Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Lang Vineyards is back in the game


Photo: General manager Mike Lang

There is no doubt that Lang Vineyards, one of the original farm gate wineries in 1990, is back on its feet. Its iconic Farm Reserve Riesling was judged the best white wine at the 2013 All Canadian Wine Awards.

More recently, at the 2016 All Canadians, Lang won gold for its 2015 Viognier and 2015 Pinot Gris while the same Viognier and the 2014 Farm Reserve Riesling won gold at this year’s Northwest Wine Summit.

And you will find a long list of other awards on the winery website.

Why would I write that it has found its feet again? A brief reminder of the winery’s history.

The winery was founded by Günther and Kristina Lang, who had moved from Germany in 1981, buying a four-hectare (10-acre) property with a vineyard and an exceptional view. The winery had an enviable reputation when it was purchased in 2005 to anchor the Holman-Lang winery group. By the time Holman-Lang went into receivership five years later, the fine reputation had taken quite a hit.

Lang Vineyards was purchased in 2010 by a Chinese mining executive called Yong Wang. He has revived the brand and he put a Lang back into the winery by naming Mike Lang, Günther’s nephew, as the general manager.

Mike has had to deal with a parade of winemakers before the musical chairs stopped last year when reliable Robert Thielicke moved to Lang from JoieFarm. I was not surprised to find that the wines from the 2015 vintage are very well made.

I have lost track of who made the wines in 2014. Whoever it was also did well, especially with the Farm Reserve Riesling, always the most prestigious wine in the Lang portfolio.

Here are notes on the wines.

 Lang Vineyards Bravo White 2015 ($18). This is slightly off-dry blend of Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Schönburger and Muscat. It begins with aromas mingling floral notes, spice and fruit, followed by spicy peach on the palate. The Muscat varieties here leave a spicy finish that persuades the palate this is a dry wine. A great summer wine. 90.

Lang Vineyards Viognier 2015 ($21). This wine begins with rich aromas of banana and ripe apricot. On the palate, the mouth-filling flavours are luscious, with notes of apricot and peach and a touch of hazelnut on the finish. This is a dry Viognier with personality! 91.

Lang Vineyards Pinot Gris 2015 ($19). This wine presents in the glass with a light golden glint. It is a richly textured wine in a style recalling ripe Alsace Pinot Gris, with aromas and flavours of ripe pear, ripe peach and ripe apple. The finish is dry and persistent. 90.

Lang Vineyards Farm Reserve Riesling 2014 ($18). The grapes for this flagship Riesling comes from 35-year-old vines. The complex aroma here is more properly described as marmalade rather than petrol because of the intense fruit. On the palate, the fruit flavours are bright and also concentrated, with notes of lemon and green apple backed up by a spine of minerals. 92.

Lang Vineyards Sparkling Pinot Noir/Meunier NV ($21). This strawberry-hued wine is celebratory with a full head of effervescence. It has aromas and flavours of cherry and strawberry and it has a crisp, refreshing finish. 89.

Lang Vineyards Cabernet Franc 2015 ($25). The aromas are dramatic and expressive: dried cherries, blackberries and plums with a touch of mocha. On the palate, there are flavours of black cherry and black currant. There is a pleasantly rustic earthiness on the finish. 90.

Lang Vineyards Maréchal Foch 2014 ($20). Almost black in colour, the wine begins with the aromas of the variety – a mix of dark plum, chocolate and rare steak. Full on the palate, the wine tastes of figs, plums and blueberries. 89.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Liquidity's winemaker is passionate about Pinot

 Photo: Winemaker Alison Moyes

Liquidity Wines, which opened in 2012, has raised the visitor wine experience among the Okanagan Falls wineries with a wine shop that includes one of the most elegant restaurants in wine country.

Now the winery is turning it up another notch by offering private VIP tastings of its recently released reserve wines.

If that happens to be out of your budget, the experience at the regular tasting bar is very good, in part because the talent and focus of winemaker Alison Moyes.

“Pinot Noir is my baby,” she told me last year. “Pinot Noir is where my heart is.”

Pinot Noir winemakers are like that. Grant Stanley, who is now at 50th Parallel Estate Winery, once told me that he thinks of Pinot Noir 80% of the time. Yet his other wines taste like they get his full attention as well. The same is true of Alison’s wines at Liquidity.

“I was born and grew up in Ontario, in Scarborough where I went to high school. I moved to Nova Scotia when I was 18 to go to Dalhousie to study microbiology,” Alison told me in an interview. “While I was doing that, I was working at a restaurant. The owner was opening up a new high end wine bar. He was doing sommelier training and offered a course for the staff.  I was a part of that and I just fell in love with it. He saw I had potential and he helped me through my sommelier certification in Halifax. Upon finishing, I would be the new sommelier at his wine bar. I managed that program for two years and then my science background called to me.”

She went to Brock University to study winemaking. She came to the Okanagan in 2008, working with Osoyoos Larose on what was supposed to be a temporary work term. But as soon as she finished her thesis at Brock, she returned to the Okanagan as the winemaker at Stoneboat Vineyards in 2010.

“I had fallen in love with the Okanagan,” she said. “It is an amazing grape growing region. Ontario has a lot of fantastic wines as well but it seems like a lot more work to achieve it.”

 Stoneboat has Pinot Noir in its portfolio but Liquidity, which she joined in 2015, has a more ambitious Pinot Noir focus. That includes estate Pinot Noir, reserve Pinot Noir and a super-reserve called Equity.

Alison’s winemaking approach is remarkably detailed. A typical example emerges from the production notes for the winery’s 2015 Viognier. “Harvested on September 29th and September 14th respectively, a combination of Viognier fruit from our Allendale Vineyard and from the Similkameen Valley was almost entirely whole cluster pressed and cool fermented in stainless steel. Several small 300L stainless steel fermentations were performed in this way. The remaining 6% of the fruit was crushed and partially skin fermented, before pressing off and completing fermentation. The finished wine was racked off and carefully blended, selecting only the most premium lots for this wine.”

Her production notes for all of the other Liquidity wines, including the Pinot Noir, show equally detail-oriented winemaking.

Here are notes on the current Liquidity wines.

Liquidity Pinot Gris 2015 ($18 for 1,078 cases). This is a juicy, refreshing wine with peaches and pears both on the nose and on the palate. 90.

Liquidity White Blend 2015 ($18 for 616 cases). This refreshing wine is a blend of Chardonnay, Viognier, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc. The wine delivers aromas and flavours of tropical fruits along with melons and ripe pears. 90.

Liquidity Viognier 2015 ($25 for 565 cases). This wine begins with tropical aromatics, leading to aromas and flavours of apricots and peaches. The texture is generous. 91.

Liquidity Chardonnay Estate 2014 ($26 for 374 cases). This was fermented in barrel, primarily with wild yeast, and aged in barrel for 11 months. The oak is very well integrated, adding a hint of toast to the core of citrus, pineapple and peach flavours. 91.

Liquidity Pinot Noir Estate 2014 ($26 for 910 cases). This wine was made with five clones that were harvested and fermented separately before being blended. There are aromas of raspberry and cherry leading to a medley of dark berry flavours finished with a hint of spicy oak. 90.

Liquidity Pinot Noir Reserve 2014 ($42). A selection of the best barrels, this wine has rich flavours of cherry, plum and pomegranate set against smoky forest floor aromas. The texture is silky. 92.

Liquidity Pinot Noir Equity 2014. ($56 for 95 cases). This is not just the best barrels but also the two best clones (115 and 667). The wine begins with aromas of lilacs and cherries. There are rich flavours of strawberry, cherry and cassis. The texture is velvet. This wine has been aged 11 months in oak (30% new). The wine is profound and elegant. 95


Thursday, August 18, 2016

Tightrope Wines express Naramata terroir

Photo: Tightrope's  Graham and Lyndsay O'Rourke

Tightrope Winery is just in its third year of sales but, judging from its expansive wine shop, it is getting its share of visitors to the Naramata Bench.

The wines here have impressed wine critics from that start. If this winery still is new to you, here is what I wrote in John Schreiner’s Okanagan Wine Tour Guide.

The seed for Tightrope Winery was planted in the decade that Lyndsay and Graham O’Rourke spent working in bars and restaurants at the Whistler ski resort. The jobs supported their skiing, Graham’s fly fishing and shared meals in fine restaurants.

“The thing about Whistler is that you get spoiled because there are so many fine dining restaurants for such a small town,” Lyndsay says. “You get a lot of chance to go out and try nice wines with good food.” Graham agrees. “My wine experience all started with really good wine,” he says. “I did not grow up drinking Baby Duck and the box wines.”

 Both were born in 1971. Lyndsay, whose geologist father, Grenville Thomas is a diamond explorer who is in the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame, has a University of Windsor business degree. Graham, the son of an accountant, grew up near Sarnia and learned to fish during summers in a family cottage on the river. His love of the outdoors led to a University of British Columbia degree in wildlife management.

They moved to the Okanagan in 2003. Immediately drawn to the vineyard lifestyle, they both took Okanagan College courses in grape growing and winemaking. To further improve their skills, they both went to Lincoln University in New Zealand for honours degrees in those disciplines. The studies paid off quickly. When they returned, Graham joined Mission Hill for six years as a vineyard manager before, with a partner, setting up his own vineyard consulting firm. Lyndsay became the winemaker for Ruby Blues Winery from 2009 through 2014.

In 2007, the couple bought a four-hectare (10-acre) Naramata Bench property with a million-dollar view over the lake. They planted about three hectares (seven acres) of grapes -- Pinot Gris, Riesling, Viognier, Pinot Noir and Merlot, with small blocks of Cabernet Franc and Barbera. They made the first 900 cases of Tightrope wines in 2012, using the Ruby Blues winery until they built their own winery in 2014.

They avoided place names and animal names for their winery, coming up with Tightrope, an evocative term for them. “It represents the balancing act you go through when you make wine, from decisions in the vineyard, depending on the season, to decisions in the winery and winemaking,” Lyndsay explains. “All of those variables have to be balanced.”

Here are notes on the current releases.

Tightrope Viognier 2014 ($25). This wine has aromas and flavours of stone fruit. The spine of minerality adds to the weight and texture. The flavours carry through to a crisp and tangy finish. 91.

Tightrope Riesling 2015 ($23). Overnight skin contact help develop the citrus and tangerine aromas and flavours. The wine has good minerality and bright acidity, leading to a crisp and dry finish. 91.

Tightrope Pinot Gris 2015 ($21). This is a refreshing juicy wine with aromas and flavours of apples and pears. There is good weight on the palate. 90.

Tightrope Tip-Toe 2015 ($22). This is a blend of 25% Riesling, 24% Viognier, 18% Gewürztraminer and 16% Chardonnay. The winery as made 545 cases of this summer-drinking blend, a medley of citrus, Apple and melon flavours. 90.

Tightrope Rosé 2015 ($25). This is primarily Pinot Noir with 5% Barbera. This is a dry rose with bold mouth filling flavours of strawberry and raspberry. The tangy note on the finish enhances the freshness of the wine. 92.

Tightrope Pinot Noir 2014 ($35). The wine presents in the glass with good colour and with deep cherry aromas. On the palate, the cherry mingles with raspberry. The texture is youth fully firm en route to becoming silky. 91.

Tightrope Syrah 2014 ($35). This wine is made 100% with Naramata fruit but has as much personality as a South Okanagan Syrah. It begins with aromas of red fruit and pepper leading to flavours of plum mingled with deli meats and spice. 92.

Tightrope Vertigo 2014 ($40 for 150 cases). This is a blend of 58% Merlot, 27% Barbera and 15% Cabernet Franc. The wine was aged 10 months in French and American oak (50% new).  It begins with aromas of black currants, leading to flavours of black and red currants. The spicy finish has a touch of pepper. 92.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Bench 1775: wines that match the setting

Photo: Bench 1775's Val Tait

Almost every winery on the Naramata Bench has a superb view over vineyards and Okanagan Lake.

Few can match Bench 1775 Winery with its expansive patio. The winery, once known as Soaring Eagle, was renamed in 2013 to Bench 1775, its address on Naramata Road. The winery thus is hard to miss.

On an idyllic morning this summer, I shared a corner table on the patio with general manager and winemaker Val Tait, tasting through most of the current wines. The wines hold up to the view.

Val, a noted viticultural consultant in the Okanagan, joined the winery in 2013, partnering with Jim Stewart, one of the former owners. The winery was sold the following year to low profile immigrant investors who maintained Val in her role, recognizing her immense depth of experience.

Born in 1964, she has an undergraduate degree in biochemistry and a master’s in integrated pest management. She started working at the Summerland research station on plant viruses and then developed her independent consulting business with grape growers in the early 1990s as new vineyards were being planted. “I was lucky to get in on the industry when it was starting to grow,” says Val.

At Bench 1775, she has reorganized the winery and quickly upgraded viticulture. “We have to be impeccable in the vineyard,” she vows. “It’s such a beautiful site and it has such great potential.”

The 7.5-hectare (18.5-acre) vineyard’s remarkable features include a lengthy private beach on Okanagan Lake. “There are very few wineries in the world that are on the water,” Val says. “It is like we are working on a vacation site.” Indeed, one of the privileges to members of the Bench 1775 wine club is access to the beach.

It is worth noting that a number of the wines reviewed below are available just to wine club members. Even if a dip in Okanagan Lake does not appeal, the wines should. "I am trying to make wines that do not have an abrupt finish," Val says.

Here are my notes:

Bench 1775 Chill 2015 ($17.90 for 1,640 cases). This is a blend primarily of Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Viognier. The wine begins with herbal aromas that continue to aromas of melon and pear. These fruits and the herbs are echoed on the palate, along with a hint of grapefruit. The finish is crisp and dry. 88.

Bench 1775 Pinot Gris 2015. ($19.90 for 1,685 cases.) This delicious wine is packed with fruit aromas and flavours, including citrus, peach and pear. Four per cent Gewürztraminer in the blend pops the aromas. The texture is full and juicy. 90.

Bench 1775 Sémillon 2015 ($19.90 for 75 cases). This is a dramatic white wine, bursting with tropical aromas and flavours including melon and cantaloupe. There is a hint of olives on the complex finish. 92.

Bench 1775 Sauvignon Blanc 2015 ($24.90 for 880 cases). There is 10% Sémillon in this blend. The wine begins with aromas of lemon and lime, leading to lime and herbs on the finish. 91.

Bench 1775 Muscat 2015. ($19.90). Three clones of Muscat are combined in this lovely aromatic wine, delivering spicy citrus aromas and flavours and finishing with spicy herbs. The wine is dry. 91.

Bench 1775 Viognier 2015 ($24.90 for 180 cases). This wine has 10% Gewürztraminer and 5% Pinot Gris in the blend. The wine begins with stone fruit aromas. On the palate, the texture is creamy, with flavours of ripe apricots. The finish is very long and generous. 91.

Bench 1775 Glow 2015 ($19.90 for 360 cases). This copper-hued rosé is 70% Malbec and is filled out with Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. The aromas and flavours of cherries and raspberry are intense. This wine, with its dry finish, is a food wine. 90.

Bench 1775 Groove 2014 ($19.90). Here is a soft juicy red that can be chilled for summertime drinking. Made primarily with Malbec and Cabernet Franc, it is a bowl full of cherries with vanilla on the finish. There seems to be a touch of sweetness. 88.

Bench 1775 Pinot Noir 2014 ($25.90. This silky wine has aromas and flavours of strawberry with hint of vanilla. 90.

Bench 1775 Malbec 2013. Dark in colour and rich on the palate, this begins with aromas of Violets and red berries. On the palate, there are flavours of plum and cherry that move on to earthy flavours of dark fruit. 92.

Bench 1775 Cabernet Franc Malbec 2014 ($25.90) This is an inspired 50/50 blend of these two varieties. The wine begins with a bold aroma of blackberries and violets, and goes on to deliver layers of bramble fruit flavours and a spicy finish. 93.

Bench 1775 Merlot 2013. A Merlot with good concentration of bright fruit, this has aromas and flavours of black currant and black cherry. 91.

Bench 1775 Syrah 2013 ($27.90 for 370 cases). Juicy, almost jammy in its richness, this wine has aromas and flavours of plum and black cherry. 90.

Bench 1775 Cabernet Franc c. 214 2013. Only the Bench 1775 wine club can buy this superb red ($28).  It is a big, ripe wine with layers of blackberry, black currant, black cherry and mulberry. 92.

Bench 1775 Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2013 ($26.90). This is 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc. The fruit flavours are boldly ripe. There are aromas and flavours of black cherry, black currant, mulberry. 92


Sunday, August 14, 2016

Blue Mountain Pinot Blanc and friend

On 2007, Barbara Philip became Canada’s first female Master of Wine with a thesis examining whether Pinot Blanc should be signature variety of the Okanagan.

Barbara has since become a senior portfolio manager for BC Liquor Stores with more responsibility for listing imported wines than Okanagan wines. That reflects the fact that the very challenging course of study for an MW equips the graduates with an extremely broad knowledge of the wines of the world.

One of fewer than 350 MWs in the world, she may well be the best qualified portfolio manager that BCL has ever had, even if her peers and her predecessors also know more about wine than most of the rest of us.

Barbara and her thesis came to mind when I was tasting the splendid Blue Mountain Pinot Blanc 2015. When Barbara was doing her research, we spent a long and delightful lunch discussing the suitability of Pinot Blanc as the Okanagan’s signature grape.

The case for Pinot Blanc is its bullet-proof reliability. It was the most successful variety in the Becker project (1977-1985), in which European varietals were grown in two test plots in the Okanagan. On the strength of that, significant acreages of Pinot Blanc were planted.

In subsequent years, it has been overtaken by Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling. These are all varieties (except for Chardonnay) that produce more aromatic whites. Chardonnay is a chameleon that winemakers can shape into great wines.

Pinot Blanc? The problem with Pinot Blanc, I suggested to Barbara, is that “it is the Holiday Inn of grapes: there are no surprises.”

The delicious Blue Mountain wine reminded me that my flippant wise crack was a bit unfair to a very reliable and drinkable grape.

I believe I also argued that the Okanagan’s terroir is so complex that no single variety does well everywhere in the valley, with the possible exception of Riesling. Ten years ago, when Barbara was tasting good examples of Pinot Blanc, Riesling was just starting to get the profile it now enjoys.

I don’t think we even talked about Sauvignon Blanc which, by then, had established itself as New Zealand’s signature grape.

The style of Okanagan Sauvignon Blanc is all over the map. Some producers make wines with the zesty gooseberry notes of New Zealand. Others producer riper wines with lush tropical flavours. Some barrel ferment the grapes; or blend them with Sémillon.  Some produce wines that are herbal, reminiscent of Sancerre.

The Blue Mountain Sauvignon Blanc is steely and smoky and herbal. Think of Sancerre.

I don’t know whether consumers get confused as they navigate through the Sauvignon Blanc landscape. But I am sure they never are confused by Pinot Blanc. Perhaps Barbara has a point after all.

Here are notes on the two wines.

Blue Mountain Pinot Blanc 2015 ($18). Some 55% of this wine was fermented and aged in stainless steel while the rest was fermented in neutral French oak barrels and aged on the lees for five months. All fermentation was with native yeast. The wine begins with aromas of melon, apples and cantaloupe, leading to flavours of apples and pears. The wine has good weight on the palate with a crisp finish. 92.

Blue Mountain Sauvignon Blanc 2015 ($19). Seventy-five per cent of this was fermented with native yeast in stainless steel tanks. The remainder was fermented in two to four-year-old French oak, aging on the lees for five months. The wine has complex aromas of herbs and grapefruit which are echoed on the palate. A mineral backbone contributes to the wine’s crisp finish. 90.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Intrigue Wines: Lake Country success

Photo: winemaker Roger Wong

By any measure, Intrigue Wines is a success story. It opened Lake Country in 2009 with 500 cases of wine. This year, it expects to produce 10,000 cases.

The winery was launched by two couples: winemaker Roger Wong and his wife, Jillian; and Kelowna businessman Ross Davis and his wife, Geri.

One of the things setting Intrigue apart is that both Roger and Geri also work at nearby Gray Monk Estate Winery. She is the controller and Roger has been part of the winemaking team there since 2005.

The obvious question, and one that Roger has fielded many times, is whether or not he is in a conflict of interest. “My reply evolved to ‘No, this is a Compliment of Interests’,” Roger says. “By my business being successful I can help to draw customers to other area wineries.  Ultimately, this is how things have worked out for our region which is still growing.”

This reflects the generally enlightened attitude among Okanagan wineries, where collaboration is the rule, not the exception. To be sure, some wineries forbid their winemakers to have projects on the side. Most understand that it is not a bad thing to share talent.  

For many years, Gray Monk, which opened in 1982, was the lone winery in Lake Country. Today, Lake Country’s seven wineries constitute the sort of critical mass than draws in many wine tourists.

For the record, the other wineries are: Arrowleaf Cellars (opened in 2003), Ex Nihilo Vineyards (2008), Intrigue Wines (2009), 50th Parallel Estate (2013), Blind Tiger Vineyards (2015) and O’Rourke Family Vineyards (opening in 2017).

Roger Wong was born in Vancouver in 1965. Even though he started making wine at home when he was 17, he took a degree in Geography and became a map maker with the federal government. Eventually, the hobby overtook his interest in geography.  When he was 30, he quit his government job (technical records keeper for the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources) to volunteer with Tinhorn Creek Vineyards in the 1995 crush.

Tinhorn Creek hired him and fostered his career in its the vineyards and cellars and through courses at the University of California. In 1998, Roger took over as winemaker at Pinot Reach Cellars, a Kelowna winery that became Tantalus Vineyards in 2004. In 2005 he moved to Gray Monk, primarily to make the red and sparkling wines.

Intrigue emerged after both the Wongs and the Davises planted vineyards in Lake Country. The dominant variety is Riesling. It is a variety for which Roger has a special affinity, believing it is the finest variety for the North Okanagan. It certainly is one of the best in the Intrigue portfolio.

Here are notes on the wines.

Intrigue Gewürztraminer 2015 ($16.90 for 487 cases). The wine begins with aromas of rose petals and spice, opening to aromas of tangerine. On the palate, there are notes of orange rind and lychee with a lightly peppery spice on the finish. Balanced to finish dry, the wine is crisp and refreshing. 90.

Intrigue Pinot Gris 2015 ($16.90 for 949 cases). The wine has a delicate blush, indicating some skin contact, a winemaking technique to lift aromas and flavours. The wine begins with aromas of apple, pear and peach. These are echoed on the palate. The texture is full and juicy but with the acidity to give the wine a refreshing finish.  Utterly delicious. 91.

Intrigue Focus Riesling 2015 ($19.90 for 200 cases). This is the winery’s flagship Riesling made with grapes from the renowned Clone 21 B Riesling. It begins with aromas of lemon and lime, leading to flavours of lemon wrapped around a spine of minerality. The intensity of the flavours is almost electric, thanks to the bracing acidity, and the dry finish is persistent. 93

Intrigue Social White 2015 ($14.90 for 1,941 cases). This is 64% Riesling, 33% Gewürztraminer, 3% Muscat Canelli. The price and the packaging indicate this is meant to be a wine for easy enjoyment with friends. It has floral and spice aromas, leading to juicy flavours reminiscent if lemon meringue pie without the sugar. 90.

Intrigue Frosted Vines 2015 ($18.90 for 416 cases). The winery explains: “Frosted Vines is made from Kerner, Riesling, and Ehrenfelser grapes which are left on the vine until after the first frost. The growing season ends when frost causes the leaves to fall from the vines yet the flavours in the grapes continue to intensify. As the berries raisin the sugars, acids and flavours become more concentrated.”   This aromatic wine presents a medley of raisins and tropical fruit to the nose, leading to concentrated favours reminiscent of good marmalade.  With 40 grams of residual sugar, this is a dessert wine. It would be lovely over fresh peaches or on its own with soft blue cheese. 89.

Intrigue I Do 2015 ($19.90 for 1,916 cases). This is a sparkling pink wine made with Riesling and three unnamed red varietals. The wine has an appealing rose petal hue, with aromas of raspberries and apples. On the palate, there are flavours of strawberries and just enough residual sugar to give the wine fleshy textures and a sweet finish; however, the lively effervescence counters the sweetness to create a sensation of crispness. 90.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Kettle Valley Winery at 25

 Photo: Kettle Valley's Tim Watts (l) and Bob Ferguson

Kettle Valley Winery is markings its 25th anniversary this year. It is something that would never have happened if Bob Ferguson and Tim Watts, the partners who own it, had paid attention to naysayers.

“In the early days, we were told very clearly that you can’t grow certain varieties here,” Tim recalls. “Cabernet Sauvignon was never, ever going to be grown. We planted some in 1991 and the results were pretty good. We were told it wouldn’t live, or it would live but never be very healthy. We were told it might grow but it is never going to ripen. And we almost never fail to get below 24 ½ brix on it. It is usually 25. It is always nice when you realize you can do things like that.”

Only three other wineries – Hillside, Lang and Nichol – preceded Kettle Valley on the Naramata Bench. But no winery made such a major early commitment to both Bordeaux and Burgundy grape varieties at a time when few people believed in the future of British Columbia wines.

“We were on the front edge of what people were planting here,” Tim says. “Other than Petit Verdot – it is a bit of a challenge – everything else has really worked out.”

And they still are at the leading edge. “We have a Petit Syrah coming,” Bob says. “We said we would not grow any more varieties but we will get our first fruit this year. It is a couple of years from getting to market.”

The partners came to winemaking in 1980 as amateurs. Bob Ferguson was born in Scotland in 1950, grew up in Canada and became a chartered accountant in Vancouver. Tim Watts, eight years younger, was born in Victoria and became a geologist. Bob credits Tim’s geological training for the fact that the partners planted vines on choice sites while avoiding Naramata Bench frost pockets.

They discovered a shared interest in winemaking after marrying sisters, and started buying Okanagan grapes. In 1985 Tim and his wife bought a home near Naramata and put in a test block of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, ignoring warnings that these varieties could not be ripened there. The grapes did ripen and, starting in 1989, the partners began acquiring vineyard acreage and phasing down their former careers. 

The Naramata Bench, influenced by the proximity of the lake, has proven itself for growing fine grapes. The winery’s Old Main Vineyard was planted in 1990 to Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, one of the earliest plantings of Bordeaux varieties on the Naramata Bench.  The wine from that vineyard is one of the most collectible long-lived red wines in British Columbia.

“Our Old Main Vineyard ripens Cabernet Sauvignon on a north-facing slope.  “It comes down to the lake,” Bob explains. Old Main is on a picturesque bench overlooking Okanagan Lake. The lake effect protects the vines from frost, allowing the winery to delay harvest into November. The Bordeaux varieties ripen here and in other Kettle Valley vineyards because the lake allows so much hang time.

Kettle Valley was one of the first to plant Malbec in the Okanagan. “Malbec was a surprise,” Bob says. “We were expecting, when we planted Malbec in 1998, that it would be quite tannic. And it turned out to be beautiful soft fruit with lots of blueberry notes. It was totally different from our anticipation after all the Malbecs we had tasted. That was a really eye opener. For the area, that was a really stunning variety.”

Good site selection and uncompromising grape growing lie behind the style of Kettle Valley’s wines.

“Our wines certainly reflect our taste in the wines we enjoy drinking,” Bob says. “Our style has always been bigger, robust, ripe, full-bodied wines because that is the style we enjoy. The luxury of being small is that you can afford to do that. We have certainly tried to make wines that are very intense and full-bodied. That’s our style and our mark.”

The winery opened its tasting room in 1996 (in what formerly was a three-car garage) with a Pinot Noir from 1992 and a Chardonnay from 1994. Boldly Burgundian, that Pinot Noir remained vibrantly alive a decade later, displaying the long-lived style of Kettle Valley wines.

“1992 was a hot summer,” Bob remembers. “The 1992s, the little we did, really stood out. And the 1994 wines as well. It was also hot summer and all the grapes came in well. I think that’s what really gave us confidence in moving forward. We had two really good years in which we had made wines we were extremely proud of.”

That certainly helped the winery get launched.

“In the 1990s, when BC wine just getting a footing, there were a lot of people that were not supportive – both consumers and restaurant industry people,” Bob says. “Trying to get on restaurant wine lists in the early 1990s was like banging your head on a brick wall. A lot didn’t want to see you.”

 Yet when Kettle Valley got into restaurants, the quality of the wines won considerable support. “A highlight [of our 25 years] is the way the restaurants have stayed behind us over the years,” Bob says. “That has been really satisfying.”

One of Kettle Valley’s biggest supporters over the years was the late John Levine, a former restauranteur and a founder of the Vancouver International Wine Festival. “The relationship we had with John was really special,” Bob says. “He bent over backwards to help us out any time he could.”  The Pinot Noir from Kettle Valley’s Hayman Vineyard was especially admired by John.

“In 2012, we lost a good friend in John Levine. John was a real inspiration to us and he certainly knew and loved his wines,” the winery says on its web site. “In memory of John we have renamed this single vineyard Hayman Pinot Noir as Hayman "John's Block". John, rest in peace.”
The production of this wine was only 96 cases in the 2012 vintage. Even though Kettle Valley produces about 9,000 cases a year – and once peaked at 13,000 cases – it is usual for the winery to make many small lots.

 “If we get a really nice wine, like Barber Cabernet Sauvignon, we will bottle two barrels … that is 44 cases,” Bob says. “The 2009 Petit Verdot was only 44 cases. We are set up to do small lots. We started that way.  We have the advantage, if we have a stunning barrel or two from somewhere. For the most part, things are fermented separately. It is a treat to take something that really stands out, whether it is 44 cases or 23 cases. We did the Crest Cabernet with 23 cases one year. It is a treat to be able to show people what you can do with a variety compared with the same variety farmed the same way but from a slightly different location.”

“When you have all of these small vineyards, as we have in Naramata, once you start blending them together, usually you are blending towards mediocrity,” Tim believes. “When you have a block that is special in a particular year, you want to put that in a bottle separately.”

However, Kettle Valley’s single largest production is its Pinot Gris, about 2,500 cases a year. What makes the wine iconic is its deep pink colour. This is achieved by soaking the juice on the pink skins of mature Pinot Gris for two to four days. The result is a wine full of flavour with appealing aromas. Only one other winery (Nichol) makes a comparable wine. 

“We had a winemaker from Oregon phone up one day,” Bob says. “He had been in Vancouver, tried our Pinot Gris and loved it. He phoned and asked how we made it. I told him; I told him how long the cold soak was. He said, ‘You can’t do that. The skins on Pinot Gris taste terrible. You can’t cold soak them.’ I said, ‘You phoned me, you told me you liked the wine, you asked me how we made it. I am telling you how we made it; don’t tell me we can’t do that!’ That ended the conversation.”

The partners reduced production from their peak of 13,000 cases when they found that was just too big. “We want to be hands-on,” Bob says. “We want to be involved in the process. The whole idea of being involved in the wine business was to do it, not to give the good jobs to someone else while you turn out to be the management.”

Tim adds that “13,000 was probably too much. It wasn’t fun anymore. Everything was a struggle.”

“I remember in harvest going from six or seven in the morning to 11 at night, seven days a week,” Bob says. “We were a few years younger, but it was physically taxing. We thought, this isn’t fun, this makes no sense. So we backed down. We are targeting 9,000 … maybe we will get to 8,000. That is a good number. You can still be hands on with everything, still control everything. We can come home from harvest at seven o’clock at night. It is not so draining.”

After 25 years, Kettle Valley remains a family operation. “We have always been reluctant to bring in people from the outside to be in charge,” Bob says. “We wanted to do it ourselves. That is the whole fun of being in this business.”

They have, however, named an assistant winemaker: Tim’s son, Andrew, who has trained in winemaking in New Zealand.

“We were kind of hoping the kids would be involved in the business and would carry things on,” Tim says. “I thought we had worked it out of all of them. Andrew for some reason liked the concept and went on to study winemaking at university.”