate. 88.
Crowsnest Merlot 2019. This wine was made with fruit from 18-year-old vines. This wine has been aged 12 months in American oak. It begins with aromas of black currant and dark cherry, leading to flavours of cherry and blackberry mingled with cassis. 89.
Crowsnest Merlot Family Reserve 2016. This is made with fruit from 32-year-old vines (some of the oldest in the Similkameen Valley). The wine was aged for 18 months in French oak. Dark in colour and full-bodied, the wine’s spicy cassis and dark berry aromas lead to flavours of dark cherry and black currant, mingled with dark chocolate. The finish lingers. 92.
Crowsnest Pinot Noir 2018. This wine begins with aromas of cherry, and blackberry mingled with oak. The back label does not indicate how much time the wine had in barrel but the winery was not shy with barrel-aging. The palate echoes the aromas, with dark fruits and a touch of forest floor. The texture is still a bit firm; this will benefit from being decanted. 90.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Three memorable reds from Black Widow

Photo: Shannon, Dick (centre) and James Lancaster
Dick Lancaster, one of the owners of Black Widow Winery on the Naramata Bench, and I were once members of the same winemaking club. While I eventually stopped making wine to concentrate on writing about it, Dick went on to excel as a winegrower. That can be seen from the scores I gave to three recent releases from Black Widow. Here is an excerpt from my 2020 Okanagan Wine Tour Guide, to provide some background.
It began in the summer of 2000 when the Lancasters, while looking for just a getaway cottage, bought this 2.8-hectare (7-acre) property, part of which had grapevines. “Classic upselling,” Dick says of the realtor. “And as soon as we got a vineyard, the goal was to set up a winery.” Dick was born in Toronto in 1953 but grew up in Montreal and acquired an interest in wine from his father, Graham, an Air Canada food services manager. Dick began making wine from wild grapes while still in high school. A three-month tour of European wine regions in 1976 sealed that interest. In Vancouver, where he and wife Shona lived from 1970 until moving to the Okanagan a few years ago, Dick was a home winemaker for more than 25 years.
You could call Dick a polymath, given all the skills he has acquired. Starting in biology, he earned a master’s degree. Disillusioned by the lack of well-paying jobs, he took a real-estate course, and then sold cars and became district manager for a leasing company. Then he got a master’s degree in business administration and finally qualified as an accountant. From 1992 until 2008, he was a vice-president with Imasco, western Canada’s largest stucco manufacturer. Naturally, Black Widow’s gravity-flow winery, which he designed, is finished in tawny-hued stucco. “How can I not use stucco?” he says, laughing. The vineyard already had Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Schönburger when the Lancasters bought it. In 2001, they added Merlot and a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon, selling grapes until launching Black Widow in 2006. “We like wines that have some real flavour and character to them, and that comes from really ripe grapes,” Dick says.
I should add that the Lancasters have succeeded in involving family in the business. Daughter Shannon is both a winemaker and a viticulturist while son James handles a lot of the marketing duties. Here are notes on the three wines.
Black Widow Hourglass Reserve 2020 ($53.90 for 200 cases). The winery’s signature red, this is a blend of 75% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged 21 months in French barrels (50% new). It begins with aromas of dark fruit that lead to flavours of black currant, dark cherry and chocolate. There is a touch of vanilla on the finish. The wine has long, ripe tannins; it benefits from decanting. 94.
Black Widow Merlot Reserve 2020 ($42.50 for 125 cases; sold out). This is a textbook Merlot – rich, generous in texture and flavour. The wine was aged 21 months in French oak barrels. It has aromas and flavours of black cherry, plum and blueberry, with a touch of spice on the lingering finish. 94.
Black Widow Pinot Noir 2021 ($36.50 for 250 cases). This wine was barrel-aged for nine months. It begins with aromas of cherry and spice, leading to flavours of cherry and raspberry. The texture is firm but, with breathing, becomes silky – a case for decanting the wine. A touch of forest floor on the finish recalls good Burgundy wines. 92.

Monday, March 20, 2023

Four Shadows: a rising star on Upper Bench Road

Photo: Winery proprietors Joka and Wilbert Borren
With four wineries close to each other, Upper Bench Road on the eastern side of Penticton makes for a comfortable day of wine touring, with time to take in several other nearby wineries. Think of this as an easy introduction to Naramata Bench, with enough wineries to fill the rest of the week. Let me recommend starting with the low-key Four Shadows Vineyard & Winery at the south end of Upper Bench Road. Here is an excerpt on the winery from the 2020 Okanagan Wine Tour Guide:
Wilbert and Joka Borren, both immigrants from the Netherlands, are nothing if not industrious. Wilbert was a 20-year-old graduate of an agriculture college when he arrived to work on an Alberta dairy farm. He met Joka in 1990, shortly after she arrived in Canada. In 1993, after the couple married, Wilbert concluded that the rising cost of milk quotas prevented him from realizing a dream of his own dairy. So he bought a hog farm near Lacombe, Alberta. “It took some persuading,” Joka admits.
When they tired of hogs and hard winters, they moved to the Okanagan in 2011, now with four sons, to become grape growers. They bought the bankrupt Mistral Estate Winery and its 4.9 hectares (12 acres) of neglected vineyard on the eastern edge of Penticton. Wilbert made up for his lack of experience by engaging viticultural consultant Graham O’Rourke, co-owner of nearby Tightrope Winery. “I am a farmer,” Wilbert says. “Stepping into the wine business is a new game.” Within a few years, Graham suggested that Wilbert did not need help anymore. Four Shadows Vineyard—a name inspired by the four Borren sons—was selling quality fruit to such top-flight wineries as Foxtrot Vineyards and Synchromesh Wines. “It was never our intention to start a winery,” Wilbert says. “But then we were selling grapes [to wineries] that were all making good wines. People started to ask why we were not making our own wine.” Once again, they overcame winemaking inexperience by turning to consultants. Tightrope’s Lyndsay O’Rourke made the Four Shadows wines in 2017, and Pascal Madevon, formerly the Osoyoos Larose winemaker, took over in 2018.
The former Mistral tasting room, empty nearly a decade, was professionally renovated: one of their sons is a carpenter, while another, a welder, fashioned the winery’s unique steel signage.
Here are notes on the current releases.
Four Shadows Riesling Dry 2021 ($23.99). This wine begins with citrus aromas. On the palate, there are flavours of lime and apple. The finish is crisp with bright acidity. 90.
Four Shadows Riesling Classic 2022 ($23.99). This off-dry Riesling is packed with fruit: aromas of peach, lemon and apple leading to flavours of stone fruits and grapefruit. The residual sugar is well-balanced and the finish lingers. 92.
Four Shadows Pinot Blanc 2022 ($N/A). This is a crisp and lean white with aromas and flavours of green apples mingled with lime. The finish is quite dry. 89.
Four Shadows Rosé 2022 ($24.99). This is a Pinot Noir/Merlot blend with an attractive rose hue. A delicious and refreshing rosé, the wine is packed with flavours of strawberry, raspberry and grapefruit. A hint of residual sweetness lifts the texture. 90.
Four Shadows Pinot Noir 2019 ($30.99). This barrel-aged wine begins with aromas of cherry that lead to flavours of cherry and blackberry. There is a classic note of forest floor on the finish. The texture is firm. 90.
Four Shadows Zweigelt 2021 ($25.99). The light-bodied wine begins with aromas of cherry and pomegranate. The palate delivers flavours of raspberry, cherry and pomegranate. 90.
Four Shadows Merlot 2019 ($28.99). This full-bodied red begins with aromas of black currant and black cherry. On the palate, there are flavours of black currant mingled with plum, black cherry, chocolate and spice. 90.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Tightrope champions Naramata Bench

Photo: Tightrope's Lyndsay and Graham O'Rourke
While most British Columbia Syrahs now are grown in the South Okanagan or the Similkameen, the Tightrope Syrah is a reminder that this Rhône varietal was planted first in the Okanagan on the Naramata Bench. In 1990, Nichol Vineyards, which is near Naramata village, imported from France about 1,350 Syrah vines. These were planted against a west-facing cliff which reflects the heat of the sun across the vineyard.
Then in 2000, Richard Roskell planted primarily Syrah in the seven and a half acre Marichel Vineyard. Other growers also have since planted the varietal. Terravista Vineyards, which has released Syrah made with Osoyoos fruit, planted Syrah several years ago in a vineyard on the west side of Naramata Road. The trick with this heat-loving varietal, which ripens fairly late, is to plant it in a warm site, as Alex Nichol did in 1990. Tightrope’s Syrah is from the Paisley Vineyard on Upper Bench Road. Owned by Dr. David Paisley, it is on a steep west-facing slope which, the winery says, makes it excellent for ripening grapes. Neighboring Four Shadows Vineyard & Winery has its vines on a similar slope.
The other two wines in the currant package from Tightrope are both from grapes grown in the estate’s own Fleet Road Vineyard. Merlot is more widely planted on the Naramata Bench than Syrah and arguably in the Okanagan’s most reliable red. Regardless of the source of the fruit, winemaker Lyndsay O’Rourke (co-owner with husband Graham) has stamped a consistent style on the wines. All show impeccable concentration of aroma, flavour and texture.
Here are my notes.
Tightrope Riesling 2021 ($24 for 212 cases). The estate-grown grapes were whole-cluster pressed and, after overnight skin contact, were fermented cool for about 30 days. While there is just over 23 grams of residual sugar in the wine, the bright acidity needs it for balance. This will age very well. The wine has aromas of citrus. The layers of flavour on the palate mingle citrus with stone fruit. The finish is persistent. 92.
Tightrope Merlot 2020 ($30 for 253 cases). The estate-grown grapes were destemmed into half-ton fermenters and cold-soaked for five days before fermentation. The grapes were on the skins about three weeks before being pressed into barrel for 12 months aging in French oak (50% new). Dark in colour, this full-bodied Merlot begins with aromas of dark cherry and plum. On the palate, the flavours of blueberry, dark cherry and plum and the ripe tannins lead to a lingering finish. 93.
Tightrope Syrah 2019 ($40 for 395 cases). There is six percent Viognier co-fermented with the Syrah. The wine was fermented in small lots in stainless steel and then aged 12 months in French oak barrels (50% new) and in one American oak barrel. The wine begins with aromas of dark cherry, plum and blackberry. There are layers of flavour on the generous palate, including plum, blueberry, pepper and anise. 93.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Fort Berens remarkable wines

Photo: Heleen Pannekoek and Rolf de Bruin (Courtesy Fort Berens Winery)
When they moved from Holland in 2008, Heleen Pannekoek and Rolf de Bruin took a big chance when they established Fort Berens Estate Winery at Lillooet rather than in established winegrowing regions of British Columbia. That risk has worked out well for the winery owners; and for communities in the Fraser Valley. The current releases from Fort Berens are among the winery’s best. At last year’s WineAlign National Wine Awards, Fort Berens was judged number three among the ten best small wineries in Canada. That is quite impressive from a producer that pioneered a new wine-growing region in British Columbia.
This is also a winery that is giving back to its community. After the nearby village of Lytton was destroyed by wild fire in 2021, Fort Berens last summer launched a fund-raising campaign to raise $125,000 to help Lytton rebuild. Like Fort Berens’s wines, the campaign over-delivered, raising $164,000. The funds have been directed to the rebuilding of the town’s outdoor pool. While Lytton needs more than that, this is a contribution of funds that may not have been there without a successful winery in Lillooet.
The winery’s current releases showcase three vintages: estate-grown reserve reds from 2019 along with wines from 2020 and 2021. The 2020 vintage in Lillooet (as elsewhere in British Columbia) was of very good quality but limited in quantity. For some reason, the vines produced small bunches with smaller berries. The result was wines with more intense flavours – but with yields 20% to 40% lower than expected. Wines from the 2020 vintage are already in short supply. In 2021, berries again were small due to the impact of the heat dome in June. Lillooet had the highest temperatures ever recorded in June. Fortunately for quality of the 2021 wines, the Lillooet vineyards were spared smoke damage from the wild fires. The 2021 Fort Berens wines are fresh and full of clean flavours.
Here are notes.
Fort Berens White Gold 2020 ($29.99 for 140 cases). The fruit is whole-cluster pressed estate-grown Chardonnay, fermented in barrel with native yeast. The wine went through malolactic fermentation in barrel and then aged about 10 months in French oak (17% new). The wine has aromas and flavours of nectarine and apple mingled subtly with buttery vanilla notes. 92.
Fort Berens White Gold 2021 ($31.99 for 260 cases). The wine was made with estate-grown fruit and benefitted from a long, slow ripening period. Half of the fruit was crushed and left on the skins for four hours. The must was settled overnight before being transferred to barrel and fermented with natural yeast. The other half was whole-cluster pressed and the juice went into barrel. Fermentation was with natural yeast. The wine was aged nine months in French oak (30% new). Only partial malolactic took place. This is a lovely Chardonnay, with aromas and flavours of peach, apple and citrus mingled with vanilla and almond. 93.
Fort Berens Riesling Reserve 2020 ($29.99 for 200 cases). This wine was made with estate-grown fruit. It was whole-cluster pressed and fermented with natural yeast in stainless steel. A hint of residual sugar is balanced well with bright acidity. However, the initial impression is austerity until the wine has had a chance to breath. A case can be made for decanting this wine – or laying it down to age a few years. The texture is concentrated. The wine has aromas and flavours of citrus and apricots with a classic note of petrol. 92.
Fort Berens Riesling Reserve 2021 ($29.99 for 325 cases). This wine was made with estate-grown grapes from low-cropped, select rows. Half of the grapes were crushed, left on the skins for 12 hours before being pressed into barrel for fermenting with natural yeast. The other half were whole-cluster pressed and fermented in barrel with natural yeast. The wine spent nine months in French oak (12% new). The wine begins with appealing aromas of lemon, spice and peach. The creamy palate delivers flavours of lemon and peach. 92.
Fort Berens Pinot Noir 2020 ($34.99 for 296 cases). This superb wine was a platinum award winner at last year’s National Wine Awards. The berries, left uncrushed to minimize tannin extraction from the seeds, were fermented with a select Burgundy yeast. Pump-overs three times a day during fermentation extracted colour and flavour. The wine was aged about 10 months in barrel: half in American oak, half in French oak, of which 25% was new. The wine is dark-hued. Aromas of cherry mingle with toasted oak. The full, silken palate delivers flavours of cherry, raspberry and even plum, with a lingering spice on the finish. 92.
Fort Berens Pinot Noir 2021 ($34.99 for 360 cases). The grapes were destemmed and crushed; then after a two-day cold soak, were fermented with select Burgundy yeast. Three daily pump-overs took place during ferment. The wine was then aged nine months in neutral oak. This is a bright, cheerful Pinot Noir, with aromas and flavours of raspberry and cherry. The wine is medium-bodied with a silky texture. 90.
Fort Berens Pinot Noir Reserve 2020 ($38.99 for 110 cases). This wine was made with estate-grown clone 115 Pinot Noir. For fermentation, 20% of the clusters were left whole. The wine was matured 10 months in French oak (20% new). Decanting is recommended to let this tightly-structured wine show its aromas of cherry and pomegranate and flavours of cherries. There is a hint of forest floor on the silky finish. 93.
Fort Berens Pinot Noir Reserve 2021 ($41.99 for 290 cases). This wine was made with estate grown fruit (clones 115 and 667). After a two-day cold soak, the destemmed and crushed grapes were inoculated with Burgundy yeast. There were twice-daily punch-downs and pump-overs during fermentation, with three days of maceration on the skins before the wine was pressed into French oak barrels (25% new) for nine months aging. The wine begins with aromas of red cherry, cranberry and spice. The silky palate delivers flavours of dark cherry and pomegranate mingled with spice and oak on the finish. 94.
Fort Berens Cabernet Franc 2020 ($32.99 for 1,000 cases). This is an intense wine, the result of a three-day cold soak; a 26-day ferment with pump-overs every four hours; and three days of maceration before the wine was pressed to barrel. It was 15 months in barrels (50% French, 50% American). A hint of toasty oak mingles with bramble berry aromas. On the palate, there are flavours of blackberry, plum and dark cherry. 92.
Fort Berens Cabernet Franc Reserve 2019 ($39.99 for 190 cases). This is an impressive estate-grown Cabernet Franc, picked late in the season for full ripeness. Extended skin contact extracted a dark colour, layers of flavour and a full body. The wine was aged 15 months in oak (40% new). Of those barrels, 70% were French, 30% American oak. The wine begins with aromas of black currant, dark cherry and blackberry which are echoed on the palate. There are long, ripe tannins on the finish. 93.
Fort Berens Meritage 2020 ($31.99 for 1,600 cases). This is 65% Merlot, 18% Cabernet Franc and 17% Cabernet Sauvignon. A four-day cold soak preceded inoculation with Bordeaux yeast strains. Each varietal was fermented and barrel-matured separately for 15 months (50% American and 50% French oak). The final blend was put together after the wines came out of barrel. This is a medium-bodied wine. Aromas of cherry and cassis lead to flavours of dark cherry, plum and black currant with a hint of ch0colate. 91.
Fort Berens Meritage Reserve 2019 ($39.99 for 160 cases). This estate-grown Meritage is 86% Merlot, 14 % Cabernet Franc. Each varietal was fermented and aged separately, to be blended after 15 months aging in barrel (60% French, 40% American, with 13% of the oak being new). The wine is a tour de force, with aromas of cassis and dark cherry that leap from the glass. On the palate, the wine has rich, spicy flavours of dark cherry, plum and black currant. The finish is persistent. 95.