The Rolling Vineyards of Saskatchewan?
The Cypress Hills, located in Saskatchewan’s South-West corner, are a bit of a geographic anomaly. Rising 1400 meters above sea level, they are the highest point between the Rocky Mountains in the west and Labrador to the east, and were left largely untouched by the forces of nature which carved the rest of the Prairies from the receding glaciers thousands of years ago. Because of this they are home to many plants found nowhere else on the Great Plains, including the only working vineyard and winery on the Prairies! The town of Maple Creek (just off the Trans-Canada Highway) is considered to be the gateway to the Center Block of the Cypress Hills, and the winery is located 20 km south of the town on Highway 271 on the way to the Fort Walsh National Historic Site (another very interesting place to visit!).
“A hobby gone bad!” is how owners Marty and Marie Bohnet describe their new venture. They were originally ranchers locally but the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) crisis forced them to diversify agriculturally so they took their love of wine and their expertise in their quondam hobby and turned it into this incredible operation! They found several Labrusca hybrid grape varieties in Quebec that would survive the rigors of a Prairie winter and now have 4 ½ acres of the grapes in cultivation. They also use imported grapes and local fruit to make a total of 8 wines ranging from sweet dessert wines to a very nice dry red. In total they produce 28,000 bottles of wine annually (2009 data), the majority sold right from their well-appointed gift shop and bistro. They’ve also put a great deal of effort into their grounds, creating what seems to be a piece of the Okanogan right on the Prairies with gentle waterfalls and a pond, all facing North towards one of their newer vineyards. In typical Prairie fashion, besides making all the wine they also do all their own landscaping! They began winemaking commercially in 2005, with their doors opening to the public in June of 2007.
You can have a wine-tasting in their bistro as the Bohnets introduce you to their repertoire and if the weather is favorable you can have a more in-depth sampling on their deck (one of the nicer ways to enjoy the Cypress Hills) or inside beside their fieldstone fireplace. Because of the glaciation that shaped the area, the rocks used on the fireplace are smooth and almost polished which makes for an interesting feature.
The wines produced here are more than simply local fruit wines. They do have Chokecherry Wine, which is a very nice dessert wine as it has a delightful fruity texture which blends well with the sweetness; best served chilled. They also make a Sour Cherry wine, made from fruit developed for the Prairies at the University of Saskatchewan. This wine is a bit of a surprise as the fruit flavor predominates but it has a lovely fruity nose, nice color and a clean, crisp finish – quite enjoyable! No mention of the Prairies is complete without a discussion of our local fruit, the humble Saskatoon berry (Amelanchier alnifolia); long a staple of the Prairie diet since the days of our First Nations forebears, this ubiquitous fruit has long served our table in jams and pies, and now as a delightful fruit wine. A hint of berries in the nose and the soft tartness of the fruit on the palate with very little finish; served lightly chilled this is a wonderfully quaffable wine as a “deck” aperitif. A bit stronger fare is their Black current and Honey wine, which has a fruity but tart balance with notes of cassis in the nose; this has become one of their more popular varieties. A dry, still Mead complements their repertoire, made from locally produced honey and nothing else, so this is a traditional varietal. Light straw in color with a balanced flavor, this is best served chilled around the fireplace on a cold wintry night.
They also import several grape varieties from California which they use in their Chinook red wine. This is a soft, gentle red with light tannin and a soft nose, a nice choice to accompany a cheese tray. Of special note is their North Slope red wine, made from a blend of grapes grown right on premises. A lighter style of red wine, it has lots of fruit, mellow tannins, and a nice bright finish. Regrettably, this variety sells out very quickly, as does their best-selling Rhubarb Wine.
This is a white wine made from a special variety of German wine rhubarb, not the astringent fruit you make cobbler from! This is an interesting white wine as it doesn’t taste a bit like rhubarb, except for perhaps a hint of it right at the back of your palate. A straw-like color, crisp flavor and light, refreshing appeal make this their single most popular wine and rightly so; if anything I would liken it to a young Chardonnay (Marie Bohnet herself likens it to a good Gewurztraminer). Served chilled on their deck while enjoying a fine summer’s day this wine made our most recent visit quite memorable indeed!
All the wines are sold right from their operation; one simply cannot get them at the local wine shop which is unfortunate. While they are increasing their production as their grape crop increases, they do tend to sell out quickly. Mind you, a couple of the local restaurants are featuring these wines in their bill of fare, most notable of which is the Star Café on Pacific Avenue in Maple Creek. Here the owners have built quite an eclectic menu much of which complements these wines quite well indeed; allow your server to guide you. The other operation which features these wines is the Cypress Hills Resort in the Interprovincial Park; here you can dine in grand style at the resort complex after a day spent exploring this marvelous area, perhaps enjoying the resort’s hotel or cabin-style accommodation. There is much to see and do in South-West Saskatchewan, not the least of which is this unique Prairie winery! For more information on these venues, contact them directly at:
Cypress Hills Winery
Cypress Hills Resort Inn
Tel: (306) 662-4477 Fax: (306) 662-3238 Email: [email protected]