Posts Tagged ‘British Columbia wineries’

Fresh Starts & Fine Wines in the Okanagan Valley

Posted by Susan

Monday, March 17th, 2014
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Each trip to B.C.’s Okanagan Valley is a new adventure – tasting wines from a new vintage, visiting old friends at existing wineries, or talking to individuals who have decided to turn their minds, hearts and hands to the cultivation of grapes and the vinification of unique wines. My recent visit was no exception, providing an exceptional opportunity to take an extensive tour of the Triggs’ family new venture, Culmina Family Estate Winery on the Golden Mile, and to visit Platinum Bench Estate Winery on the Black Sage Bench as well as Spierhead Winery in southeast Kelowna.

Culmina Winery

Donal TriggsThe Golden Mile bench in the south Okanagan, between Oliver and Osoyoos, is legendary, named not so much for the quality of the soil for tree fruits and grape vines, but rather for the gold mines that were worked in the area in the late 1800s. Don Triggs greeted us when we arrived, brimming with energy and enthusiasm for this new project.  After the sale of Vincor (which included Jackson-Triggs, co-founded by Triggs) in 2006, Don took a year off – ‘but I got bored, so I talked to Elaine and the family about starting a new winery. My youngest daughter Sara said she’d be interested, so here we are . . .’. In 2007, the Triggs family purchased an existing property which included some established vines.

Reaching for the peak

Don had a very clear notion of what he wanted to achieve: ‘Culmina means summit, and our goal is to reach for the peak in Bordeaux-style wines, producing premium wines that are the best that can be achieved from our estate. Culmina is also the root of the word culmination, and this winery is the ultimate expression of our family and its values in the wine business.’  The estate honors members of the Triggs family, the principle 48-acre vineyard named ‘Arise’ after the estate of an ancestor of Don’s who was awarded 10 acres in Barbados in the late 1600’s by the British monarch after serving as a ship’s purser. Margaret’s bench, a 10-acre vineyard which has to be one of the highest on the Golden Mile, is named after Don’s mother, while Stan’s bench, also 10 acres, is named after Elaine’s father.

 Taking the tour

Our tour of the property made it clear that the latest in technology has guided and continues to support the Triggs family’s focus on outstanding quality in its vineyards and wines. Don discussed the research that went into selecting and then assessing the site; how numerous soil test pits were dug in the vineyards, how water retention in the soils was measured, to the extent that the Arise vineyard is subdivided into 1.25 acre micro-sites, each planted with unique root stocks and clones of Syrah and the Bordeaux varieties. Degree days were measured, once again to ensure that the appropriate grape varieties were planted in the optimal temperature zones. The Arise vineyard has the highest overall number of degree days at 1500, Margaret’s bench, the lowest at 1280-1350 (look for Riesling, Chardonnay and Grüner on this property), while Stan’s bench offers an interesting dichotomy – a south-facing rock wall along a reach of this vineyard retains heat and drives up degree days to as much as 1800 (you’ll find the Malbec, Petit Verdot and Viognier here), while the part of the vineyard without the rock wall has degree days half way between the Arise vineyard and Margaret’s bench.

It’s all in the sun & the shade

Okanagan vineyard in fallSatellite imaging was used to assess the extent and impact of the afternoon shadows that slip down the mountain and across the vineyard, determining where the Merlot would be planted so that it benefits from the cooling effects of the afternoon shade. Small solar panels dot the vineyards, powering batteries that feed the environmental monitoring systems measuring soil moisture, temperature and other data.  Interested in the technology? Sara Triggs is not only a partner in this venture, but an outstanding tasting room hostess, and the brains behind the Culmina website, where you can find maps and diagrams of the ‘vineyard mapping’ undertaken by the family.

 Ever heard of dry-land farming?

Don has.  Recognizing the risk of water shortages in the coming decades, he has also initiated an experimental planting of dry-land farmed vines. Grafted to vigorous, drought-resistant rootstock that will send their roots up to 30 metres down in search of water, the 1000 vines of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah have been planted 2×2 metres apart on a steep slope without disturbing the natural vegetation. Drip irrigation will be used for the first 3 years, with the intent to eliminate watering once the vines reach that stage. At maturity, the vines will be pruned to the goblet, or ‘bush vine’ shape to enhance their survivability in this desert landscape.

 Arts & Science at Culmina

culmina winery logoThe family’s prior experience and their appreciation of the arts and sciences manifests itself in all aspects of Culmina. The winery graphic is a fine and unique representation of the old bush vines found in such dry, windy climates as the east coast of Spain and the south of France. Displaying clean, modern lines and materials, the winery tasting room and outdoor patio is architecturally inviting and warm. The environmental monitoring system is the first major installation of this type in Canada. The initial research was extensive, and the data collection continues, providing an ongoing record that can be used to adjust and adapt as required. The technology is married to age-hold practices of hand-planting, hand-pruning and hand-picking the fruit. And there is a strong emphasis on sustainability, manifested in the cover crops between the rows, designed to attract beneficial insect populations and to manage the vigor of the vines, sourcing of local cow manure as fertilizer, the use of hand-split cedar posts or galvanized steel to eliminate chemical leaching, use of under-canopy irrigation to minimize water usage, as well as construction of the winery to optimize solar gain and energy efficiency.

 Drawing on expertise from Bordeaux

To produce his iconic wines, Don Triggs turned to Alain Sutre and Pascal Madevon, both sons of Bordeaux, whom he worked with in the early days of the Osoyoos-Larose joint venture. Pascal joined Culmina as winemaker in January of this year and, in this, his first vintage at the winery, was hovering between the sorting table and the de-stemmer as the Merlot made its way from vine to fermentation tank in the gravity-flow winery. As we talked about Culmina, he spoke passionately about this new venture and the potential of the fruit coming off the vineyards.

Taste the real fruit

The Triggs’ family have a flavour profile in mind for their wines. Says Don, ‘Let the fruit be uninterfered with as possible’. The fruit from each block goes into its own tank and goes through extended fermentation to soften the tannins. Fermentation is held to lower temperatures to ensure the sustainability of the aromatics. Grapes and fermenting wine are tasted, the wine created to match the desired profile. French oak is used in aging, the barrels specified by Alain Sutre, purchased from 5 coopers who use a mix of barrel staves from four renowned French oak forests. Literally no stone is left unturned, no detail too small to be addressed.

 Striving for perfection

To quote the Triggs family, their focus is on ‘three fundamental principles: first, their love and appreciation for art and design; second their understanding that by applying scientific principles, it’s possible to reach high calibre results; third, that only in striving for perfection is there the possibility of achieving excellence.’

 Tasting wines at Culmina…a Dilemma

Culmina opened in late August, 2013, offering tasting and sale of their initial vintage, 2011 Dilemma (Chardonnay) and Hypothesis (Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon), as well as their 2012 Saignée Rosé (Cabernet Sauvignon and Gamay). The wines deliver on the promise: the rosé a fine balance of lovely red fruit, floral notes and clean acidity, offering a silky yet crisp texture; Dilemma, produced from the original 20-year vines on the estate (after waiting 3 years to taste his own Chardonnay grapes at maturity, Don made the decision – it was a dilemma, says he – to tear out the old vines), fermented in new French oak and aged partly in barrel, partly in stainless, very expressive, with attractive minerality, hints of toasted nut, orchard fruit and tropical notes, showing an outstanding integration of oak and a creamy yet fresh texture; Hypothesis, the icon, described by Don as offering Cab Franc on the nose, Merlot through the mid-palate, with Cab Sauv securing the long finish, is an elegant yet full-bodied cellar-worthy wine with complex aromas and flavours—floral notes, earth, berries, spice and toast—with the lovely tension of clean acidity and fine-grained tannins married to well-ripened fruit.

Where to buy? Head to BC!

Alas, the wines are available only at Culmina or through the wine club, but we can look forward to on-line ordering in the future, perhaps when the 2013 vintage is released. Based on the conditions of the vintage and the fruit at harvest, Don is expecting ripe, elegant wines – the summer heat brought the sugars to an ideal level, then the cooler weather in September allowed the tannins to ripen, and October again brought warm temperature, allowing the fruit to mature.

If you travel to the Okanagan, don’t miss the opportunity to reserve your own tour and tasting at Culmina! Or get on Sara’s mailing list so that you’re the first to know about direct ordering from Culmina.

 

Platinum Bench Estate Winery

Pickers are in the vineyard and the warm scent of fresh-baked bread is drifting through the doorway as I arrive at Platinum Bench Estate Winery. Fiona Duncan is up to her elbows in flour and bread dough, a timer always in her pocket or on the counter – ‘If you can wait 5 minutes, the bread will be out of the oven and we can do a tasting’.

cheeses1I browse the wines, and the tiny fridge, which advertises artisanal cheeses from Poplar Grove and Kootenay Alpine Cheese Company (their Alpindon is a favorite). A young couple hangs out on the deck overlooking the hills behind the Black Sage bench, waiting for their soprasata and swiss cheese mini-loaf. They’re heading home to Vancouver, and couldn’t resist just one more taste of Fiona’s unique bread with their Platinum Estate Cab Sauv, once they get home, of course.

Outgoing and friendly, Fiona and her husband are the team that makes Platinum Bench work. He’s in the vineyard, she’s in the small kitchen, baking bread, and in the tasting room, insisting you try the entire flight of wines, with the bread, of course, and perhaps a taste of local cheeses. Their philosophy: ‘to achieve a great wine, one must first approach the land and vines with meticulous care, cropping, and respect . . .’

The winery & the bakery go hand in hand at Platinum

Originally from Vancouver via Winnipeg, Fiona decided a few years ago that she wanted to become an expert croissant maker. After a year and a half of experimenting, with mixed but generally satisfying results, she decided to formally enroll in a course. But she had to complete her ‘bread level’s first; consequently she became a qualified baker as well as a croissant expert! So when the couple decided they wanted to buy a vineyard and make wine in the Okanagan, the germ of an idea was born. How about a winery that is also an artisanal bakery, featuring local cheeses? And, then Fiona came up with these uniquely flavoured breads to taste with the wine:  Double cream brie and pear is paired with the whites; soprasata and swiss generally pairs with the lighter reds; gorgonzola and fig is reserved for the heavier reds.

 Taste the real fruit

Platinum Bench wineryWith the help of Harry McWatters, the couple patiently waited for a vineyard suitable for the style of wine they wanted to produce to come on the market. The property they eventually purchased is one of the first planted on the Black Sage Bench, with vines that are now almost 20 years old. They moved out to the Okanagan in 2011, after the purchase of the property. Says Fiona, ‘We were lucky, as the site had 15 acres under vine, as well as a winery building and a small apartment where the former vineyard manager lived. We moved right in and immediately started taking viticulture and viniculture courses. Our focus is really on quality fruit – we still sell some grapes, as well as producing our own wine.’

In between the beeps of the timer (I admit to having arrived right at opening), Fiona offers a tasting of their first vintage, as well as her delicious breads (they’re shaped like a chain of tiny stuffed buns). The 2011 Chardonnay was blended from wines aged in stainless, new French oak and neutral French oak. Showcasing a clean crisp texture, it offers lovely flavours of orchard fruit, a touch of spice and delicious honeyed butterscotch.

Due to the late bud break, the 2011 Merlot was cropped early, providing a better opportunity for the sugars to concentrate in the grapes, then the long warm autumn allowed the tannins to soften, creating a nicely balanced wine. Dry, medium bodied, there’s the lovely tang of red fruits, subtle oaky notes and a touch of pepper on the finish.

The 2011 Cabernet Franc offers attractive floral and herbal aromas, hints of roasted red pepper, ripe berries and a touch of peppery spice. The 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon is firmly structured, spicy, toasty, showcasing blackberry and red berry, finishing tangy and clean.

The 2011 Platinum Bench Red is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (60%), Merlot (35%) and Gamay (5%), displaying attractive floral notes, rich fruit aromas and a nicely balanced structure. Dry, medium bodied, the fine-grained tannins balance a rush of fresh, well-ripened fruit. Platinum Bench also releases two styles of  Gamay, one in the spring, described by Fiona as a white wine on steroids (unfortunately, it was sold out), and a fall version that’s small-batch fermented and aged 10 months in new French oak, described by Fiona as fuller, rounder, and very smooth. If you want the ultimate in on-site food and wine pairing, make tracks for Platinum Bench!

Spierhead Estate Winery

 Before catching my flight out of Kelowna, I headed to Spierhead Estate Winery, located above the lakeshore southeast of the city. The winery was established six years ago on an abandoned hiilside apple orchard that used to be part of the Turton family estate. The vines are now 4 years old, covering 20.4 acres and the winery has won numerous accolades: best winery in B.C. in 2012;  best Pinot Noir for their 2010 (a first vintage) at the 2012 Canadian Wine Awards; double gold for their Pinot Noir Rosé at the 2013 All Canadian Wine Championships; and gold for their Pinot Gris (unfortunately sold out) at the recent Okanagan fall wine festival.

wineryEstablished by a partnership of 3 individuals, including an Okanagan-based winery photographer, the estate is situated on sandy, rocky soil, produces about 3000 cases of wine and grows its own Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Noir. For its Pursuit and Vanguard Bordeaux-style blends, Spierhead sources its grapes from a south-Okanagan vineyard owned and overseen by one of the modern Okanagan wine industry’s best-known pioneers, Harry McWatters.

The 2011 Riesling has a lovely delicate nose of flowers, fruit and mineral, with a lively crisp lemon-lime texture. The 2011 Chardonnay is only slightly oaked (20% of the fruit spent 10 months in French oak), showcasing stone fruit, floral notes, mineral and a touch of passionfruit. It’s dry, fresh and tangy, balancing flavours of orchard fruit and citrus with a refined note of toasted nut.

The 2012 Pinot Noir and Pinot Noir Reserve were released 2 days before my visit (what luck!), both aged 10 months in oak, the latter crafted from select barrels. The Pinot Noir is light-medium bodied, tangy in texture, showcasing mineral, red berry and a touch of toast, while the Reserve is medium-full bodied, rich and silky in texture, perfumed with red and black fruits, spice and a hint of toast, finishing long and smooth.

okanagan red grapesThe 2011 Pursuit is primarily an equal blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon with a dash of Cabernet Franc, aged 18 months in oak. Dry, medium-full bodied, it offers complex lifted aromas, subtle structure and a clean texture, a basket of ripe red and black fruits garnished with notes of spice, herbs and red peppers.

The 2011 Vanguard is primarily Merlot, blended with equal shares of the Cabernets. There’s a subtle nose of black cherry and berries, vanilla and cedar. It’s dry, firm, full bodied, with a nice balance of fine-grained tannins, fresh acidity and ripe plum, cherry and berry mingling with notes of peppery spice. Spierhead wines are available at the winery, but may also be ordered directly through the wine club.

Enjoy these wonderful new BC wines!

Susan

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Tripping through Okanagan & Similkameen wineries in BC

Posted by Susan

Monday, March 7th, 2011
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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.

 Cheers!
Susan

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Tripping through Okanagan & Similkameen wineries in BC

Posted by Susan

Monday, March 7th, 2011
Share

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.

 Cheers!
Susan

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