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.
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)!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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…