Friday 19 September 2014

Fort Berens Winery Grand Opening

This week marked yet another milestone for one of British Columbia’s most pioneering wineries. Invited media and the many friends of Fort Berens Estate Winery gathered in Lillooet to celebrate the official grand opening of the new tasting room and production facility. Still sporting that new construction smell, the delightfully orange-accented winery founded by Dutch immigrants Rolf de Bruin and Heleen Pannekoek is set to begin initial crush within days, as the 2014 harvest kicks off. After a few years successfully partnering with Okanagan Crush Pad for production assistance, the ambitious ownership team of Fort Berens is excited to break in their very own winery, and to celebrate the progress and promise it denotes.

Proudly flying the flag above a 21st century Fort

I was fortunate enough to board a bus bound for the celebrations during the early hours of the morning, alongside two dozen other local wine writers and enthusiasts. Our host and guide on the five hour journey north from Vancouver through the Fraser Canyon was Heleen herself, fresh from Wednesday’s VQA fall trade exhibition and the evening “Chef Meets BC Grape” food and wine tasting. Event organizer Kim Lawton had prepared a fully involved 15-hour day that began with a stop in Hope for morning refreshments at newly opened restaurant 293 Wallace. Chef Hiro Takeda was happy to provide mimosas and locally-sourced yogurt parfaits while conveying his excitement at being part of the town’s renaissance. The community is no longer content at being merely somewhere else’s stopover, and is pushing hard to rebrand as a worthy top-tier recreation destination. Over finely-crafted lattes from Blue Moose Cafe across the street we reviewed the bevy of information provided by AdvantageHOPE, and admired the enthusiasm and devotion of small businesses that energize communities.

Visit to Hope and Hiro Takeda's 293 Wallace Restaurant

Travelling along the rugged Trans-Canada Highway I admired the stunning canyon and mountain views for the first time, in one of BC’s most historic valleys. With the powerful Fraser river a constant companion we observed noticeable changes in flora as the local climate dried out further north. Heleen kept us informed with an impressive body of local knowledge: the fact that she could seemingly perform as a professional tour guide for the region after just five years in Canada emphasizes the local commitment of this winery team! Outside Boston Bar, we passed Fat Jack’s Diner at The Mighty Fraser Motel, where our upcoming lunch originated via Chef Todd Baiden, a Vancouver transplant who formerly operated underground restaurant 12B. In Lytton we crossed the Thompson River and witnessed with fascination its clear blue waters merging into the muddy Fraser, before eventually crossing “the Big Slide” at a point where Highway 12 is pared down to one lane in an active slide zone. Some nerve-wracking moments ensued as we traversed this section in a massive coach bus with the steep cliff edge on one side and the unsteady rock face on the other, barely held back by cables and fencing.

Laser-aligned vineyard rows visible to every Lillooet visitor

As we entered the outskirts of Lillooet Heleen pointed out some of the viticultural history of the region – experimental vineyards planted over the course of The Lillooet Grape Project initiated by former Mayor Christ’l Roshard. Weather tracking data gathered during that project confirmed the suitability of Lillooet as a grape-growing region, prompting Rolf & Heleen to establish Fort Berens as the first commercial vineyard (and now winery). At the intersection of Highways 12 and 99, we caught our first glimpse of the precise green rows and manicured vines we had come to see. Awaiting our arrival under a white tent was the full winery team, plus a second busload of visitors from the Okanagan, digging in to Chef Baiden’s generous tapas-style lunch. Along with cheese and charcuterie trays, there were several specific wine and food pairings, including creamy seafood soup shooters with balanced 2013 Chardonnay, quail skewers with fruity, silky 2012 Pinot Noir, ravioli with bright, ripe 2012 Cabernet Franc, elk roundels with rich 2012 Meritage, and apricot tarte tatin with clean, luxurious 2013 Late Harvest Riesling.

A delectable lunch spread courtesy of Chef Todd Baiden & Fat Jack's Diner

With more than enough to eat and drink we sat back to hear Heleen, Rolf, and their business partner Hugh Agro speak to the history and aspirations of this exciting venture. To recognize the site’s former use as an actual trading fort (built by the Hudson’s Bay Company in the nineteenth century), the three proprietors raised a flag in lieu of a more traditional ribbon cutting. Fortunately I had retained a little wine in my glass and was able to join the toast that Harry McWatters (the winery’s strategic consultant) led to congratulate the team. Harry’s presence (including his provision of red grapes from his Black Sage Bench Sundial Vineyard) illustrates Rolf and Heleen’s competence in cultivating lasting partnerships and friendships in the local wine industry: legendary viticulturist Dick Cleave also came on board as an early consultant, and Kenn Oldfield of Tinhorn Creek happily serves on the winery’s board of governors.

Rolf, Heleen, and Hugh prepare to raise the flag

Having taken care of some of the more pressing tasks (lunch included), it was finally time for us to explore the vineyards and winery! Small groups set out to learn more about what makes the new Fort Berens tick, with exciting questions and answers from those involved. To explain the design principles and practical aspects behind the attractive new building, Toronto-based architect David Agro was present in person. The winery and tasting room – best admired from Fort Berens’ own website – shows off clean lines, natural materials, and practical character that makes for an inviting venue with added value beyond winemaking: a wedding has already taken place on site. Expansive and revealing views of the tank room and production facilities will allow customers an intimate look inside the winery – which keeps pressure on the winemaking team to keep everything spic and span!

Vineyard Manager Megan DeVilliers answers questions in the vineyard

Walking a short distance down to the vineyard we heard from new Vineyard Manager/Viticulturist Megan DeVilliers, who is tasked with shepherding twenty acres of five-year-old vines that include Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. Next door is a second plot of similar size, awaiting planting in the coming years; one can imagine her excitement at the bountiful future ahead! Equally excited, and equally new to the team is Winemaker Danny Hattingh, who was next to show us around inside the spacious, gravity-feed winery. Some of the tanks are already full with newly blended 2013 Meritage, yielding space in the barrel rooms (dual, independent white and red cellars) for the 2014 vintage. With bottle aging a goal from the very beginning, an integrated warehouse can store up to 7,000 cases of wine, leaving room for expansion (as does the over-height ceiling in the tank room). Although current plans are to produce 6,000 cases this year, the facility can yield 12,000, allowing the winery to offer custom-crush assistance to nearby vineyards as the Lillooet appellation grows more successful.

Winemaker Danny Hattingh admires his gleaming new equipment

In the pristine, well-appointed Tasting Room Christ’l Roshard (the former Lillooet Mayor herself) welcomed us with a bright smile and glasses of 2012 “White Gold”, the winery’s reserve Chardonnay, of which only 200 cases were produced. Coming from fully oaked, partial malolactic fermentation of Black Sage grapes, and one year in French oak barrels, it is dramatically different from the more recent estate Chardonnay. A toasty nose leads into flavours of coconut and creamy tropical fruit with an assertive buttery texture – an exciting candidate for graceful aging. A short vertical of Pinot Noir followed: the new 2012 vintage showed ripe strawberry aromas and dark berry fruit flavours, all deliciously bright and fresh, with light tannins on the finish. Nearly five hundred cases were produced from a blend of five different clones, and the wine was awarded a gold medal at the All Canadian Wine Championships earlier this year. From 2011, the estate vineyard’s first vintage, a lighter colour was apparent with more delicate aromas. Only 65 cases were produced from yields under one ton per acre that year. The earthier palate maintained the bright fruit flavours, led by cherries and pomegranate.

Natural wood, steel, and concrete provide for functional aesthetics

Our visit was scheduled for little more than three hours – and we made superb use of that time – but the long drive back to Vancouver soon beckoned. Amid many congratulations and goodbyes the bus slowly filled back up, and we departed via Highway 99 towards Pemberton and Whistler, with Heleen once again providing fascinating background commentary on her new home. Samples of delicious Left Field Cider and Barkerville Brewing IPA (proudly produced with Lillooet’s own HOOH Hops) helped to refresh our palates before a final stop at Whistler’s Four Seasons Resort. The acclaimed Sidecut Restaurant had prepared a preview of the upcoming Cornucopia food and drink festival, paired naturally with Fort Berens wines. Executive Chef Tory Martindale assembled a creative and precisely plated selection that included a spicy Steakhouse “Sushi” Roll, seared Sockeye Salmon Tataki, juicy Crispy Prawns, rich Goat Cheese Lollipops, and Royal of Foie Gras toped with honey and red wine jelly. We excitedly even got the opportunity to sample the sold out 2013 Riesling, successor to the winery’s Lt. Governor’s Award-winning 2012 vintage.

Sidecut Cornucopia preview

I’ve had plans to visit Lillooet some time in the future ever since meeting Rolf & Heleen during the early stages of their winery. This recent trip was a wonderful surprise and an incredibly valuable opportunity to see and learn even more about the cutting edge of viniculture in BC, not to mention viewing another part of our beautiful province. Congratulations to the committed ownership team at Fort Berens, and the clearly passionate staff throughout the winery, vineyard, and tasting room. I look forward to following this winery, and the community they are building, for many years to come!

Tuesday 16 September 2014

BCWAS Bus Tour 2014 Acquisitions

The annual wine country pilgrimage to join the BC Wine Appreciation Society fall bus tour provides one of my best opportunities for wine shopping at the source. Although I like to visit the Similkameen and Okanagan Valleys during the summer, it’s only once autumn begins do the red wines I particularly covet begin to appear anew. As the Bus Tour was scheduled to take place in the northern Okanagan surrounding Kelowna this year I knew most of my shopping would be done on the way there. My journey would take me via Osoyoos and Oliver, where red varieties like Syrah, Merlot, and Cabernet thrive.

Some Similkameen and Black Sage Bench collectables

In the Similkameen Valley I made sure to stop at Orofino Vineyards to offer my greetings, whilst patiently awaiting my semi-annual “Collector’s Club” shipment later this fall. I very gratefully picked up some of the winery’s Platinum Award-winning Gamay to be served at an upcoming BCWAS event. Down the road at Seven Stones I was lucky enough to find owner George Hanson behind the tasting room bar, and we spent some time catching up before I departed with what should be some superb wines from the 2012 vintage: George’s small lot Cabernet Sauvignon (235 cases produced) and Syrah (only 125 cases) often sell out in short order. I took advantage of the wide selection of beautiful jewellery for sale to pick up a little something for my wife, while George passed along some tongue-in-cheek marital advice to go along with the silver necklace.

The Black Hills portfolio collection

Passing through Osoyoos I had the entire length of the Okanagan Valley ahead of me, with wineries left and right as I inched north towards Kelowna. At Burrowing Owl I snatched up a bottle of brand new 2012 Syrah, just bottled last month! At least a couple more new releases are upcoming later this fall, so I’ll have to hope I can order them from the winery (which fortunately ships in quantities as low as two bottles). Nearby, a visit to Black Hills was long planned so as to finally obtain a wooden box for my patiently-collected vertical of the winery’s Nota Bene red blend. The only way to get one of these beautiful boxes is to buy the pricey six-bottle portfolio collection. While the included whites will surely find a happy home with me in the short run, I relish the opportunity to cellar recently released 2012 Syrah and the exclusive 2012 Carménère. It’s no surprise the ultra-rare Carménère isn’t entered into competition, but the Syrah was awarded a Silver medal at this year’s National Wine Awards: judge and critic Anthony Gismondi recently suggested another two years in bottle would be ideal while penning his 88-point review.

Golden Mile acquisitions from Tinhorn Creek, Road 13, and Fairview Cellars

Having finished my business on the Black Sage Bench I traversed the valley floor west to the Golden Mile, where a handful of stops proved quite productive. At Road 13 Vineyards I picked up the newest vintage of the icon red “Fifth Element”, having missed the formal release by mere days at the time of my summer visit. With the 2011 in hand I now have a five year vertical reaching back to 2006 (the 2008 was never produced). I also couldn’t resist a bottle of the 2011 Jackpot Petit Verdot, of which only 67 cases were produced from some stellar Similkameen Valley fruit. I’ve been awaiting this wine, as I was lucky enough to try a stunning barrel sample 18 months ago during the 2013 Vancouver International Wine Festival. I took the opportunity to bring home a few bottles of newly released 2011 Sparkling Chenin Blanc as well, a long-time house favourite of friends and family, and recent Gold medal-winner at the National Wine Awards.

Up the road at Tinhorn Creek I swung through the tasting room and picked up my latest Crush Club order, consisting of a series of reserve Oldfield Series wines. The autumn release of reliable 2011 Oldfield Merlot and 2011 Oldfield 2Bench Red had originally provided for three bottles of each in my Club six-pack. However, seeking a bit more variety I had requested some allowed substitutions, consisting of one bottle of 2010 Oldfield Series Pinot Noir, and another of the 2012 Kerner Icewine. Early reviews of the 2011 reds have been positive, from the elegant Merlot, to the floral, fresh, and ripe 2Bench Red. With the clock ticking I quickly jumped next door to Fairview Cellars, where I squeaked in before the 5pm closing and came out with a bottle of 2012 “Crooked Post” Pinot Noir. While Proprietor Bill Eggert’s bigger 2012 reds remain aging in bottle until a spring 2015 release, the Pinot Noir comes from the first year of full production in his new Eagle Bluff vineyard. It’s a lighter wine than many as Bill doesn’t bleed off any juice for Rosé, but it deftly displays the consistent quality and purity for which he is known.

BCWAS Bus Tour treats from Arrowleaf, SpierHead, and Tantalus

Over the course of the two day bus tour I managed to find a few more gems, but I kept my purchasing in check, having added plenty to my cellar just on the way there! On the first day I took a chance on Arrowleaf’s 2012 Solstice Pinot Noir, after being quite impressed by the other very good value whites and reds we tasted there. Amongst those wines was the delicious 2013 Special Select Late Harvest Vidal, Gold medal-winner at the 2014 All Canadian Wine Championships. A couple bottles of Vidal joined the Pinot Noir, with the thought that at least one might serve well for future gifting opportunities. Day two brought us to SpierHead in the morning, where the winery’s impressive Pinot Noir was still awaiting bottling, but I was pleased to acquire a 2012 “Vanguard”. The 2012 may be the final vintage of this red blend as SpierHead focuses on Pinot Noir going forward. After lunch at Tantalus Vineyards I picked up a pre-ordered collection of 2011 Old Vines Riesling Natural Brut – purchased in advance this spring while still available for sale. A bottle of 2013 Syrah Icewine couldn’t be resisted as I recalled fondly the 2010 vintage I shared with friends nearly three years ago.

The entry hall of Sandhill's new tasting room and lounge

A relaxing trip home the following day saw me swing by only a couple more wineries to boost my haul, starting with an exciting visit to the brand new Sandhill Tasting Room in downtown Kelowna. The expansive new space is a huge upgrade from the previous room, boasting generous natural light, colourful displays, and extensive lounge space for event hosting. Admittedly on a Monday morning it was rather underutilized, but I can imagine plenty of room-filling functions are anticipated in the months and years to come. I carefully perused well-stocked shelves, to ensure I didn’t miss out on the rare Small Lots collection bottles, many of which are exclusive to the tasting room: into the remaining trunk space went 2011 Malbec (350 cases produced), Merlot (150 cases), and Petit Verdot (275 cases), plus 2012 Chardonnay (125 cases).

Small lots and rarities from Sandhill and Quails' Gate

Finally, in West Kelowna I made a short visit to Quails’ Gate in search of any winery-exclusive surprises, something I’ve come to expect from the Stewart family winery. My hunch was vindicated when I came across 2011 “Dijon Clone Selection” Pinot Noir, a wine last produced from the 2008 vintage, and well received at that time as well. Considering the 2011 isn’t even mentioned on the winery’s web site I can only assume a meagre amount was produced: at least 2,111 bottles though, considering I took home that particular numbered bottle. Unfortunately I seem to have just missed the release of several special 25th Anniversary wines, including the winery’s first Syrah! At least a bottle of rich, luscious 2013 Botrytis-affected Optima will help to soothe that frustration, putting a particularly sweet finish on my 2014 cellar compilation.

Sunday 14 September 2014

BCWAS Bus Tour 2014: East Kelowna

After an exciting day touring a number of wineries in Lake Country, members on the BC Wine Appreciation Society Bus Tour had worked up a healthy appetite for dinner. Refreshed by a swim at Kelowna’s Sheraton Four Points, plus a beer or two, we hopped back into our buses and zipped down to the renowned CedarCreek Estate Winery in the city’s southern reaches. CedarCreek’s steeply slopped vineyards and Okanagan Lake waterfront location were set to provide a memorable outdoor meal as the sun slowly set in the stunning blue sky.

Darryl Brooker leads a short tour of the CedarCreek Home Vineyard

Before we took our places for dinner Winemaker Darryl Brooker was eager to show off the verdant vineyards from which he harvests. With some trepidation as we headed steeply uphill a vigorous march through lush Merlot and Pinot Noir brought us to a table set amongst the vines. From there Darryl was able to reference the specific vineyard blocks surrounding us, and detail their surprising differentiation. We sipped lemon-lime 2013 Riesling and nibbled on Halibut Ceviche from the Terrace Restaurant kitchen below as Darryl pointed out landmarks including his own home even further uphill, and a new winery under hasty construction immediately next door. The Martin’s Lane Winery being built by Von Mandl Family Estates (i.e., Mission Hill), CedarCreek’s new owner, will be devoted to premium Pinot Noir, and Darryl has been tasked with leading the international search for a winemaker!

A second sample from our lofty perch above the lake provided a taste of the 2011 Platinum Block 2 Pinot Noir, with accompanying Duck Prosciutto on Toast Point. Despite being separated by only 100 feet grapes from Blocks 2 and 4 show remarkably different qualities, which the winery further explored recently by digging exploratory trenches. Prevalent sand and stones in Block 2, closer to the lake, contribute to a lighter, more delicate wine: we tasted a fruit forward, floral profile in a wine drinking quite well in the present. Further uphill in Block 4 thicker clay deposits have been shown to yield a more intense, heavier Pinot Noir worthy of aging, which we would soon be enjoying at dinner. An easier descent with less daunting views led us back downhill to where Chef Jeremy Tucker and his team had prepared a marvellous meal awaiting our enjoyment.

CedarCreek Pavilion dinner from Vineyard Terrace Restaurant Chef Jeremy Tucker

In the open-air Pavilion just above the Rose Garden (a no doubt spectacular wedding venue) we sat down for the Tour’s sole winery dinner this year. The Ceviche and Prosciutto amuse-bouche had calmed our appetites somewhat, leaving time for presentation of the mouth-watering first course: Roasted Butternut Squash Soup was exquisite on its own, let alone with the winery’s exceptional 2013 Platinum Viognier. The wine’s clean body and ripe stone fruit served to maximize the soup’s fruity character while meshing nicely with the rich, creamy texture. Our introduction to the “brooding” 2011 Platinum Block 4 Pinot Noir came next alongside Yarrow Meadows Duck Breast – higher tannin and acidity showed off the wine’s food pairing possibilities and generous ageability.

A triplet of entree options provided for multiple wine pairings, and while some members enjoyed Lamb Rack with Shiraz Cabernet or Farmer’s Vegetable Tower with Merlot I couldn’t resist Seared Sea Scallops. Complemented by Chanterelle mushrooms, roasted cauliflower puree, and Pomme William, the scrumptious scallops danced a duet with 2012 Platinum Block 5 Chardonnay: fully integrated oak, ideal balance, and a long, creamy, apple and melon finish left me in a state of utter bliss. After respite to breathe and collect ourselves the dessert course was served as the stars emerged in the night sky. Guests chose between Valrhona Caramelia Chocolate Mocha Mousse Latté or a vibrant, fresh-baked Lemon Tart. Without any dedicated dessert wines available save a sold out Madeira-style (Platinum “M”), CedarCreek’s dry table wines had to pull double duty with dessert. Most guests wisely avoided close-knit pairing, while still enjoying the zingy 2013 Platinum Riesling and smooth, spicy flavours of the Cabernet Franc-dominated 2011 Cabernet Merlot. With fully sated appetites we eventually ambled over to the Wine Shop – held open for our benefit – and stocked up on the evening’s favourites before the short journey back to the hotel, and a restful sleep.

The View Winery's historic packinghouse

On Sunday morning we received a slight respite, as the bus wasn’t scheduled to depart the hotel until 8:45am, a full half-hour later than Saturday’s early start. Those who continued the good times later Saturday night no doubt appreciated the organizing team’s charity. The day’s itinerary included four wineries in the city’s historic eastern district, beginning with a trip back five generations at The View Winery. Inside the ninety-year-old former fruit packinghouse-turned-winery we received a generous welcome from Tasting Room Manager Jill Hansen and staff member Colin. As we warmed up our palates with 2012 Distraction Frizzante they explained the amusing story behind the winery’s logo, in which owner Jennifer Molgat’s stiletto heel was pushed into service as a bottle stopper. The Frizzante’s creamy mousse and crisp blend of Riesling, Optima, Gewürztraminer, and Pinotage made for an ideal breakfast wine! Tart citrus and green apple in 2012 Riesling led into strongly perfumed 2013 Gewürztraminer, a blend of purchased fruit necessitated by a devastating hailstorm last year. Reserve 2012 Pinotage yielded bright plum fruit amongst hints of leather, toast, caramel, and spicy aromatics. We concluded with an exciting fortified late harvest blend of Müller-Thurgau and Ehrenfelser: this 2013 “Well-Heeled” provided delightfully clean, fresh aromas and a light, delicate palate that pleasantly surprised.

A short distance away we had the good fortune to visit petite SpierHead Winery, where owners Bill & Marina Knutson had generously prepared their picnic area with complimentary cheese and olives. The Knutson’s passion for their young winery – already racking up prestigious awards – was evident as Bill addressed our group and detailed their recent successes and challenges. The same hail storm that hit The View last year also struck SpierHead, but the winery has bounced back and even planted several thousand new Pinot Noir vines this spring. We sampled the 2013 Chardonnay to begin, showing delicate apples and melon from the lightly oaked blend that includes some of the Musque clone. A highly refreshing 2012 Riesling put a smile on my face with dry, racy lime flavours and a slight hint of petrol on the palate. The superb 2013 Pinot Gris was served with hesitation – because it has been selling much too quickly! A very attractive nose of tropical fruit blossoms led into a juicy body and silky texture that served well to exemplify the variety locally. Pinot Noir 2013 Rosé provided reminders of my other local favourites, with a subtle, fresh nose and earthy notes of cherry and strawberry in the dry palate.

Proprietor Bill Knutson introduces the wines of SpierHead

To conclude our tasting at SpierHead we covered the end of one era and the early stages of an exciting focus on Pinot Noir. While Bill Knutson had originally envisioned a strong portfolio of Bordeaux-style red wines (necessitating purchased grapes from the Black Sage Bench), the early varietal bottlings are already gone and the blended reds will soon follow. We sampled the 2011 Pursuit blend, dominated by Merlot, showing toasty cherries, leather, and a hint of bell pepper that soon opened up nicely to finish with subtle molasses. The flagship 2012 Vanguard, from an admittedly easier vintage, smelled distinctly darker, with blackberries and plums on a longer finish. Both product lines are not long for this world however, as the Knutson’s have yielded to the overwhelming success of Pinot Noir from their estate vineyard. We followed Bill down to the winery where he excitedly poured tank samples of 2013 Cuvee Pinot Noir, headed into bottle within days. This exclusive flagship wine will only yield 100 cases, and garnered extensive praise from the assembled guests (plus a pre-order for the BCWAS cellar!). Three additional Pinot Noirs will be produced this year, including a Wine Club-specific blend assembled by the Club members themselves during a summer winery workshop!

With the area’s wineries so close together it was only another few minutes in the bus before we arrived at our next destination. At Tantalus Vineyards we had a surely delicious lunch to look forward to, courtesy of the talented team at Joy Road Catering. We were met by General Manager Jane Hatch and Winemaker David Paterson, who took the time to show us around the rolling vineyards before a tour of the winery itself. With recent purchases of adjacent land, Tantalus now owns 75 contiguous acres, 50 of which are currently or soon to be under vine. A ten acre forest and dozens of lively bee hives help to reverse some of the negative ecological consequences of monoculture – part of the company’s focus on sustainability. Inside BC’s first LEED-certified winery David discussed his increasing use of “ambient” (i.e., native) yeast, which encourages a more complex ecosystem in the tank (and serving to remind us that wine is a living thing).

Jane Hatch leads a tour of the Tantalus vineyards

Back in the gorgeously decorated, sleek and airy tasting room, David led our group through a tasting of Tantalus’ focused portfolio – centered almost exclusively on Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Riesling. The 2012 varietal Chardonnay was first, after a year of bottle age following twelve months in barrel. Only a small proportion of the wine was fermented malolactically, with no stirring of the lees, but the end result produced an elegant palate with flavours of buttered popcorn and spiced caramel. A selection of Pinot Noir began with the 2012 “Juveniles”: the estate’s youngest plantings yielded a delicate, pretty nose from an easy-drinking wine with light tannins and a baking spice finish. The “Clone 93” 2012 Pinot Noir smelled darker and earthier, with a fuller, more complex palate, from a relatively rare German clone planted in 1985. The regular 2012 Pinot Noir is described as the winery’s flagship red varietal, and presented a more savoury nose with even a bit of barnyard character; the bright fruit and full texture hinted at a generous future – David suggested at least another year in bottle would be warranted.

Tantalus’ celebrated Riesling was presented in both common iterations (with a third soon to follow), proudly showing off a local benchmark. As David suggested, the warm 2013 vintage yielded a citrus palate favouring lemon, tangerine, and blood orange rather than lime – sweet and peachy but balanced by acidity. From vines planted in 1978, the very ageable “Old Vines” Riesling is always two years behind, having spent extensive time in bottle before release. The 2011 vintage is felt by many at the winery to be one of the best yet, with slightly higher acidity and nearly one third less sugar than the ‘regular’ version (11.2 g/L vs. 15.8 g/L). Textbook Riesling character on the nose included some light petrol and focused citrus, with zingy acidity bound to rouse one’s palate. Having tasted older versions I know it continues to improve for years, with the wine’s true limits probably having yet to be tested!

Joy Road's Cam Smith greets his adoring fans

As the afternoon began in earnest it became time for lunch, and we were lead across a grassy expanse nearby to Proprietor Eric Savics’ holiday house, where tables had been set up on the lower patio. Joy Road Catering’s very own Cameron Smith was present with his team to serve our mouth-watering meal, which began with glasses of Tantalus Old Vines Riesling Brut 2011. This rare sparkling Riesling showed off very fresh, but dry fruit (3 g/L residual sugar) and brisk acidity, with a tightly integrated, fine mousse. David Paterson explained that the precise stream of bubbles in the center of each glass was due to fructose (as opposed to glucose) fermentation that has yielded highly dissolved carbon dioxide. To augment the small lot Riesling Brut, and expand the winery’s sparkling portfolio, David has over 500 cases of 2013 Blanc de Noir currently en tirage, reviving a wine last produced from the 2004 vintage.

Refreshed from the Brut, we next sipped 2013 Riesling alongside Apple Slaw with Carmelis Goat Cheese Sformatto and Garden Herbs. The rustic but elegant dish incorporated shallots, grainy Dijon mustard, and a fresh apple cider vinaigrette. A glass of 2012 Pinot Noir followed with lip-smacking Duck Confit: truffled jus, organic black lentils, Swiss chard, and an heirloom beet puree rounded out the artistic dish. The salty, crispy duck and earthy lentils were a hit with the perfectly paired Pinot, leaving us longing for more of both! With a few refills here and there if you smiled at the right people, lunch concluded with platters of dark chocolate chunks to satisfy any sugary cravings. Soon the wine shop beckoned, and loaded for bear we eventually re-boarded the buses for our final destination, with plenty of thanks to Jane, David, and Cam.

Jill Branby shows off Ann Sperling's wines inside the labyrinth

By the time we arrived at Sperling Vineyards Sunday was well and truly living up to its name. In the middle of Sperling’s unique (Vidal) vineyard labyrinth – meticulously planned by Owner and Winemaker Ann Sperling – some welcome shade was to be found. There, Ann’s niece Jill Branby, the winery’s Sales & Marketing Manager, had prepared a broad collection of wines for us to taste. Pinot Gris 2013 had come from 20-year-old vines, producing a crisp and bright wine with dry citrus and stone fruit flavours. A 2013 Pinot Noir Rosé embraced the varietal with earthy aromas and dry, tart cranberry-strawberry flavours. Sperling’s Old Vines Riesling (from 1.7 acres planted in 1978) seemed sweeter than the recent Tantalus offering, with lower acidity; on the very easy-drinking palate lime and mineral character came through. The 2013 "Market White”, a blend of Bacchus, Pinot Blanc, and Gewürztraminer elicited a “Wow!” resulting from the beautiful nose of fresh fruit salad, followed by well balanced sugar and focused apricot flavours. Another attractive orchard nose came from the 2012 “Sper…itz”, a lightly effervescent blend of Pearl of Csaba and Bacchus that proved very refreshing under the blazing sun.

The red program at Sperling is geographically apt, with Pinot Noir and Foch anchoring the portfolio. The 2012 Pinot Noir was said to come from fairly young vines, with multiple clones (144, 777, and 828) blended after fermentation. High acid and medium-to-firm tannins encourage aging, and the fruit proved quite prominent on the finish – all suggesting an optimistic future ahead. The 2011 Old Vines Foch comes from a 9-acre vineyard planted by Ann’s father in the 1960’s, now culled down to just 2.5 acres. The intense flavours of dark cherry and dates actually suggested higher alcohol than actually exists (14.5%), to yield an almost Port-like finish. Another rung up was the 2010 Reserve Foch, with a heady, rich nose that begged for a warm fire on a cold night – not exactly a summer wine, but highly enjoyable in the right circumstances. We finished – the tasting, the day, and the tour – with 2011 Late Harvest Gewürztraminer, providing a very flavourful burst of lychee and tropical flowers. As many people visited the wine shop other members explored the grounds and antique farming equipment, with some even venturing further into the labyrinth. Meanwhile Jill’s two children handed out freshly picked sweet Concord grapes. The final purchases joined us on the buses and we soon said a wine- and sun-induced sleepy goodbye to another stellar BCWAS Bus Tour.

Wednesday 10 September 2014

BCWAS Bus Tour 2014: Lake Country

The much anticipated BC Wine Appreciation Society annual Bus Tour took us to the northern reaches of the Okanagan Valley this year. The many members who attended were looking forward to exploring the wineries of Lake Country and East Kelowna, visiting venues ranging from those still under construction to others with decades of veteran presence in the industry. I myself was anticipating sharing a spot on the bus with my wife for the first time – she being able to finally attend the Tour by flying in and out of Kelowna. Staying at the new Sheraton Four Points Hotel directly across from Kelowna Airport made quick flights possible for several members who were unable to sacrifice sufficient time for car travel.

A fortifying lunch at The Grist Mill

I myself couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit nearly the entirety of BC wine country on my way to Kelowna, and gladly spent the day before the weekend tour snaking north-east by car. Many of my favourite wines and wineries are clustered in the hot southern appellations, so I came prepared with a well-considered shopping list to make best use of my travel time. I moved through the Similkameen Valley, pausing for a delicious lunch at The Grist Mill & Gardens in Keremeos before some key winery visits. Osoyoos, the Black Sage Bench, and Golden Mile wineries consumed much of my afternoon and yielded some superb cellar acquisitions before the Tour itself even began! Unfortunately with so many – albeit productive – stops, it was after 5pm before I even left Oliver, negating any of the fine wineries further north. However, after finally pulling into the hotel and concluding ten hours on the road I was pleased to have productively packed my day (and a few boxes)!

A few souvenirs on the way to Kelowna

Our first day of wine touring started bright and early with departure in two buses by 8:15 am. We journeyed north and found ourselves taking in the grandeur of 50th Parallel Estate Winery under the rays of the risen sun. Our arrival took place at a momentous time in the development of this new winery: the excited team was only days away from moving into an expansive new gravity-feed winery building nearing completion. For the first year of operations the tractor shed has served as a temporary tasting room, and we met our host Nicole there before she guided us uphill to the new building for a tour. As we admired Winemaker Grant Stanley’s new playground Nicole shared details of the aggressive growth being planned by founders Curtis Krouzel and Sheri-Lee Turner-Krouzel. The production/hospitality building was constructed with the expectation that a bistro and wine shop will soon be attached, and a “Vino Spa” and collection of villas amongst the vines are imagined nearby. With a smirk, Nicole explained Sheri-Lee’s focus on the “detox-retox” that a fully comprehensive establishment could facilitate.

The wee baby vines of 50th Parallel

On the crush pad upstairs we admired the steeply slopped vineyards, dominated by Grant’s passion for Pinot Noir, and tasted from the focused portfolio of current releases. The 2013 (Pinot Noir) Rosé showed plenty of varietal character, with an earthy but generously fruit-forward nose, and a refreshingly dry palate. With Pinot Noir serving as the winery’s sole red wine and primary focus, aromatic whites round out the range. A pale, delicate 2013 Pinot Gris introduced surprisingly grassy, grapefruity aromas, followed by nicely balanced peaches and cream that brought us back to enjoy the long finish. We unfortunately missed the recently sold-out 2013 Riesling, but 2013 Gewürztraminer showed off a likeable, subtly-perfumed nose and delicious lychee sorbet palate. The varietal Pinot Noir (2012) provided for additional enjoyment with  vanilla and baking spices surrounding warm earth and clean red fruit. Savouring our first wines of the day and chewing freshly plucked, surprisingly sweet Pinot Noir grapes, it felt good to be witnessing the beginnings of another promising BC winery!

Grant Stanley's new workshop

A busy day lay ahead for us, and we soon departed for nearby Intrigue Wines, the dynamic little winery of partners Roger & Jillian Wong and Ross & Gerri Davis. All four busy entrepreneurs divide their time between the winery and other business pursuits. Roger serves as a winemaker alongside George Heiss Jr. at Gray Monk, where Gerri also spends time overseeing accounting. Behind the sunlit tasting room a brand new picnic area beckoned, and our host Brian was happy to shepherd us through to comfortable seats and some welcome shade. A pair of 2013 Riesling introduced us to one of Roger’s passions: the honeyed apples and dry acidity of the “Focus” Riesling contrasted nicely with the stone fruit flavours in the regular Intrigue Riesling, noticeably sweeter but still possessing an appealing acidic backbone. Non-vintage “Social Red” and the bright mousse of “I Do” sparkling Riesling provided additional refreshment in attractive bottles. For an extra bonus, the society purchased some chilled 2013 Pinot Gris on the spot, to crack open and enjoy while Roger Wong joined us. With hints of pink hue in the glass, a beautiful nose of orchard blossoms and citrus led into a clean, balanced palate that garnered generous praise.

Intrigue Winemaker Roger Wong elucidates

A gourmet lunch was awaiting us nearby at Gray Monk, where we found ourselves ensconced in the winery’s private dining room and sun-bathed deck upon arrival. Awe-inspiring views of vineyards and the lake competed for our attention against welcome glasses of 2009 “Odyssey” Traditional Brut. Soon Steven Heiss and his wife Dawn joined us for an introduction to his family’s three-decade-old winery. While our lunch was being assembled by the well-practiced team at the Grapevine Restaurant we sampled a few of the Heiss family’s broad range of wines. Odyssey White Meritage 2011 showed off prominent oak at first, but with some aeration the blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon came into its own with herbaceous citrus character and crisp acidity. A big jump to 2013 Ehrenfelser brought us flower basket and fruit salad on a very fresh, off-dry palate that embraced the richness of the vineyard. Odyssey Pinot Noir 2012 strutted forward with varietal definition of cranberry, plums, and cloves; the chewy tannins hinted at plenty of life ahead for this young wine.

Dawn & Steven Heiss welcome BCWAS

In the dining room the three-course lunch was served with a variety of additional wines, giving us more chances to explore Gray Monk’s portfolio. Guests had a choice between Heirloom Tomato Bocconcini Salad or Cream of Wild Mushroom Soup to start – I couldn’t turn down the rich soup despite the warm sun outside. Riesling 2012 displayed very light petrol aromas and a citrus-dominated, off-dry palate to start us off. Entrée choices included Baked Wild Salmon Fillet or Red Wine Braised Sirloin; I made the seasonal, seafood choice and enjoyed the accompanying rice pilaf and vegetables. With the Salmon, 2013 Pinot Gris drew inspiration from the earlier Ehrenfelser, showing delicate stone fruit and fresh, bright acidity. The Sirloin selectors were able to benefit from the solid fruit and generous tannins of 2011 Odyssey Red Meritage, an ideal partner if any. Dessert avoided the struggle of selection by delivering plates of individual Crème Brûlée, Raspberry Sorbet, and Chocolate Mousse for everyone, plus sweet Odyssey III Port. The Ruby Port-style fortified Merlot is produced in a Solera-style, using alcohol spirits from the winery’s own grapes. Despite the obvious chocolate pairing, it synchronized perfectly with the tangy sorbet, putting a delightfully rich cap on the meal. Several well-deserved rounds of applause for the kitchen and serving staff followed, with many thanks to Steven for his inspired hosting duties and generosity throughout the visit.

Gray Monk luncheon, with mementos of the past

Mellowed and well fed we moved on to a pair of afternoon visits that began with a stop at Ex Nihilo Vineyards. Owners Jeff Harder and Jay Paulson welcomed us with open arms to their busy venue, where we sampled several wines during a garden tasting. Pinot Gris 2013 presented floral aromatics and intense peach flavours while 2012 Riesling was focused on lemon curd and tart lime flavours after a subtle nose. An Okanagan Falls vineyard above See Ya Later Ranch yielded grapes for the 2013 Chardonnay, an exemplar of the full-bodied style, with prominent toasty oak, vanilla, apples, and a butterscotch finish. Similar terroir yielded the 2010 Merlot, presenting raspberry aromas and a palate of milk chocolate and charred oak, with underlying olive hints. Our final sample came from a family secret red blend called “Privata” (2010) that had everyone guessing. Mystery Similkameen fruit and 16 months in French oak had yielded tart berries and a round smooth palate with raisiny hints – my personal favourite of the bunch.

Owners Jay & Jeff introduce Ex Nihilo

Mere seconds down the road from Ex Nihilo – so close that several members elected to stroll on foot – we entered the lush greenery of Arrowleaf Cellars. Curious observers peered into the brand new, glass-ensconced tasting room only days away from completion, while our host Paul escorted us down to a block of Zweigelt in the 15-acre estate vineyard for a short viticultural discussion. Moving to the shaded grass nearby we found some seats and enjoyed samples of 2013 Pinot Gris and Bacchus varietals, both showing off perfumed stone-fruit. Pinot Noir 2012 was dialled in with a fruit-forward palate and hints of spice and earth. Much darker berry aromas and a striking violet colour spectrum accompanied the 2012 Zweigelt, with continued expressive aromas and a smooth, juicy palate. A special treat came to us as we finished, in the form of 2013 Special Select Late Harvest Vidal, bringing accolades for the honeyed orange blossom nose and penetrating mandarin orange palate. Inside the snug tasting room the Arrowleaf staff were left scrambling to restock the shelves as we jostled for space with bottles and payment in hand – no doubt providing another reminder of how much they are looking forward to the new space that awaits them next door!

A shiny new tasting room takes shape at Arrowleaf

Back at the hotel we unloaded the spoils of the day and freshened up for an exciting dinner at CedarCreek. Winemaker Darryl Brooker was set to lead us on a vineyard tour before a multi-course meal in the winery’s outdoor pavilion overlooking the lake. Following some refreshing beers and a dip in the pool for many we soon headed south with appetites growing…