Hot Okanagan: Wines That Shine
Working in a young wine region can be risky. Established growing areas like Europe have known signature grapes and styles, but for the new world, that history is still in the making.
In British Columbia, winemakers and viticulturists are listening closely to the land and discovering what the future holds.
The province has several ‘geographical indications’ (or designated viticultural areas), all with unique climates and terroir. Varied growing conditions make it difficult for a region to hang its hat on a single grape variety or style, so it can be challenging to learn what B.C. does best. Yet amid the noise of exploration, a few stellar examples shine.
Méthode Traditionnelle (aka sparkling wine)
Why it’s cool: modern refinement and big acid
Wineries to watch: Summerhill Pyramid Winery (Kelowna) and Bella Wines (Naramata)
Summerhill was an early practitioner of organic, biodynamic, and natural winemaking practices, before more recent buzz took flight. The winery has a to-scale pyramid on property and they embrace what the unseen forces of nature contribute to the process. They were one of the first to produce a traditional method sparkling wine, recognizing early on just what cool climate acidity can do.
Wine to watch: Cipes NV Brut, a non-traditional blend of riesling, chardonnay, and pinot blanc, for its concentration of flavour, balance of fresh acidity, and persistent soft mousse.
Bella Wines cultivates long-term relationships with small lot growers and brings a hyper-focus to showcasing terroir.
One of the newer houses, Bella has quickly earned a dedicated following for their sparkling-only portfolio. Among their many single-vineyard wines is the “trad-nat” (traditional natural): a natural sparkler without added sugar or yeast, using a fermenting wine for the secondary bottle ferment. Next level wine geek.
Wine to watch: Chardonnay 2017 King Family Vineyard for its unmistakable signature Bella operatic harmony of bright acidity, elegant mousse, and promise for the future.
“I look at Traditional Method as a technique, and my goal is to discover what each vineyard has to say. Some sites are better suited for Ancestral Method and some for Traditional Method; it’s up to winemakers to adapt to what suits our region, not follow a recipe from another wine region.”
Why it’s cool: mineral, mineral, mineral.
Wineries to watch: Orofino Winery (Cawston), Synchromesh Wines (Okanagan Falls)
Since achieving wider recognition these last few years, the Similkameen Valley isn’t much of a secret any longer. Orofino Vineyards has quietly and steadily established itself as a premium crafter of wines carrying a sense of place, notably through their riesling. Once blended from different vineyards, Orofino now produces three rieslings that are distinct reflections of their mineral-driven sources.
Wine to watch: Hendsbee Vineyard Riesling, any vintage, for its vibrant acidity, telltale citrus, and stony foundation.
“Riesling is a grape that tends to show off soil differences. In 2012 we really began noticing those differences soon after fermentation, so now we have three vineyard specific rieslings. It was such a cool opportunity to delve into the intricacies of our Similkameen appellation that we had to bottle them separately.”
Set behind a rocky outcropping on the back roads of Okanagan Falls is Synchromesh Wines, celebrated by fellow wine enthusiasts for their focus on riesling – with up to five or six in any given vintage. Known for giving full technical disclosure, Synchromesh proudly shares their wines’ off the chart acidity levels and other eyebrow raising numbers to provide a valuable education for all of us.
Wine to watch: 2017 Storm Haven Vineyard Riesling for its signature delicate fruit, dancing acidity, and glimpse of what’s to come – if we have patience.
Why it’s cool: structure and grace
Wineries to watch: Bench 1775 (Naramata), Tinhorn Creek Vineyards (Oliver)
Bench 1775 grows fruit at three vineyard locations: on their bench in Naramata, the south in Osoyoos, and the central Okanagan valley. The diversity offered from multiple vineyard sites helps build complexity in wines; warmer sites reach riper flavours while the same grape from cooler vineyards can hold acidity and other nuances. There’s a love for cabernet franc at Bench 1775, being the winemaker’s favourite. It shows.
Wine to watch: 2014 Cabernet Franc cl214 for its seamless integration of quiet structure, vibrant fruit, and enduring minerality.
“Cabernet Franc is exciting to work with, especially clone 214. It’s elegant and aromatic, with fine tannins and distinctive floral and herbal notes. This variety does particularly well in our hot dry summers with moist, cool autumns. And the fruit is so expressive when grown in the gravelly, silty soils of the Okanagan.”
Tinhorn Creek Vineyards has farmed on the Black Sage Bench since 1994, including the vigorous-growing cabernet franc. With full southwest exposure and sandy well-drained soils, it’s a unique environment to explore what this grape has to offer.
Tinhorn is a leader in sustainability, in all aspects of their business, and was one of the first in B.C. to focus on single varietal cabernet franc. It holds a well-deserved and loyal following.
Wine to watch: 2014 Oldfield Reserve Cabernet Franc for its rich palate, distinctive herbal qualities, and overall refinement.
“Tinhorn Creek has been growing Cabernet Franc on the Black Sage Bench for more than 20 years. It’s proven to be one of the outstanding grape varietals in the Okanagan Valley, both for longevity and fruit quality.”
Why it’s cool: power and elegance
Wineries to watch: Painted Rock Estate Winery (Penticton), Le Vieux Pin (Oliver)
When the Skinner family planted Painted Rock’s vineyard in 2005, the focus was on Bordeaux varieties with a couple of exceptions. Fortunately for us, one was syrah. Vines are surrounded by a natural amphitheatre of rock and benefit from long afternoons in the sun. The goal at Painted Rock is to craft premium wines of exceptional quality, and that’s echoed from vineyard to cellar.
Wine to watch: 2015 Syrah for the future, because this powerhouse will take its time relaxing and is well worth the wait.
“Our decision to plant syrah was based on great advice from John Schreiner, who knew there was potential for it in the Okanagan. With our long hot summer days and cool nights, we can capture both bright fruit and spice for a balanced and polished wine.”
Translating as ‘the old pine’, Le Vieux Pin on the Black Sage Bench is an example of how new world winemaking can both embrace and redefine the old. The strength here is attention to detail and persistence in vision, led by a French winemaker and viticulturist who fell deeply in love with the Okanagan. There’s something magical about that combination, an indefinable ‘x’ in the equation of delicious.
Wine to watch: 2014 Équinoxe Syrah for its orchestral meeting of new and old, with that aforementioned indefinable quality.
“Syrah has a great ability to show different characteristics of a site. Working with it is like being a painter with a palette of aroma, texture, and taste. In the south Okanagan, there’s more heat with a big difference in temperature between day and night to keep natural acidity for natural freshness. When it’s in your glass, the syrah is really alive.”
Why it’s cool: brilliance and intensity.
Wineries to watch: Seven Stones Winery (Cawston), Liquidity Wines (Okanagan Falls)
Seven Stones overlooks the picturesque Similkameen River, producing around 4,200 cases per year. This boutique winery uses all estate fruit to craft elegant, French-inspired wines that are uniquely British Columbia. A steely, briny minerality shows through the portfolio, possibly a result of the valley’s history as a lake eons ago.
Wine to watch: 2012 Speaking Rock Chardonnay for its equal parts soft fruit, brilliant zesty acidity, and lightly creamy texture.
“When planting the vineyards in 2000, I chose chardonnay because it can be made in many different styles. I use 50% oak and 50% tank influence for the complexities it brings. This site has a prevalent minerality that comes from our subsurface layer of ash and limestone.”
Above Vaseux Lake is Liquidity Winery, a collage of creative expression in many forms. The contemporary winery and bistro double as an art gallery with seasonal rotating artists of international acclaim. Included in their vineyards are multiple clones of Liquidity’s signature grapes: pinot noir and chardonnay. There’s a reason they focus on these varieties, and the proof is in the bottle.
Wine to watch: 2016 Estate Chardonnay for its delicate balance of ripe tropical fruits and shining acidity in a cradle of softness.
“Our climate and rocky, gravelly, sandy soils make Okanagan Falls perfectly suited to grow premium chardonnay. The diurnal temperature shifts here are crucial; warm days allow for excellent flavour development and ripeness, while cool nights help the fruit retain fresh acidity for balanced wines.”