Posted by SusanMonday, March 7th, 2011
I couldn’t resist yet another week in the Okanagan this year, with a day trip to the Similkameen.
October is a lovely time of year to visit the area, with the brilliant autumn colors of the vines and fruit trees balanced by the subtle tones of the desert sage and antelope brush. We stayed at the Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort & Spa, which is co-located with the Nk’Mip Winery, the Nk'Mip Desert Cultural Centre and the Sonora Dunes Golf Course on a bench of Anarchist Mountain, just above Lake Osoyoos. The resort provides a beautiful view of the vineyards of the southern Okanagan, stretching north toward the Golden Mile and the Black Sage Bench, and south to the Washington state border. This area provides an ideal climate for red vinifera grapes, but is also home to the northern tip of the Sonoran desert as well as many endangered species. We attended a very interesting presentation at the Desert Cultural Centre, where an interpreter discussed the research they are conducting to help preserve the endangered local snake species. And, discussions with winery owners demonstrate their awareness of and sensitivity to the unique environment.
Once settled in, it was time to visit a few of the smaller, independently owned wineries in the Okanagan. And a day trip to the Similkameen introduced us to some new and promising winemakers.
After hearing Jack Fraser speak with great passion at the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival about his winery in Summerland, Thornhaven Estates, a visit was in order. I’d only had a chance to sample his Gewurtz, after all! When we arrived, we were greeted by Jan, Jack and their daughter Courtney. Jason, their son the winemaker, was in town on an errand. The road to Thornhaven is a long and winding one, up the mountain overlooking Lake Okanagan, but it’s well worth it, for the view and for the great wines. Jack’s cousin brought the property as a fruit farm in the early 1990s, began planting vines in 1996, and opened the winery in 1999. The winery is a lovely southwestern-style adobe structure with an inviting walled terrace – given slightly warmer weather, we would have been sipping our wine there.
After returning to Canada in 2000 from a series of expatriate assignments, Jack became involved in the vineyard and eventually took over Thornhaven from his cousin in 2005. From there, the entire family became involved. Jason, who has a great natural palate, was trained by Jack’s cousin and works with a consulting winemaker. Jack is the resident viticulturalist, Jan handles all general management issues, and Courtney manages the wine shop. A true family affair!
The Frasers produce a range of wines, including a fresh Pinot Gris, a wonderfully aromatic Gewurtztraminer, a fruity Pinot Meunier, a burgundian-style Pinot Noir, a Syrah (their first vintage) and a Merlot. They also have two blends, Trinity, which includes a unique combination of Merlot, Gamay and Pinot Noir and Evolution, a typical Meritage blend. We finished the tasting with two unique lip smacking late harvest wines, Nectar del Sol whic is made from Riesling, Viognier and Muscat, and Diosa, produced from Chardonnay fermented in barriques for 3 months.
With vineyards high on the slopes above the Okanagan, all grapes are hand harvested. Jack credits two factors for the unique characteristics of his wines: the soils, which are volcanic in origin hence packed with minerals, and the ‘lake effect’ of warm air moving up the slopes from the lake in the morning, then cooler air rolling back down in the evening.
The family was in great spirits as we left, as they had just learned they are among the 10 wineries selected as finalists for B.C. winery of the year award.
We also stopped to visit with Stefanie and Bernd Schales at 8th Generation Vineyard. With a long winemaking pedigree in Germany, both Stefanie and Bernd wanted to establish their own winery. After stints in South Africa and New Zealand, they found their dream on this property between Penticton and Summerland. Not without resistance from the family!! Stefanie’s father was convinced that the location would be too cold and that they would lose their vines. When he finally visited a couple of years ago, the summer heat and fine soils convinced him they had potentially better growing conditions than in Germany.
8th Generation has vineyards in Summerland, where they grow all their Pinot Noir, and near Okanagan Falls, where the whites are grown. They feel that the local terroir produces rounder smoother more earthy Pinot Noir, while the sandy soils in Okanagan Falls retain the fresh flavors of the whites. Their goal is to produce their grapes using organic techniques, although they use a minor amount of chemicals for weed control.
Their small production of 2800 cases includes a fresh fruity Pinot Gris, a classic German-style Riesling with great minerality, a citrusy dry Riesling as well as a rich sweet off-dry Riesling. The reds include Pinot Noir, a Merlot aged 12 months in barrel, and a Syrah which had a palate redolent of spicy fruit, pepper and herbal notes. What a wonderful selection!
If you are visiting the Summerland area, don’t miss tasting Thornhaven and 8th Generation wines.
Other exciting initiatives in the southern Okanagan include the complete renovation of Hester Creek Winery and the establishment of Cassini Cellars by Adrian Capeneata.
With substantial investment by the owner and the design skills of Rob Summers, the winemaker at Hester Creek, the winery now has a state-of-the-art cellar and winemaking facility to handle the grapes from its 85 acres on the Golden Mile. Rob placed particular emphasis on the improved safety in the facility, the quality of the steel tanks newly installed, and the extensive barrel vault. The new tasting facility, built with a dramatic cathedral ceiling and a fabulous view over the vineyards, includes a tasting bar, a tasteful shop stocked with unique items, a private dining room and a fully equipped kitchen. This facility was built largely into the mountain to take advantage of the thermal mass and uses geothermal systems for heating and cooling. It joins the lovely guest villas located just above the winery. And the wines, of course, are wonderful.
Cassini Cellars is located just off Highway 97 between Oliver and Osoyoos in a ochre-colored adobe-style builing that blends beautifully with the desert landscape. From a winemaking family in Roumania, Adrian was involved with the construction industry for many years. However, he and his wife fell in love with the Okanagan on a visit there, so he decided to return to his roots. He purchased a local lavender farm in 2006 (all the plants were sold to eager buyers), planted mainly red varietals, with a few whites, and began construction, largely on his own, of the new winery. When I visited this fall, the winery had just recently opened and Adrian was still hard at work in the winemaking facilities. Working with consulting winemaker Phil Soo, he produced a Pinot Noir Reserve 2007 which won a silver medal at Intervin. His Viognier had lush tropical fruit aromas, while the Gewurtz was dry and elegant. I’m sure we’ll hear more about his wines.
Bill Eggert of Fairview Cellars was also a welcoming host at his rustic winery tucked away behind the Fairview golf course west of Oliver. I had tasted his Cabernet Franc at the Vancouver Playhouse Winefest, only to discover upon arrival that it is sold out! However, Bill was more than willing to share his other big reds, including Mad Cap Red--a lush blend of predominantly Merlot with the Cabernets--the BOS, made from 70% Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from Sam Baptiste, a legend in Okanagan viticulture, as well as his premium blend, the Bear, and a Cabernet Sauvignon. Go to his website and, I’m sorry to say, all the wines are sold out. While his reds are legendary, Bill offered a unique treat – a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon with intense characteristic aromas, a silky citrusy palate and a lingering finish. Wow – one bottle wasn’t enough!
After being dazzled by the great wines of the Okanagan, we took a day trip to the Similkameen Valley to visit with some of the new winemakers helping to build that unique region’s reputation. The newly established Similkameen Wineries Association has brought a small number of producers together to promote their terroir and unique wines. Available on their website is a terrific little map that explains how to get to the valley, and then clearly illustrates where each winery is located – a recommended item should your travels take you there – and they should!
We visited three relatively new wineries, including Robin Ridge Winery, EauVivre Winery & Vineyards, and Cerelia Vineyards and Estate Winery.
At Robin Ridge, Tim Cottrill and his wife purchased their property in 1996 and have been growing grapes since then, selling to local wineries. In 2006, after training with winemaker and owner of Herder Estates, Lawrence Herder, Tim produced his first vintage and opened his own winery. His 10 acres were planted in 1997 and include Chardonnay, Gamay, Pinot Noir and Merlot. Thirty percent of the fruit for his 07 Chardonnay was aged in barrel, creating an aromatic rounded wine with a great fruit flavors and refreshing acidity. The Pinot Noir, aged in French oak offers rich ripe berries, soft tannins and a spicy finish. The 06 Merlot, which includes a touch of Cabernet Sauvignon, was barrel-aged in French and American oak. It has a lush nose of plums, ripe berries, vanilla and sweet spices. Well-structured, it has a long finish with hints of cocoa and espresso.
Dale Wright and his wife Jeri are originally from Saskatechewan, but a visit to their daughter and their enjoyment of south Okanagan wines soon had them dreaming of a move. When the property in the Similkameen became available, they didn’t hesitate. They opened EauVivre just this August, and Dale introduced us to the wines from his first vintage. This included a toasty Chardonnay, aged in 1 and 2 year old barrels for 14 months, his intensely floral Gewurztraminer, a berry-rich Pinot Noir with fine tannins, and a wonderfully expressive Cabernet Franc, redolent of dark summer fruits, cocoa, vanilla and spices – get it if you can!
Our last stop in the Similkameen was at Cerelia Vineyards & Estate Winery, where we met Megan Mutch, her husband Corey, and their children. This venture is another family affair. While Megan and Corey were living in Grand Prairie, his parents decided to convert their fruit farm to vines. Would the kids come home to help out? Of course, since Corey is an orchardist at heart, and Megan had a dream of becoming a winemaker. They moved back and Megan began taking winemaking courses in Penticton and working with John Weber at Orofino while Corey worked with his family planting the vines. The couple has just opened a small tasting room within the large farmhouse family farmhouse, where they offered us samples of their first vintage steel-fermented Pinot Gris and Chardonnay – only about 200 cases of these wines were produced. But they have great plans – as evidenced by the winery and barrel cellars still under construction in the farmyard. And Megan, working with John Weber of Orofino as her mentor, has produced some lovely white wines. The Pinot Gris is fresh and crisp with ripe tree fruit flavors and a great balance of fruit and acidity on the finish. The Chardonnay, unoaked but left on the lies, has an aromatic nose of pear with a hint of citrus, a smooth mid palate and a lovely fresh finish. We also barrel sampled her 08 and 09 Merlot – very promising. Watch for more from this aspiring young winemaker and her family. There are great plans, including producing scrumptious wine jellies (our sample was delicious), and possibly establishing a B&B.
We headed back to our suite at the Spirit Ridge reminding ourselves that we never manage to visit all the wineries we’d like to, as every year the scene changes. Wineries expand, new ones open, winemakers move on and new varietals or blends are vinified. It’s what makes this Canadian wine region so exciting, and keeps us coming back for more.
If you’re thinking of taking a trip to the area, don’t hesitate to contact me. I’d enjoy helping you plan your winery visits. If not, consider visiting the LCBO Vintages Online Shop (search on Region), where there is currently a small but worthwhile selection of Okanagan wines from Road 13, Sandhill, and Sumac Ridge.