Wine tastings are a dime a dozen but one of the hottest tickets around is the Banée of Oliver. At this annual winery-only banquet, southern Okanagan producers gather for a convivial evening of swapping stories and tasting not just each others’ wines but bottles from around the world.
What started as a post-pruning celebration at the Toasted Oak Wine Bar & Grill (which claims the world’s most comprehensive BC wine list) has proved to be the glue for the South Okanagan Winery Association. Membership prerequisite: a cellar door south of MacIntyre Bluff, the massive rock face that divides the semi-arid south from the more temperate central and northern part of the valley, where, in some parts, harvest times can lag two or three weeks behind.
Land values have been skyrocketing. Vineyard conversions seem to be happening at almost every turn and can be counted by piles of posts awaiting “planting.” It’s obvious that already-warm Oliver is heating up.
Beyond the vineyard, tourist activities, once somewhat lacking, are also picking up. Bellstar’s Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort in nearby Osoyoos is already the south valley’s latest and greatest luxury destination; but a second Bellstar resort, next to downtown Oliver, is about the see the light of day; it will include an interpretive centre and culinary-arts facility intermixed with hotel, spa and shopping. Things are moving fast.
When Oliver declared itself the “wine capital of Canada” in 2003, its claim was based on the fact that the area is the principal supplier of grapes to wineries throughout the province — about 70 percent of total production in fact. (Even celebrated Naramata Bench gets a significant amount of its grapes from here.) Last year, the number of wineries opening up in this very distinct part of the valley climbed rapidly, suggesting Oliver’s local star is also rising. The town had already earned a “Golden Mile” moniker — bestowed in another era for the area’s ability to ripen honeydew melons. The “Mile” is actually ten miles of western slope of alluvial deposit interspersed with sandy benches, which receives morning and midday sun primarily. The opposite east-side bench gets the sun well into late afternoon and evening, and it’s where most of the south valley’s reds are planted. “The geography of the south end is very unique,” says Tinhorn Creek winemaker Sandra Oldfield. “All of us grow grapes here. But you can always find little nuances of your area that are different from the neighbours.”
As time goes on, and as more wineries emerge, those differences may well become more apparent — though, no doubt, the discussion as to what grows best where will continue for a while yet. Oldfield, who chooses to focus on Merlot and Cabernet Franc for her reds, gave up on Cabernet Sauvignon, which she feels (like many others) presents ripening issues. Tinhorn’s strong points are its cool-climate aromatics, such as the Gewürz, that come from the west side of the estate, and Merlot, mainly grown in the east. “We’re not super-big believers that Cabernet Sauvignon is a good grape for the Okanagan,” says Oldfield. (No doubt, Osoyoos Larose and Black Hills Estate might beg to differ.)
One of the newest wineries to stake its claim on the east bench, Le Vieux Pin has set itself some high goals from the outset, choosing to produce only premium-priced wines marketed to a select group of restaurants. Recently opened, the intimate tasting room (by appointment only, with the right Riedel glass for each wine) is framed in copper and stone, in a building styled to look like a French countryside railway station.
Vieux Pin general manager Anthony Burée says the winery was deliberately conceived to fulfil sommeliers’ needs for high-end BC wines — and he is determined to deliver on his promise to make “serious reds.” With that in mind, the winery came into being not following the usual grower-driven model. Says Burée, “If we want to be on the world stage, we need to compete against wines from the rest of the world and not be blinkered by the valley palate.”
Le Vieux Pin will soon be joined by two siblings. Lastella is due to open in 2008 and Selóna the following year. Burée explains that launching just one small premium winery wasn’t viable, so this trio of wineries will share resources while remaining completely autonomous.
Burée would like nothing more than to see some separate sub-appellations. In fact, he already has a name in mind: “Osoyoos Lake District.” He’s also convinced that the southern valley’s best sites for Bordeaux grapes lie on the west side — and not in Black Sage’s sand, which he says is far more reminiscent of the Rhône. “We didn’t buy properties on just one side. We scattered them throughout the valley so we could utilize the flexibility of terroir.”
Few people know the area as well as Bill Eggert — the multitalented dynamo who does it all at tiny Fairview Cellars, right on the edge of the Fairview Golf Course. Eggert, a no-nonsense kind of guy who moved here from Ontario in the early 1980s, plants, prunes and makes his own wine, which attracts a loyal following — he sells a lot of it via email. He’s watching the growth in the area with particular interest, having trained several of the newcomers while an instructor at Okanagan College.
He grows only Bordeaux varietals and chose his site on the cooler side for a reason: “I get the morning sun so my vines get sun when they’re cold, as opposed to Black Sage which gets its sun in the afternoon when the vines are hot. When do people work better? When they’re cool.” Even if Eggert often has to wait until Halloween to pick his Cabernet Franc, the slow ripening, nicely berried red is a house favourite.
In terms of both plantings and technology in the valley, the influence of Vincor has been profound, as evidenced by the swath of vines that now stretches from the south end of Oliver right down the east side of Osoyoos Lake. However, while Jackson-Triggs’s long overdue tasting room (finally opened in 2006) sees plenty of action, it’s Nk’Mip Cellars, in Osoyoos, that’s the south’s new anchor, getting most of the attention. The partnership between Vincor and the Osoyoos Indian Band is an unqualified success. While the tastefully designed winery impresses with its sweeping vista, Nk’Mip has also done very well in the bottle. As the estate’s own vines mature, most of its needs are being filled by the Vincor “bins” and by Inkameep Vineyards, on Oliver’s east bench, which has been growing grapes for several wineries since 1968.
Nk’Mip winemaker Randy Picton sources Riesling, Chardonnay (for its premium Qwam Qwmt wines as well) and Merlot from the cooler Inkameep site, which can yield some mineral notes. Interestingly, he takes Pinot Noir from a variety of southern sites that become so hot, he says, that the vines shut down, which delays ripening considerably. The winemaker is very happy with the early signs of Nk’Mip’s own fruit, including the Syrah, the first bottling of which (2005) will be released this year.
As the south Okanagan stable of wineries continues to grow, those Banée tickets will most likely be even more in demand. New names to watch for include Stoneboat Vineyards, Quinta Ferreira and Dunham & Froese, produced on the Covert Farms, right below the imposing MacIntyre Bluff, with several others on the horizon. At that speed, lighting might strike twice.
Some South Okanagan Flavours
Black Hills Nota Bene 2005 ($37)
Maybe one of the best blends to date: 43% Cabernet Sauvignon/37% Merlot/20% Cabernet Franc). Very balanced, well-structured, with ripe, focused black fruit, some cedar tones and fine tannins to a rich, smooth finish. Expect the quality to rise further in this minimalist, very functional new winery.
Burrowing Owl Chardonnay 2005 ($25)
Creamy but restrained French oak, with vanilla notes, vibrant stone fruit and a rich, gently honeyed palate.
Fairview Cellars Cabernet Franc 2005 ($24.90)
More evidence that Cab Franc could turn into a winner for the Okanagan comes from Bill Eggert’s latest. He says: “Red and good.” Plus some easy tannins, plummy red fruit and a gently luscious palate.
Le Vieux Pin Apogée Merlot 2005 ($65)
Hand-picked (from a site just below Osoyoos Larose, on the west side of the lake), small-basket-pressed, well-structured, plush and plumy, with approachable but firm tannins — an impressive start for the fledgling winery. (Available only from the winery, see www.levieuxpin.ca for details.)
Nk’mip Cellars Pinot Noir 2005 ($17.95)
More New World in style, with strawberry and bright fruit on the nose preceding crushed cherry and plummy notes with a little spice, soft tannins and some earthiness.
Tinhorn Creek Gewürztraminer 2006 ($15.49)
The perfect sipper: tropical-toned, gently off-dry and easy to like, plus the Stelvin top guarantees the fresh character. Think satay or anything slightly spicy.
Tinhorn Creek Oldfield’s Collection Merlot 2003 ($28)
Pretty, deep garnet in the glass with a vibrant berry nose, before a luscious redcurrant and black-cherry palate; spicy notes with a slightly leafy top; a good balance of moderate tannin and ripe fruit.