Friday, August 20, 2010

Wines of the Okanagan: A Diplomatic Overview Part 4

Our diplomatic wine tasting voyage continues south, with a quick pause for some dialectics on the future of the BC wine industry. Stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion!

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The next day we set off for Oliver taking in a few more wineries on the way. First call was to Blasted Church, named after an occasion when a small dynamite charge was used to separate timbers so that a church building could be moved from Fairview to Okanagan Falls. The estate follows the ‘church’ theme by using a church notice board at the turn-off to the premises and a series of excellent clerical caricature labels on its bottles. They produce some 10,000 cases a year from their 42 acres (plus some purchased grapes). Their Pinot Gris was very good, Hatfield’s Fuse – mainly Gewurz and named after the man who lit the dynamite charge – was also very acceptable. Their Chardonnay Oak (at 14.2%!!!) was, not surprisingly, strong with, in my view, an odd but not unpleasant, after-taste. The Pinot Noir had a superb colour and great nose but needs a few more years for the taste to come out. Superb views from the estate make this a not-to be missed visit.

The See Ya Later Ranch has a great story to tell; but which one is true? One version has it that the estate is named thus because Major Hugh Fraser, who owned this stunning mountainside property for 45 years always wrote those three words at the end of his letters. Another offering is that the Major married a British girl after service in Europe in WW1 and, not being able to stand the isolation, she left to return home leaving a note which said simply ‘See ya later’. Whatever the truth, the present crop of wines are marketed under the names of the Major’s dogs who were all buried on the estate.

The 07 Semillon was dry, smooth with a great finish. The Jimmy My Pal Chardonnay/ Pinot Gris/ Semillon blend was OK but, for me, it fell between the three stools. Nelly, a rosė, was so full of flavour , with eyes closed you would swear it was red not surprising, perhaps, given that it was 65% Gamay, 30% Cab Franc and 5% Gewurz. Ping, another blend (54% Merlot, 44% Cab Sav and 2% cab Franc (14.5%) was excellent and purchased. Finally, the Ehrenfelser Icewine was pure honey. This estate is a little off the beaten track but do not miss it. And they offered Jo a drink! Since our visit I have not been able to get this couplet out of my head:-
See ya later, propagator, In a while, oenophile!

Because of the extra time we spent at See Ya Later, we were late for our appointment at Blue Mountain – named after the occasional blue haze which appears on the distant mountains. This was the only winery we visited which asks visitors to make an appointment. No idea why as it was deserted when we got there. Mike and Jo had spoken warmly of their wines which they had often served at the Residence in Amman and were extremely fond of their sparkler. This 80 acres estate produces some 12,000 cases a year, a third of which is Champagne-method. Blue Mountain believes in keeping the alcohol content down and, to do this, they pick the grapes before they are too ripe.

The 08 Pinot Gris tasted unlike anything I have had from this grape – but I liked it. The Chardonnay, in a Chablis style, had a sharp finish but would clearly improve over time. A Pinot Noir, á la Burgundy, will be excellent in 4 or 5 years. The sparklers were not available for tasting. Personally, I found Blue Mountain and the presenter too over-pretentious given the fine setting of the estate and its excellent record of production. Mike bought a few bottles and I am sure they will be superb in a few years. Go for the view!

Quite correctly, Jackson-Triggs Vintners tasting room has been described as a hospitality centre. It may not be as large as Mission Hill’s room but it has everything: a fine counter area, attractive wine racks and superb hand-outs describing every wine produced. Since 1998, Vincor Canada, JT’s parent company, has planted 1,000 acres of wines, mainly on Black Sage Road or on the Osoyoos Lake Bench. These are reckoned to be some of Canada’s best vineyards and their produce has won a number of awards. JT is such a large organisation that it has separate wine makers for its reds (Brooke Blair, an Australian) and its whites (Derek Kontkanen, a Canadian). Their 2004 SunRock Shiraz beat all the Australian and other New World wines to win Best Shiraz at the 2006 International Wine and Spirits Competition.

We tasted two Sav Blancs; the Reserve being both sweeter and longer. The Viognier was a little disappointing but the white Meritage, a blend of Sav Blanc and Semillon, was outstanding. Bottles were purchased! The SunRock Chardonnay (at 14.1%) was really good. Two red blends of Cab Sav and Shiraz (one with a touch of Viognier) also tasted well. Both, to me, had a smoky, peaty, flavour, perhaps because of fires a few years ago. The Reisling Icewine was magical; the Reserve even better, but at C$53 and C$ 60 respectively, they were not cheap. With excellent and attentive staff, this was a fine venue to visit.

I will take another break from our tasting itinerary to put down a few personal thoughts on general aspects of wine-production in British Colombia. To say progress in such a short time has been astounding would be a definite under-statement. To turn an area of meadow and orchards into award-winning vineyards and to enable tiny and much larger organisations to produce good wines side-by-side has to be a tribute to clever government, assured management and sensible economics. Clearly a few estates have proved uneconomical over the years, and many will have changed hands when earlier owners and managers failed to survive, but the evidence of the existence today of such a large number of healthy businesses bodes well for the future.

I have two serious reservations as to whether BC wine production will ever take off as Chile’s and Argentina’s have in recent years. My concerns are the relatively miniscule production figures compared to some other countries and, secondly, the bottle price. At the moment, BC wine is consumed, almost entirely, only within the Province. Even Calgary airport had nothing other than a couple of Peller Icewines on sale. Visitors to BC, even those from the far-flung parts of Canada, find it almost impossible to take home more than a couple of bottles. South, in the western USA, Californian wines have tied up the market and the Ontario wineries corner local sales in the East. In Europe only a handful of dealers handle BC wine. Production would need to make a quantum leap if BC is ever going to compete in what is becoming an ever tougher world market.

Secondly, the price of BC wines is extremely high. The average price for a normal bottle of BC Chardonnay or Pinot Noir seems to be about C$22 (almost £15). Spending this, in Europe, would get you a ready-to drink bottle of some pedigree. To pay the equivalent for a bottle which would need to be cellared for some 4 to 5 years and which may not, even then, make the grade does not seem sensible to a non-Canadian. Much of BC’s wine output is clearly drunk too early. Only those living in the Province and who can afford to buy case loads, can wait for a wine to reach its peak. Perhaps this is what BC is prepared to accept, in which case the industry will continue much as it is now albeit with a greater number of small businesses. And maybe this would be no bad thing. I, for one, would have no problem with it as it is this very fact which makes a tour of BC wineries today an almost unique experience. But I would also like to see BC wines attracting a wider international audience.

So after those personal musings, let us get back to our trip. By now we are staying in Oliver at the Bel Air Cedar Resort motel – and very nice it was. The rooms were comfortable and we had the use of a barbecue where we enjoyed good steaks and the company of Mike and Jo’s daughter. One morning was spent trying to convince a local bank that our American Express Sterling travellers’ cheques were not really Monopoly money. Only with Jo’s written guarantee on every cheque and her impressive patience – Brian had already exploded and had to go for a walk to calm down – was the transaction finally complete.

That afternoon we resumed our tasting regime by tackling the Golden Mile. First on the agenda was Gehringer Brothers, named from Walter and Gordon, born in Oliver and sons of German immigrants. Initially the brothers had played to their strengths with whites such as Riesling, Ehrenfelser and, uniquely, Auxerrois but they have now added a few reds to their output. The Gehringers believe in producing lower alcohol wines which appears to be against the current Okanagan trend. A 25th anniversary Optimum Pinot Gris was a great start to the tasting. The Reserve PG, though more traditional in taste, was, in my view, less good. The 09 Sav Blanc had only been in the bottle for a couple of weeks but was showing good signs while the 08 Auxerrois started well but needs time. A Schonburger/Gewurz blend was worth the visit and two Pinot Noirs showed a lot of promise. We were impressed, not least by the prices which were C$5 to 10 lower than in most other establishments. This is, certainly, the best value for money winery we visited.

With the ladies away to buy our supper, Mike and I roughed it by walking the half a mile or so to Hester Creek, named after a small inlet near the estate. They had just opened an impressive new tasting room and restaurant, a far cry from 2004 when the business had to be rescued from bankruptcy by Curt Garland, the owner of a Prince George trucking company. Garland soon hired Ontario winemaker, Robert Summers and the estate took off. Hester Creek concentrates, primarily, on red wines and, unusually in the area, grows Trebbiano grapes as well as the normal varieties. Their whites – a Pinot Gris, a Pinot Blanc and a Semillon/Chardonnay blend – were perfectly acceptable but we were blown away by the quality of the reds.

The Cab Sav/Merlot was really good. The straight Merlot, which we had so enjoyed at Bouchons Bistro, was excellent but they were both put in the shade by the Reserve Cab Franc. At 13.8% it was not as powerful as some of their 14.2%s but it made up for that with great depth and a lengthy finish. Do not miss tasting Hester Creek’s reds. This is, most definitely an estate to be visited.

Our next call was to Quinta Ferreira, an estate run by John Ferreira whose parents came to Canada from Portugal in 1960. First leasing, and later buying, a fruit farm, John replaced his trees with vines in 1999. Initially he passed his grapes to other estates but soon decided to do his own winemaking. The family’s Portuguese origins are honoured in their wines’ names. Their blends are known as Misturas and their top two products are the Oba-Prime (masterpiece) and the dessert wine Vinho du Sol. We tasted an oaked and an un-oaked Chardonnay; the oaked was better. The white blend was two-thirds Muscat and one-third Gewurz. An odd mix but I liked it. The Viognier was strong on the nose but the taste had yet to arrive. Their red blend mixed six different grape varieties – too many in my view. But the Merlot and the Oba-Prima were top class.

Our next call was to Rustico Farm and Cellars where the owner, Bruce Fuller, had us enthralled with his stories and enthusiasm. Less than three weeks after our visit, Bruce hit the Canadian media with his first-hand reports of a mud slide which occurred very near to his property. Excessive rain in May and the bursting of a blockage on a hillside waterway had caused a slide which took down some six houses and completely covered Route 97 along which we had travelled a number of times.

Bruce had had a difficult time with an Italian village project in the same area but turned the corner when he bought his present premises and land in 2007. The nine acre site has been producing grapes since 1968 when a Hungarian, John Tokias, owned the estate. The rustic appearance of the premises inspired the name of the winery which gave its first tasting in September 2009. The Gewurz and the Pinot Gris were still far too young; but they had something. The Mother Lode Merlot came on a little too sharp but the Doc’s Buggy (Pinot Noir) and two blends – Last Chance with Zinfandel, Merlot and, unusually, Chancellor and Threesome, a mix of Cab Franc, Cab Sav and Merlot – were both extremely good. It would be great to visit again, say, in five years time and see where Bruce Fuller had reached. We thought Rustico had a great future.

One of Mike’s favourites, and possibly one of the best known estates south of Oliver, is Burrowing Owl, named after one of the creatures which lives in the area and a species which the winery makes it its business to protect. The proprietors, Jim Wyse and his family, produced their first bottles in 1997 and now make up to 30,000 cases a year, a third going to wine stores and restaurants, another third for sale on the internet and the rest being available in their own wine shop. Their tasting room has racks of older vintages and the food in their restaurant has a high reputation.

The 07 Chardonnay was, in my view, the best wine from that grape we tasted during the trip. The reds just got better each time we tasted one. The Pinot Noir and the Merlot were fine but the Cab Franc (13.7%) and the Cab Sav (14%) were wonderful. And the Syrah beat them all. It was pouring with rain when we were at Burrowing Owl but the views and the superb wines had us glowing. Unfortunately by then, we had all bought as much as we could either drink during the rest of the trip or carry home so I do not think we made a purchase. I certainly will next time. My notes also include the positive comment – “Good measures!”

Our final call was to Stoneboat Vineyards. The word, stoneboat, is used sardonically to describe the wooden sled which the early homesteaders used to carry heavy stones away from the land they were trying to cultivate – and there is such a sled outside the main door of this winery. Larry and Julie Martiniuk have been producing wines for some twenty years. In addition to the normal mainstream grapes, the estate also grows Pinotage.

Of the two Pinot Gris, I preferred the ordinary one; not the Barrel Reserve. A Faux Pas rosé showed a lot of promise but the 13.6% Pinot Noir was an absolute belter. I was hesitant to taste the Pinotage, that being the one red wine grape which I seriously dislike, but I was clearly thinking of the South African variety. Stoneboat’s 14.1% Pinotage was sensational. I would never have guessed the grape and would have argued with anyone that it was certainly not Pinotage. But it was and I loved it.

1 comment:

  1. Support by Okanagan wineries to the concept of designated drivers is, from my experience, virtualy nil. Only at St. Hubertus - which is remarkable for so many things - was there an offer of a nonalcoholic beverage immediately upon being told that I would not be tasting as I was the driver. Elsewhere, going all the way to the US border, I had to ask for a sip of water - which I did but twice - and the response was plain that I was being a pain. All this despite the posted claim by a group of wineries that they supported the notion of a designated driver. It takes more than a notice to support a concept.