Wednesday, 17 July 2013

so much to sip in sonoma...

As always when coming back home after weeks away, I've been busy trying to get caught up with my Vancouver life. Neglected garden, overgrown lawn, barren cupboard, and a social life in more need of updating than this blog have all kept me busy. Nevertheless, I wanted to touch on my last days in Napa, or better yet, in Sonoma.

With days winding down in my stay in Napa, I finally found time to make a day trip over the mountains to see what I could sip in Sonoma. Although they share a relatively similar location, Napa and Sonoma couldn't be any different. Where Napa gets all the attention for its big wines, big estates, and big prices, the subtle and subdued character of Sonoma is reflect both in its wineries and wine styles.

It is also incredible to see the difference a mountain ridge can mean in terms of climate and geography. While Sonoma does not experience the rolling fogs to the same degree as Napa, Sonoma is closer to the water so the temperatures are much more moderated. You can feel the cooler, slightly more humid air as soon as you enter the valley from Carneros. Nor does driving north see the significant heat increase as much as it does in Napa. Instead, undulating hills studded with lush forest keep things a little cooler...and a little more of a rustic country look.

I like to think that this rusticity lends itself to the more elegant, restrained style of Sonoma wines. It's also more pleasant cruising when you have a convertible at your disposal, winding your way down twisting roads. In some areas, vineyards hide amid the dense vegetation to the point that you would hardly believe you are even in Wine Country.

But I assure you it is indeed Wine Country, and a much bigger country than I had expected for just one day's drive. Pressed for time, for me it was more about hitting as many of the AVAs as possible, with a couple of signature sips along the way:

Sonoma Valley AVA
The "Napa"-iest of the County, Sonoma Valley has a stretch of cellar doors within an easy day-trip from San Francisco. Here, most wineries source their wines from vineyards throughout the County, offering a combination of Cabernets, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay. Some favs include:
Kunde ( - family owned for 5 generations, Kunde offers great value for old vine Zinfandel and Cabernet that would easily be double the price in Napa. Also a really neat cellar built into the hill and a working winery behind the glass windows of the tasting room;

Rolling Hills of Sonoma at Arrowood
Arrowood ( - small production, but outstanding quality is achieved at this top-tier Sonoma Winery. Quietly owned by the Kendall-Jackson group, Arrowood still sources and produces their wines on-site, achieving best results with their Cabernet programme;
Benzinger ( - a small, sloping parking lot belies Benzinger as must-see destination when visiting Sonoma; I was surprised to see a 30-seater people-mover tram driving through the Biodynamic vineyards. All of Benzinger's grapes are certified "green" (ie. biodynamic, organic, or sustainable), and always yield good quality results. A nice surprise for a big name;

Bennett Valley AVA                                                                                    Oenophile "tree-house" at Matanzas Creek

The youngest of Sonoma's AVAs (proud member since 2003), Bennett Valley is also among the smallest. Nestled between Sonoma Valley, Mountain, and Coast AVAs, Bennett Valley offers a unique cool microclimate and topography that sets it apart from its bigger neighbours.
Matanzas Creek ( - the big name in Bennett Valley, Matanzas Creek still maintains a low-key image. Set on a slope behind a giant oak, it has more of an oenophile tree-house feel; the Sauvignon Blanc is what to look for here, but cool Chardonnay and Syrah are also very good.

Russian River AVA
Yes...there IS a Russian River...
A surprisingly unpatriotic name for an American Viticultural Area, the Russian River is most famous for its Pinot Noir. Close to the coast but more inland than Carneros, elegant Pinots are what bring visitors to the area. Also, the area is among the most scenic I've been to, with wineries cloistered behind verdant hills and the winding Russian River. Try:
Gary Farrell ( - there may not be a vineyard on the property, but the stunning view alone is worth the drive. If the incredibly well-balanced Pinot Noirs aren't enough, the Chardonnay programme is among the best in Sonoma;
Thomas George ( - Another unassuming find along a river road, Thomas George has a very small production by California standards - only 8,000 cases - but absolutely quality driven. The Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are classic Russian River, but the Zinfandel stands out as a more elegant style than what you'd expect from California;

Dry Creek AVA
It is amazing to see the relatively rapid change from the sloping, forested Russian River to the (relatively) flat, wide, and much hotter Dry Creek. Here, fuller bodied reds do much better, and it is to Zinfandel that Dry Creek owes its fame. For the record, water flows through Dry Creek all year...:
Dry Creek Vineyard ( - Another fantastic find where the reputation is big, but the quality is even bigger. Old vine Zinfandels are a specialty, showing great diversity of expression among the single-vineyard labels. The unique Chenin Blanc is also a must sip;
Dutcher Crossing ( - Boutique by anyone's standards, only a few hundred cases of each label are produced here. In the kingdom of Zinfandel, the elegant Chardonnays and beautiful Cabernets are among the best in the state. Best join the Wine Club, however, as most of the labels sell out fast.

And that is just half of my sipping from zipping around Sonoma for 8 hours. Distances between each AVA (and in some cases, wineries - Matanzas Creek is quite isolated, for example) is big, which I find to be Sonoma's curse and blessing. Hard to take in a lot in just one day, but what you find is for the most part well worth the trip. Next time, I would definitely spend more time exploring the wines of Sonoma; so much to see, so much to sip, so much Sonoma to take in!

Friday, 5 July 2013

rockets red glare, bubbles bursting in air...

Yesterday was independence day here in the napa (well, in all of the u.s. too...), and I was able to enjoy a typically over-the-top fireworks display with a glass of bubbles in hand. as the red, white, and blue explosions decorated the still evening air, my bubbles was more of the bleu, blanc, and rouge - a 2004 Grande Dame by Veuve Cliquot.

French wine on America's most American of days, you say? Well, it actually makes sense given the parallels that exist between American and French history. First, the modern history of both countries are born of 18th century revolutions. Just think of a Flag that yet waves amid bombs bursting in air or the triumphant call to aux armes, citoyens. Furthermore, both of these revolutions are commemorated in July and - wait for it - both dates end in "4."

Then there are the gifts shared between the two countries. Opened for the first time since Super Storm Sandy, the Grande Dame of New York herself, the Statue of Liberty, is a gift from France. In return, France has a surprising number of streets named after U.S. presidents. And nothing goes better with your all-American burger or hot dog than - again, wait for it - French fries.

Just as Americans have adopted French fries as their own, the same can be said of the sparkling wine industry here in Napa. There is a saying in the wine world that "all Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne" (perhaps another topic for your group to discuss when veklempt). True enough that Champagne is the pinnacle of sparkling wine production,  the sparkling wine industry in California can easily lay claim to being among the best of New World traditional method production.

The key difference between a French-sparkling (when not from Champagne, it's called a Cremant) and a California-based sparkling is the American version will tend to be a little more full in body, a lower in acidity, and a bit more stone-fruit (peach, apricot) flavour. Still, when made in a Champagne-style, the bready/yeast flavours of prolonged sur lies aging enables the Californian producers to achieve a high-quality, "next-best-thing" product.

Those looking to emulate Champagne production will also focus on the 3 grapes used in traditional Champagnes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and/or Pinot Meunier. These grapes are generally sourced in the much cooler Carneros AVA, located close to San Pablo Bay. What more, most of the top-producers are actually owned by famous Champagne Houses! An Independence Day-Eve exploration of these Houses found the following results:

 50.000hl Tanks at Domaine Chandon
Domaine Chandon ( - Owned by Moet & Chandon, Domaine Chandon is located in the Napa heart of Yountville, the majority of grapes for Domaine Chandon's come from Carneros. Being in Napa means Domaine Chandon is a tourist mecca, with the usual tour and tastings of great bubbles. What is unusual is the Michelin-starred restaurant; the only Napa winery (bubbles or till) to have a restaurant. Classic French techniques are used to produce, among others, the not-so-French, fully red bubbly blend of Pinot Noir and Zinfandel. A still wine programme is also pursued, showcasing expressions of each Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and - very uniquely - Pinot Meunier.

Mumm Napa ( - Quietly located off the Silverado Trail in the Rutherford AVA, Mumm Napa is like Domaine Chandon in that although located in Napa most grapes are sourced in the cool rolling hills of Carneros. Owned by Mumm Champagne (go figure!), Mumm Napa offers sparkling wines at different price levels, ranging from their basic Brut Prestige to the exceptional top-tier DVX vintage sparkling.
 The stately Domaine Carneros
Domaine Caneros ( - A stately, hilltop manor amid slopes blanketed with verdant vines is a sight you'd expect in Champagne itself, and this extension of Taittinger brings Champagne tradition to California. Enjoying a flight of bubbles on a sunny patio overlooking the rolling hills of Carneros is absolutely worth the visit. Their Brut Vintage cuvee is made to exact vintage Champagne standards: 3 years aging in bottle on lees, so for just $27 is an excellent value. The non-vintage Rose is also very nice, and, like Domaine Chandon, also feature a still wine programme that focuses on Pinot Noir.

Gloria Ferrer ( - This entry may be all about the French impact on American bubbles, but a special shout-out goes to this Spanish-owned winery on the Sonoma-side of life. The Spanish have their own bubbles, called Cava, but the French influence is felt here it too with wines made in the traditional Champagne style. Gloria Ferrer limits their wines to slightly more Pinot Noir than Chardonnay, and offer excellent sparkling wines to take on the Champagne-owned wineries of Napa. Look for the outstanding Carneros Cuvee: aged 10 years on its lees, the current release is the 2000 vintage!

So, there you have it. A touch of the bleu, blanc, et rouge to celebrate the red, white, and blue in the heart of Napa. A toast to Champagne - and Carneros - the beautiful.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

a hop, sip, and leap away...

If ever you find yourself veklempt in a group of oenophiles and need them to talk amongst themselves, here is a topic you can give to discuss: Stag’s Leap is a winery, a wine cellar, and an AVA….discuss…

The answer to the ensuing discussion is that Stag’s Leap is all three. Each is named for the Stag’s Leap Pallisades; a craggy hilltop formation that is imagined to represent a leaping stag (go figure). While each the winery, the wine cellar, and the AVA are entities unto their own, the biggest difference is in how the apostrophe is used:

·         Stags Leap: When coming across the spelling sans apostrophe, you are looking at the AVA (American Viticultural Area). Just as with Oak Knoll, Oakville, or St. Helena, Stags Leap is a clearly defined region in Napa with vineyards that share a general geographical and climatic similarity. Stags Leap is the smallest of Napa’s AVAs and is located on the eastern side of the Valley along the slopes of the Vacas Mountains. Vineyards here benefit from western facing slopes, slightly higher altitude, relative proximity to the ocean, and fresh mountain water. The result are a combination of deeply ripened grapes, lifting acidity, and incredibly expensive land. The artery of this tiny appellation is the famed Silverado trail, along whose lanes lay a small collection of premium cellars including:
SLV Vineyard: America's Grand Cru

·        Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars ( One of the two wine producers in the AVA, it is to Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars that Napa owes much of its fame. The top prize-winner in the revolutionary 1976 Judgement of Paris (where a blind tasting by prominent French judges had Napa producers beating the French at their own game), Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars has a solid case to argue as one of America’s first Grand Cru. Single-vineyard Cabernets from the feminine, Margaux-esque Fay and the more masculine, Paulliac-y SLV are among the best in the Valley; you can only imagine how stunning the blend Cask 23 is!  A fantastic Chardonnay programme and Gaudi-inspired architecture make this an absolute must when visiting Napa.

·       Stags’ Leap Winery ( The “other” winery to share the name, Stags’ Leap Winery stands on its own by specialising in a different programme than its sort-of namesake neighbour. Look here for classic Napa Petite Sirah or Rhone-inspired Syrah and Viognier, but low-key and slightly out of the way make this winery a special find.

Before more wineries emerged with names like Leaping Stags or Stag Leaps, California wine law decided that no winery could name itself after a geographical landmark. Since both the Wine Cellars and the Winery existed before this law came into effect, they are allowed to keep their names. Nevertheless, a leap down Silverado trail will bring you to a collection of other amazing wineries.

Robert Sinskey ( – Although most of the wines are sourced form 100+ acres in the Los Carneros AVA (closest to San Pablo Bay), 100% biodynamic viticulture is the calling card to Robert Sinkey’s wines. With most vineyards close to the water, Robert Sinskey has a unique white wine programme that focuses on aromatics more commonly seen in Alsace or the Okanagan. For pure Stags Leap expression, however, the SLD Cabernet Sauvignon (a clever way to get around not using "Stags Leap") is sourced from the 4-acre plot you see around you (with a ½ acre splash of Merlot). Their biodynamic garden also yields for an excellent tour followed by a food-and-wine pairing session.
Stags Leap AVA at Chimney Rock
Chimney Rock ( – Another Stag’s Leap favourite located at the southern end of the appellation, it is hard to believe that the vineyards home to a failing 18-hole golf course until the 1980s. When reduced to a 9-hole course, the remaining 9-holes were converted to vineyard land that, when given years to recover from over-fertilisation, yielded excellent quality fruit. This brought an end to the front-9, and the result is an excellent Cabernet programme. If you ever had troubles on a 7th hole, look for the Clone 6 Cab; a low-yielding, highly-concentrated single varietal clone wine that now occupies what was once one of the most difficult greens on the now-defunct course.

Clos du Val ( – At the very southern edge of the AVA, Clos du Val has a large portfolio of grapes sourced from throughout the Napa Valley (and a touch of Carneros). At each level, the Carneros-based Chardonnay and Pinot Noir show very well for their price point, and, like elsewhere in the AVA, their Cabernet programme is not to be missed. At it's pinnacle, the SLD label is capable of long-term aging, but a 1992 Reserve Cabernet tasted back home shows that even the "second-label" is worth the wait. 

The above make up about one-third of the wineries in the small stretch that is the Stags Leap AVA. With concentrated fruit in a concentrated area, it is quite easy to hop, sip, and leap your way through Stags Leap AVA.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

the oaks of napa...

When conducting classes about the world of wine, California always stands out as a teaching tool to show how oak impacts the flavour of a given wine. First, there is the Chardonnay showing. A Chablis (the classic expression of unoaked Chardonnay), delicate with subtle flavours of mineral and green apple, is completely overshadowed by the toasty banana-cream pie with vanilla whip cream flavours of a full-bodied Napa Chardonnay. For the reds, I compare the complex relation of cedar, baking spice, coffee and graphite of an aged Left Bank Bordeaux to its bold Napa brother that is big on fruit, vanilla, and coconut.

Those examples, however, are merely used to showcase extreme ends of the flavour spectrum. Oaky expressions of big butter and vanilla fruit bombs may be a trend among Napa producers, but they are by no means the standard by which all producers make their wines here. Still, the use of oak does play an important role in California winemaking. American and/or French barrels may be used to impart bold or subtle flavours, a balance of new and/or old barrels will impact intensity, and the choice of fermenting in barrels may also create more integrated oaky flavours.

These, however, are questions faced by any winemaker in the world and not just by Californians. Why, then, does oak seem to play such a dominant role in the Napa-style of wine? Sure, the North American palate generally prefers the bolder flavours of a strong oak programme, but I on the other hand think that psychosomatics may have a hand. When two of your major AVAs have the word “Oak” in them, you can’t help but wonder if the acorn is subliminally planted in the minds of the winemaker.

Oakville and Oak Knoll are the AVAs of which I speak, and straddle the valley floor as and form the cookie shell that surrounds the creamy middle that is Yountville and Stag’s Leap AVAs. Both Oaks are diverse in their terroir, and each are home to many wineries that produce a wide style of wines. Here are a list of discoveries I made amid the Oaks of Napa.

Gentle Slopes and flats of Oak Knoll
Oak Knoll
The southernmost AVA entirely in Napa County, Oak Knoll benefits more from the cool breezes and fogs from San Pablo Bay. This makes for wines that are generally a little lighter in body bodied and slightly higher acidity wines. As Oak Knoll also happens to be the AVA closest to where I am staying, I’ve already introduced you to Luna, Razi, William Hill, and Del Dotto, but wait! There’s more!:

 Darioush ( -  While many big-name wineries are surprisingly hard to find, there is no missing Darioush. The big and bold style of the winery reflect the weight and passion in the wines that are as well balanced as they are big. The full-bodied, floral and savoury Viognier is among the best in the Valley, and the Cabernet programme top-notch; look for the Caravan label for high-quality Napa wine at a reasonable price.

 Signorello ( -  On the very northern edge of Oak Knoll, Signorello may have an Italian name but the wines are a blend of Napa terroir and French winemaking. Very good quality wines of classic Napa varietals Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are not the overt oaky-styles you’d expect, but the very Rhone-esque Syrah is arguably the best I’ve had in California thus far; a little more fruit than the French, but savoury and refreshing acidity show this varietal can succeed here.

 Trefethen ( – Another of my favourite Cabernets, Trefethen has a large Oak Knoll estate from which to choose their grapes. With hints of baking spice at a youthful age, the Napa Cab is not a big fruit bomb, and their XXXX vineyard shows potential for prolonged aging. A neat addition to their programme is their dry-Riesling; lime and petrol would have you in Clare Valley in a blind tasting.

For any fellow former (or current) Torontonian, the Napa Oakville is not the sandwiched suburban sprawl sand but instead a vast spread of vineyards and wineries around a town so small you’d blink to miss it. Generally flat and right in the middle of Napa Valley, the wines of Oakville tend to be full-bodied and rich in fruit flavour, and the best wineries are able to produce wines of elegance and longevity in this warm climate:

Silver Oak ( – The name says it all for the theme of this email. Located halfway between the Silverado Trail and Oakville itself (hence the name), Silver Oak has earned international reputation based on premium Cabernet Sauvignon aged 24 months in French barrels. Grapes are sourced from both the Alexander Valley (in Sonoma) and Napa, offering a relatively lighter, food friendly style and a more robust, needs-a-steak style. Look for their Twomey labels for more youthful styles of Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot.

Miner ( – The Wild Yeast Chardonnay Miner is a go-to instruction tool when showcasing how an oaky Chardonnay can have more complexity than just butter and vanilla. Perched on slopes surrounded by vineyards, the tasting room offers a beautiful view of the Oakville AVA. A fun discovery here was their Sangiovese and Sangiovese Rose; a nice touch of Italy for a Mediteranean-meets California dinner.

Paraduxx ( - A duckling in the St.Helena-based Duckhorn family of wines, Paraduxx is a label that specialises in Zinfandel. Their most popular label, "Z" (zee down here, zed back home), is roughly two-thirds Zinfandel with the balance filled up by Cabernet Sauvignon. Z's brother, "C," is its mirror opposite, but both letter labels showcase varietal expression with the supporting grape adding a bit more. Single Vineyard expressions of Z are found in their Howell Mountain and the fuller-bodied, all Oak Knoll-sourced Rector Creek.
Next on the agenda: a day leaping through the Stag's Leap wineries!

Friday, 21 June 2013

there's a wine for everyone in saint helena...

In the nascent days of my wine world managing a wine-shop in Christchurch, one product we did very well with was called Saint Helena (pronounced saynt-HELL-en-ah). With little knowledge beyond the maritime borders of New Zealand, I always wondered at the Americans who came in and asked if these wines were the same as the Californian Saint Helena (pronounced saynt-hell-EEN-ah). At the time, I was completely unaware that saynt-hell-EEN-ah was a very important part of American viticultural history, and just as well presumed the two were closely related. With the opportunity to explore the Napa Valley many years later, I therefore decided that saynt-hell-EEN-ah was worth a day’s visit.
Scenic Saint Helena from Rombauer
Located at the northern end of Napa, St. Helena has a decidedly hotter climate than AVAs located further south in the valley. This is because the famed Bay fogs that roll in to moderate temperatures in the Valley do not penetrate this far north. The result is a large cluster of wineries big and small that attract tens of thousands of visitors each year. It is, quite arguably, the Disneyland-destination for oenophiles. While the Kiwi saynt-HELL-ena (sold as Flying Kiwi in North America) specialised in Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, saynt-hell-EEN-ah, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon are the major grapes. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Merlot also perform very well.

With limited time (so many wines, so little time!), I narrowed my visit to just 4 recommended wineries. While I had a general idea of what to expect in terms of wine quality, it was the tasting room atmosphere that blew me away at each of these wineries; beauty is, after all, in the eye of the beholder.

V. Sattui ( – Crowds are not my thing, but if crowds are your thing, then 7-time-out-of-10-years winner for best destination winery V. Settui is up your alley. The volume of guests sipping wine and shopping in their deli for a picnic lunch attests to its destination-winery status, but I’m happy to give credit where credit is due; the service was excellent for the volume. The wines – well – not bad for the price, and I have to admit that their Moscato Frizzante and semi-sweet Moscato were a pleasant and refreshing surpise.

Heitz ( – Quite arguably among the top-pedigree of Napa producers, Heitz is humbly low-key just a few doors down. Their Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (sourced entirely from a single vineyard in the XXXXXXX AVA) is their flagship wine, having earned high scores in the now infamous 1976 Paris Tasting. The Trailwind Cabernet Sauvignon is more rustic and meaty, and the Sauvignon Blanc a refreshing white for any occasion; among the best in the valley. At just US$45, the Napa Cabernet Sauvignon is an absolute bargain, providing you with the chance to taste the pedigree at a fraction of the price it could earn. Made from traditional Douro varietals, the Heitz Port is another stellar find; among the best port-styles I’ve come across outside Portugal.

Rombauer ( - With a superb view of unspoiled forest mixed among vineyards, it’s no wonder Rombauer is on the must-see list of visitors to the Napa.  My initial intention was to visit the winery that provides me with the antithesis of Chablis when teaching classes. Big, buttery, and oaky is the theme among Rombauer Chardonnays, but I was duly impressed with their Zinfandel programme, such as the Fiddletown and Amador labels. Heavy oak extraction may not be to everyone’s taste, but I can appreciate it when this style is done well. Also, an intriguing influence of Petit Verdot in all red-blends proved an unexpected addition to the Rombauer programme.

Sipping from serenity at Duckhorn
Duckhorn ( – The purpose of my visit this far north, Duckhorn proved to be well worth the trip in terms of both ambiance and wine selection. The mother to duckling labels Migration, Decoy, Paraduxx, and Goldeneye, Duckhorn is an icon of Napa production with a history dating back more than 30 years. The Napa-based Duckhorn label is a benchmark for Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and for single-vineyard Merlot; the Three Palms Vineyard is a testament to why some Napa vineyards should earn a Grand Cru-esque title. Exquisite at all price-points, it is also great to experience a relaxed tasting atmosphere amid a surprisingly busy tasting room.

Just four wineries today, and clearly by my notes half are for the wine-savvy at heart and the other half for the wine-needy at heart. Nevertheless, each fulfilled a promise of great service and value-for-money wines which goes to show you that there is a wine for everyone in Saint Helena.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

why you need to put the you in yountville...

Day Two of winery visits to Napa brought me to the culinary epicentre that is Yountville (pronounced, by the way, as Yawntville). A small village by no stretch of the imagination, Yountville presents a fair degree of ennui for those seeking the larger-than-life, Disneyland-of-wine experience. For the epicurean oenophile, however, Yountville is THE Disneyland of everything epicurean and oenophilic.

Yountville AVA may not offer much in terms of sprawling vineyards and chateaux galore, but within her boundaries lay (quite arguably) the best of the best and the best of the worst wining and dining experiences one could have in Napa, if not the entire You.Ess.of.Eh.
First and foremost, if you have ever followed any Food Network/Channel programme on the likes of Iron Chef or Top Chef, you know that Yountville is where IT is at.  Thomas Keller’s French Laundry is THE icon of American gastronomy, and requires 3-months-to-the-day advanced reservations. If that didn’t work out, try almost-Iron-Chef Michael Chiarelo’s “Botteglia.” As much as I’d have loved to try either of these highly regarded restaurants, the Mexican food trucks are a delicacy of takeaway in and of themselves.

Now for the wine. Without a doubt, Domaine Chandon (a California branch for the famed Champagne house Moet & Chandon) is the draw for the tourist crowd. A stunning estate with frequent tours and tastings of their Sparkling Wine programme, Domaine Chandon is an obvious draw. However, park your car in Yountville carpark on a weekday and your California winery experience will be elevated to beyond the physical. Without the bells and whistles of large estates and too-busy staff, the below wineries-as-tasting-bars will surely tempt you to Yountville:

Girard ( – Admittedly, my draw to the area because of my work, Girard nonetheless surpassed all expectations with an amazing line-up of Cab-Sauv “Mountain Terroir.” Individual, estate-grown crops in the hills of Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain, and Mout Veeder will defy anyone’s image that Napa fruit is all but fruit-bomb and weak tannin.  Perfectly ageworthy each and of themselves, I opted for the Mount Veeder as it balances the fresher fruit of Spring Mountain with the austerity and ageability of Howell Mountain.

Jessup ( – Recommended by everyone in the Yountville-know, Jessup is certainly a boutique producer by Napa standards. Only 10,000 cases are produced each year, most of which are focused on their Carneros-sought Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (both elegant and worth cellaring for several years). The “Table for Four” red blend, however, proved to be worthy of its name: a Cab-Sauv-based blend with Cab-Franc, Merlot, and Petite Sirah, soft yet full-bodied makes this wine a perfect choice for 4 diners having different dinners.

Ma(i)sonry ( – The Blackbird label wines drew me to this art-shop-cum-tasting room in the heart of Yountville. While the focus of tastings are on the house labels produced by Aaron Pott, Ma(i)sonry is also a one-stop-tasting-shop for those looking for the truly boutique in Napa (and, quite randomly, 2 wines from Argentina). Among the Blackbirds, a sip of the Arise and Illustration will prove that Pomerol-inspired wines in the Napa are well worth the flight.

Hope & Grace ( – Anyone who is anyone that loves fine wine outside of their own cellars in Yountville will direct you to Hope & Grace. A limited portfolio that will have even Okanagan producers think “that’s not much,” Hope & Grace have achieved excellence in small batches for a total of 2,500 cases, by and large sold through cellar door. Focusing on pure varietal expression, the Pinot Noir from Carneros and Napa Malbec show amazing skill and flavour for these lesser-appreciated Northern Cali grapes. The Dry Riesling, however, stands out among the crowd for its lemon-limey, bone-dry-y goodness.

Page ( – A small, family-owned-and-operated tasting room, Page does its best at keeping up with the Big Boys. As quality musicians jam with the best in the business, Page continually looks to make the best out of single varietal expressions, such as their very good Cab-Franc and Petite Sirah, to the harmonious blend that is The Search.

Corner Stone/Stepping Stone ( – Everyone needs a Corner Stone on which to build a solid foundation, and a Stepping Stone to bring aspiring oenophiles to the next level. The wines here are good value for the prices charged, but look for the Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon as standouts for something unique among the red programme and for the whites, the Riesling (with 15% Gewurz) stands with Hope&Grace as a sign of what cool-climate grape-growing can do in Napa.

Several tasting bars down, there is no shortage of restaurants in which you can indulge your grumbling gastronomy-minded gullet. If it is late in the evening, however, you can always count on Poncho’s, voted the “best among the seediest in America” by Playboy magazine. Sadly (or not so much), it took the opening of the doors of Poncho’s at noon today for me to flashback to a trip 5-years ago that ended at her doors. But that, my friends, is another story…

Monday, 17 June 2013

who are the vintners in my neighbourhood?...

Fresh off a month in (arguably) Canada’s premiere wine region, the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys, I have the fortune to spend a fortnight in the Napa Valley. With both work and pleasure opportunities abound, I am putting up with being put up as a house-sitter (i.e. “squatter”) in suburban Napa, complete with convertible to explore the vineyards and pool to freshen up with after a long day of sipping. Not my traditional way of exploring wine regions (frugality-balanced with-cleanliness accommodation and public transport to winery), but I have to admit that it is nice to see how the other half live.

And the other half live well, especially here in Napa. Where land prices in the Okanagan can rival vineyard acreage this far south, the plethora of massive estates and convertibles is surely unmatched anywhere else in the world. Add to this exclusive country clubs and wineries “by appointment only” and you have a mix that is well-suited for the well-healed.

If living alongside verdant golf greens and the fabulously wealthy isn’t enough for you, then don’t forget the massive wine industry that dominates the area. More wine is produced in Napa than is produced in all of Canada, so there is no shortage of wineries to visit. This being my first full day here, I decided to check out my temporary neighbours and the wares they bare here at the southern end of the Silverado Trail:
Poolside & Pink-hued with Luna's "Minuet"
Luna Vineyards ( – One of the closest to my “home,” Luna Vineyards has been growing estate grapes for about 30 years, and releasing wines under their own label for about 20 years. Setting them apart from other Napa producers is their focus on Italian-influenced grapes, most notable Sangiovese and Pinot Grigio. Ahead of their time, Luna was among the first Napa estates to see the potential of Pinot Grigio, and just this year have released the first (and only?) Pinot Grigio Rose. Dinner Choice: Luna Pinot Grigio “Minuet” Rose with Mexican-inspired stir-fry.

Del Dotto ( – It’s been a few years since my last visit to Del Dotto, and how can I resist a return when their premium label is called “David.” Iconic and limited (just like me!), the David label sources grapes from two estates; one in the hotter valley-floor Rutherford AVA and the other higher up in the Howell Mountain AVA. (I preferred the Howell Mountain; a bit more refreshing and complex, again, just like me…). A Chardonnay and Pinot Noir programme from North Coast vineyards is very good, and look for their first release of a traditional method “Ca’Nani” in the coming weeks.

William Hll ( – Perched on rolling hills above the Silverado Trail, William Hill estate fruit not only benefits from more moderate afternoon temperatures than the Valley floor but also has among the most stunning scenery. 140 acres of rolling landscape define the William Hill terroir, and their Unfiltered Chardonnay shows classic Cali fruit and weight but balanced with fresh acidity. Only 7,500 cases produced…”limited” by Napa standards.

Razi ( – A family-run winery, Razi is just off the beaten path and worth the hidden turn off the Silverado Trail. The 18-month, American-oak-aged Chardonnay in particular shows classic Napa structure, but flavours are enhanced by naturally occurring acidity this far south in the Napa. The pure Cab-Sauv and Cab-Sauv-based blends are also good, but with a hint of mint not expected from a traditional Napa Cab. Special shout out to their value Shiraz; produced specifically in honour of their Persian roots (where, it is argued, the Shiraz grape originates).

Worth noting is that with the exception of Luna, the above wineries advertise "by appointment only." For future wine-savvy travelers, I've discovered the best way around this is to travel in small groups, don't show up on a Friday or Saturday, and have cards on the ready.
With neighbours like these, I suspect greater things are waiting for me as I delve deeper into the wine cellars of Napa.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

sipping in the similkameen...

Thirty minutes from Penticton on the way back to Vancouver (or, four hours east of Vancouver on the way to Penticton), drivers pass through a winding, windy valley through which the Similkameen River flows. Long a popular stopping point for purchasing orchard-fresh fruits, the Similkameen Valley is arguably “the next big thing” in BC viticulture. Cellar doors are opening up in around the small towns of Keremeos and Cawston, and the quality of wines are steadily improving.

The source of the Similkameen’s success is due to a number of factors. First, it is about location, location, location. At Keremeos, Highway 3 splits into two roads: one branches off to Penticton, the other onward to Osooyos and the Crow’s Nest Pass.  This provides a perfect stopping off point for roadside refreshment after a long drive in the summer sun.

Next, the Similkameen shares a hot, dry climate similar to that of the South Okanagan. This means that the thicker-skinned, fuller-bodied grapes grown in Osoyoos and Oliver can also ripen relatively well in the Valley. However, being a narrow, east/west oriented valley means that the Similkameen suffers from much stronger winds than do the vineyards of the Okanagan. The lack of lakes and their moderating effects in the Similkameen also mean that extreme temperatures and frost pose a greater challenge.

Last and most important, there is more room to expand vineyard plantings in the Similkameen than in the near-capacity (and thus much more expensive) Okanagan. Vineyard plantings have grown 20% over the past few years, and now account for nearly 10% of plantings across the province. There are still plenty of cherry and apple trees in the Similkameen, so I suspect that the Okanagan track record of orchards-for-vineyards will take place here too.

Nevertheless, you can have all the right conditions for growing grapes, but you still need to create quality wines. Happy to say, the following are doing just that:

Seven Stones ( - On the Cawston side of the Similkameen Valley is Seven Stones. At just over a decade old, Seven Stones has achieved a popular following for their full-bodied reds; their 2006 Meritage was the wine that introduced me to the potential of the Similkameen. Their current release is the 2008 and has scored in the 90s, but also look for their Pinot Rose for summer sipping or the new release of the plummy-chocolatey Cabernet Franc.

Orofino ( - No, "strawbale winery" does not mean the wines are aged in straw barrels; it's just a way of natural climate control for the inside of the winery. Which is a good thing, because I would hate to see their outstanding Riesling, their well-balanced Chardonnay, or their 100% Cabernet Sauvignon "Passion Pit" be harmed by flavours of hay. In just a few short years, Orofino is showing a real sense of Similkameen terroir, so look for better things to come.

Robin Ridge ( - A small, family-run winery, Robin Ridge may not have the concentration and complexity of flavour of the above wineries, but good value wines can be found here, particularly with the lighter, fruitier styled Pinot Noir and Gamay.

Herder ( - Arguably the first Similkameen winery to gain respect among critics and customers for producing high-quality wines from this newly-explored region. A limited portfolio focuses on quality production of just 5 wines. Demand is high, but the Three Sisters blend (Viognier/Pinot Gris/Chardonnay) and Merlot-based Josephine would have to be two of the most iconic wines from the Similkameen.

Clos du Soleil ( - A relative newcomer to the Similkameen, Clos du Soleil is showing early promise of success, in part with Ann Sperling of Sperling Vineyards (kelowna and the great white north...) as consulting winemaker and viticulturalist. Success comes from a strong Cabernet Sauvignon programme (a rather difficult feat for such a cool climate); their refreshing Rose is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Celestiale is a very good Bordeaux-blend for under $30.
Having sipped my way now through not just the Similkameen but at more than 70 wineries throughout the Okanagan, it is nice to be home. At least for now. Stay tuned for upcoming notes from an upcoming journey to Napa!


home stretch on the naramata stretch...

Winding down my month-long stay in Penticton, there are still several wineries on the winding road on the Naramata Bench that I had yet to explore. One day was spent up at the north-end around the village of Naramata itself (of vines big and small in naramata...) and another day on the Penticton-side of the Bench (stumbling distance...), but in these two days covered a dozen Naramata wineries; less than half of the 30 wineries on this 15km scenic stretch of road.

As mentioned in an earlier blog, 30 wineries plus 109 growers equals one intense concentration of boutique wineries. Located on the eastern shore of Lake Okanagan, the Naramata bench benefits from long summer afternoons of warm sunshine with the lake acting as an air conditioner to keep temperatures moderate. The same sun exposure keeps the vineyards relatively warm in the winter months as well, and the gentle slopes ensure that frost drains toward the lower altitudes, thus minimising frost damage. Silt, clay, and glacial rock deposits (called moraine) form the soil base of the Bench, and these each have an impact on viticulture. Relatively fertile silt means canopy management is essential for grape-growers, thus we see several vineyards planted with big vine canopy management (Geneva Double Curtains, Lyres, Scott Henry...). Clay, on the other and, has high water retention, which is helpful for an area that is starting to see issues arise with water rights as it expands. (140-square kilometres of water source, according my Okanagan Geology South, is pushed to its peak). Lastly, moraine soils are the connection to the first winery of the day:

Moraine Estate ( - As above, this new addition to the Naramata is named for the soils of the area, and as a result has a fun geological theme to the small tasting room. Production is small but sourced entirely from their estate; the Chardonnay is subtly oaky, the Red Mountain Malbec/CabFranc shows that Malbec can do well in cooler climates, and the Cliffhanger series are good red and white blends that change according to the vintage.

Black Widow ( - A common theme of the Bench, small plots are farmed to low tonnage to ensure quality fruit and concentrated flavours. The result is small releases of a limited but quality-minded portfolio; look for the easy sipping Gewurztraminer or Schonberger and for the reds, the single-estate grown Hourglass (Merlot/CabSauv) speaks to the quality of Naramata terroir.

Howling Bluff ( - Established in 2006, Howling Bluff is a family-run estate that sources its fruit from its own small plot of vineyards. Improving each year as the vines mature, their Sauvignon Blanc is among the better examples in the Okanagan, and their award-winning Sin Cera Meritage-blend is another great expression of reds grown in the Naramata.

Clean Slate ( - A unique destination in that Clean Slate combines the winemaking from Naramata-based Nichol and the cheese-making skills of Poplar Grove. Just two wines so far, a white and red blend, but solid winemaking will bring success to this small producer.

Hillside ( - One of the staples of the Naramata, Hillside has undergone renovations in recent years to update both the tasting room and the wines themselves. The Muscat Ottonel remains a standout among their aromatic whites, the Gewurztraminer a perfect choice for those wanting a little sweet (but not too much!), and their Gamay shows the potential of this varietal in BC.

D'Angelo ( - With decades of experience in Ontario's Lake Erie North Shore wine region, Sal D'Angelo set up shop in the Naramata with 27 acres of property. Dedication to quality wine production means only the best 8 acres are planted with vines. A unique icewine programme that includes Tempranillo, the Merlot-based Sette Coppa blend is the closest Pomerol-styled wine I've come across in the province.

Ruby Blues ( - What happens when the chickens leave the coup? They set up shop across the street and re-create a quality wine programme. Like others on the bench, the aromatic whites are the most popular; the White Stiletto being the most popular by far.

Red Rooster ( - As with Hillside, Red Rooster is a long-time favourite of the Naramata, but changes in the past few years mean the wines are not what they used to be. Nevertheless, Red Rooster remains an important attraction on the Bench and their wines will hopefully return to their previous heights.

La Frenz ( - When it comes to boutique BC wineries, La Frenz is arguably among the best. Recently awarded "Best Small Winery" at a prestigious California tasting, including 6 Gold medals and 4 Best in Class. Most grapes are sourced from 2 high-quality Naramata vineyards and one from the Golden Mile, but all of these are farmed using organic and bio-dynamic practices.  The wines are excellent across the board, but the Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc really stood out as something exceptional.

Long-story short, saving this stretch of the Naramata to the end provided me with more insight into the dynamics of BC viticulture...and with high expectations of how the wines would compete not just domestically but around the world. Overall, I would venture to say that, generally speaking, the wines of the Naramata are a style to be appreciated as they are.

Monday, 10 June 2013

lake country wines: more german than german...

The 50th parallel passes through the town of Winfield in the heart of Lake Country, about 30 minutes north of Kelowna. The significance of this is 50 degrees north or south of the equator marks the text book limit of viticulture, which therefore places Lake Country at the extreme northern limit of grape growing. Elsewhere in the world, only the vineyards of England and Germany are as far north as Lake Country (England benefits from the warming Gulf Stream).  When BC growers started to plant quality vitis vinifera grapes (i.e. European grapes as opposed to American or hybrid species), most looked to German varietals because of the shared latitude and cool continental climate. No doubt the stunning Alpine environment reminiscent of Austrian and Alto-Adige vineyards helped influence these decisions as well.

As growers became more familiar with the geographical and climatic differences within the Okanagan Valley, red wines took over plantings in the south (Merlot is, after all, the most widely planted grape in BC). However, the northern reaches of Lake country still remain a smorgasbord of German grapes that, as one visitor pointed out, are more common here than in Germany. While Riesling and Gewurztraminer are well-known throughout the wine world, Ehrenfelser is one such grape that has a cult-like following here but is not well-regarded back in Germany. The cool-climate Austrian reds Zweigelt and Blaufrankisch are gaining a following here too. Small, scattered plantings of Bacchus, Siegerrebe, Schonberger, and Rotberger will have you wearing lederhosen to your next tasting bar experience.

Arrowleaf ( – owned and operated by the Swiss-born Zuppinger family, Arrowleaf is a young but well-respected boutique winery. They have won multiple national awards, with their slightly off-dry Pinot Gris leading the medal count. Their Zweigelt is also leader among others in the province, and their First Crush Series are a great everyday wine - and well-suited for anniversaries and Valentine's Day.

Alpine Vineyards at Gray Monk
Grey Monk ( – established by the Heiss family in 1972, Gray Monk is not just an original of Lake Country but indeed among the oldest in BC. With 100 acres of stunning property, Grey Monk is a destination winery complete with tasting bar and restaurant. The wine portfolio is Lake Country/German classic, balancing the popular Gewurztraminer and Ehrenfelser with unique-even-for-Germans Siegerrebe and a Rotberger rosé.

Ex Nihilo ( – a beautiful and modern Lake Country winery but most grapes come from the warmer south, especially for their excellent Meritage. The Sympathy for the Devil Icewine, however, is among the top and most sought-after in Canada.

50th Parallel ( - Arguably Canada's northernmost winery, 50th parallel is a new venture with sleek design and small but quality-minded portfolio. With just four wines, the portfolio reflect both consumer trends and the northern terroir.

A couple of days in Kelowna complete, it is back down to a last run of the Naramata. From there, homeward bound through the up-and-coming Similkameen Valley.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

wines of the west bank...

Israel and the Biblical Lands are gaining worldwide attention for producing quality wines, of which most are located in the cooler altitudes of the Golan Heights. Lower altitude, extreme temperatures, and a hot-bed for political unrest, the West Bank is not as well suited for viticulture. There is, however, another West Bank that is well suited for grape-growing and winemaking, and that West Bank is right here in the Okanagan Valley.
Peaceful Vineyards of the West Bank
If any city in the world (let alone wine region) was in need of a name change, it was West Bank, BC. Mostly sub-urban sprawl and strip malls, what is now officially known as West Kelowna is also home to vineyards that, as with Kelowna across the lake, are suited to aromatic whites and a handful of cool-climate reds. Also found on these volcanic slopes are some of BC’s most iconic wineries as well as a growing number of boutique producers.

Mission Hill ( – Say what you will about the Hill, but the success of the Okanagan can be attributed to that of Mission Hill. Winner of the World’s Best Chardonnay in a 1994 London competition, the international reputation of the Okanagan can be attributed to Mission Hill. Since then, it’s iconic, Mondavi-inspired hilltop winery and restaurant attract tens of thousands of visitors each year, and the wineries of the West Bank reap the benefits of these visits. Solid wines at various price points are offered from the everyday Five-Vineyards labels up to the top-tier Meritage Oculus; a recent tasting of a 2002 showed how long these wines can age.

Quail’s Gate ( – Although it tends to sit in the shadow of Mission Hill, Quail’s Gate is another icon of the West Bank. The tiny tasting cottage was expanded to a large tasting room, shop, and restaurant complex to accommodate its growing reputation. Surprisingly, the Swiss grape Chasselas is Quail’s Gate largest selling wine, but the Old Vine Foch is also truly unique.

Rollingdale ( – A small producer that has a growing reputation for its organic wines. As with Quail’s Gate, look for their Marichel Foch for something different and good; recent releases that have seen no oak are showing great fruit flavours.

Mount Boucherie ( – The north may be all about aromatic whites, but Mount Boucherie shows that cool climate reds are also a source of interesting wines. Their Gamay is light and fruity, and the Austrian Blaufrankisch is one of the few in the province.

Volcanic Hills ( – A newcomer to the West Bank, Volcanic Hills is a throwback to my obsession with Okanagan geology; the soils around Kelowna have pockets of volcanic residue from long extinct eruptions. The reds are gaining a reputation.

Kalala ( – Another chapter in the grower-turned-vintner story of the Okanagan, the Sidhu family have branched out onto their own, taking all 90 acres of prime vineyard with them. Even more important, Kalala is entirely organic and are improving with each vintage. The weighty and aromatic Viognier is more Rhone-style than others in the region, and their Merlot-based Dostana label  is also very good.


Thursday, 6 June 2013

kelowna and the great white north...

Penticton may be located at the centre of all things vineyards in the Okanagan, but the title of main city belongs to Kelowna. An urban centre of nearly a quarter million, Kelowna is home of to most of the province’s oldest vineyards and wineries. Most of these are located within a few kilometres of the downtown, including some of the most iconic wineries that date back to pre-tasting room days of the late-60s/early-70s (which is old by Canadian wine industry standards).
Forward thinking wineries in this area decided to go against the grape by planting quality European grapes, a.k.a vitis vinifera, rather than rely on hybrid and domestic local species that were not suited to premium wine production. Here, vineyards are literally at the northern reaches of viticulture, roughly on the same latitude of German wine regions. As a result, where the desert sun and sand of Osoyoos are perfect for ripening Cabs and Syrah, the cool mountains and big lakes of Kelowna are the land of aromatic whites. 
Pinot Gris is the current king of whites in the area (and is now the most widely planted white in all the Okanagan), but Riesling is gaining international reputation as winemakers work with what the terroir provides, resulting in varying styles of dry to sweet. More important, Riesling this far north is also responsible for the highest quality icewines that are Canada's signature wine style. Gewurztraminer and Ehrenfelser are also of aromatic importance, but cool climate reds like Pinot Noir, Gamay, and the Austrian Zweigelt also do well in this climate. 
Kelowna itself is divided into 3 sub-regions: Kelowna, Lake Country, and West Kelowna. Approximately 2 dozens wineries are found in the area, but distance makes it difficult to do it all in one day. Hence, we start with a look at the wineries of Kelowna proper. Most of the wineries are located on hillsides south of the city, and often have access to among the oldest vines in BC.

Tantalus ( – Tantalus focuses on a limited portfolio of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Riesling, arguably BC’s best with their Old Vines from vines more than 30 years old. A recent project is a sparkling Riesling made from these vines – yum!

Sperling ( – a country cottage doubles as a rustic tasting bar, and the wines are lovely. The Spritz is a nice, off-dry bubble and their first Pinot Noir is a sign of good things to come.

Summerhill ( – Pyramid-power defines Summerhill’s eclectic approach to winemaking, so it is no surprise this is a leader for organic and biodynamic viticulture. Cypes is also among the leaders of BC’s sparkling wine labels.

St. Hubertus ( -  Another Kelowna classic, recent changes to production have brought quality back to St. Hubertus. Their Gewurztraminer in particular showed among the best of my visits with a fuller body and aromatics much more along the lines of a traditional Alsatian.

Cedar Creek ( – One of the first wineries to work with vinifera grapes from the 1970s, Cedar Creek has streamlined their portfolio to meet consumer demands, but unique standouts such as a Reserve Malbec and Madeira-styled Pinot Blanc.

Calona/Sandhill ( – BC’s first winery, Calona has suffered years of bad reputation but their Artist Series shows much improvement worth revisiting. The winery is also home to Sandhill, where the One, Two, and Three reds offer unique and high quality blends.


Friday, 31 May 2013

stumbling distance...

Driving across the southern reaches of the Okanagan is much more tiring than you may think (but with all those wineries, it is definitely worth the effort!). As a result, I needed some time to spend in my temporary backyard of Penticton. The majority of the Okanagan sub-regions are within an hour's drive of this city of 50,000, but there are also important wineries (and vineyards) within walking distance of downtown too. In an excuse to strengthen my injured leg, an uphill hike to the handful of wineries along Upper Bench Road.

These wineries have the fortune of being located on the fringes of town, making them accessible to anyone willing to walk up the steep road. There is a bit of country road involved, but it's not so bad as traffic is light and you are passing alongside vineyards and orchards. A walk in the country within the city is a nice balance indeed. 

If walking isn't your thing, then how about cycling? Penticton is home to Canada's largest Ironman competition each summer, so the helmets and spandex of those in training can be found throughout the city's streets and Starbucks. As a result, a bike lane runs on each side of Upper Bench Road, and the Kettle Valley Trail is another off-road option for the hiking and mountain biking crowd. A nice outdoor option to get around the below wineries of Penticton.

Poplar Grove ( - Last year, Poplar Grove moved from its Naramata Bench location to its new, modern winery on the edges of Penticton. As one of the first wineries you visit, Poplar Grove is prepared to welcome droves of visitors with stunning views and an excellent restaurant, The Vanilla Pod. The wines of Poplar Grove are of consistent high quality; Chardonnay in particular has a delicate balance of subtle oak flavours and their Legacy is among the top Meritage wines of the region.

Monster Vineyards ( - Around the corner from Poplar Grove (and even closer to town), Monster Vineyards started off as a "second label" of Poplar Grove before moving out on its own. As a result, the Ogo Pogo motifed Monster excels at offering easy-drinking wine styles at a reasonable price. The cherry-flavoured rose and the aromatic White Knuckle white blend both have a touch of residual sugar that make them perfect patio sipping wines.

Township 7 ( - As with the Black Sage's Church & State, Township 7 has vineyards and tasting rooms in both the Lower Mainland (Langley) and here in the Okanagan. However, the vast majority of their wines are made from Okanagan fruit, so their Penticton tasting room is worth the visit. The Syrah has just the right amount of white pepper, and the Gewurztraminer is typical for its type; a perfect choice for a sushi lunch on their patio (you can bring your own picnic!)

Misconduct ( - I'm happy to report that among the many wineries of my trip, Misconduct is among those that have seen the most improvement over the years. The quality now lives up to the attractive, Roaring Twenties-esque packaging. This is particularly true of their Suspect Series labels. White and Red blends are made each year, but the base of the blend changes according to which grapes had the best vintage. Current releases are Chenin Blanc-Viognier (Chenin being a rarity in the Okanagan), and Syrah-Malbec. A new restaurant also smells really good (but didn't have time to eat).

Upper Bench ( - the furthest walk down the road, Upper Bench reflects the growing trend of matching good wines with artisanal cheeses. With wines of average quality and price, I would venture to say that cheesemaking takes the priority here. Nevertheless, the Zweigelt offers a bit more body and dark fruit character than others in the region, and who can go wrong with a cheese plate and bottle of wine on the patio? 

Five wineries is a relatively small effort for a day of tasting, but each provide enough of a nosh for a wine crawl along Upper Bench; and it is just a quick taxi ride home!

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

sun, sand, and sagebrush...

Hot on the heels of my geological exploration of the Golden Mile, my next round of Okanagan winery visits brought me all the way to the other side of the road: the Black Sage Bench. As with the Golden Mile, the Black Sage Bench is a 10km-ish stretch of land in the South Okanagan in and around the town of Oliver. As such, temperatures here are among the hottest in Canada, easily surpassing 30C in summer (40C+ is not uncommon either). There are no lakes to moderate temperatures in this part of the Okanagan, so "diurnal flux" (the difference between daytime highs and nighttime lows) is important to both ripen grapes and to cool them off. As a result, this is the heartland of growing those full-bodied, strong tannin reds that require so much heat to ripen.

However, the soils and aspect of the Black Sage are very different from the neighbouring Golden Mile, even if a mere kilometre or two separate these brothers-from-another-mother wine sub-regions. Where the gravel fans "rock" the Golden Mile, sandy dunes are the dominant feature of the Black Sage. The afore-mentioned "diurnal flux" is enhanced by the sandy soil; heat is reflected even more intensely during the day, but cools off rapidly at night. As for aspect, the Black Sage faces west, which means it absorbs more daytime-and-into-the-evening heat than do the vineyards on the Golden Mile. The result: the Black Sage Bench is the premium spot for ripening classics like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, as well as the Bordeaux/Meritage supporters Malbec and Petit Verdot.

The vineyards of the Black Sage therefore play an important role in feeding the full-bodied red blends of wineries a bit further north, such as Summerland and Naramata discussed earlier. These wineries may own vineyards up north, but some will own land or contract with growers located further south to secure a steady supply of rich red grapes. Nevertheless, there are a handful of great estates located along the main artery of the Black Sage Bench, the aptly named Black Sage Road.

Black Sage Vineyards at Burrowing Owl
Burrowing Owl ( - arguably one of the Okanagan's most iconic wineries, Burrowing Owl is at the very southern end of the Black Sage. A slow and steady release of their wines have created an image of scarcity, so it is always a treat to have your hands on a bottle of the Owl. Syrah, Merlot, and Meritage are excellent whites, but oddly enough for this far south it is their Pinot Gris that is most coveted. Visiting on World Chardonnay Day, however, revealed that when treated right not just at the Owl but anywhere in the Okanagan, Chardonnay can age to silky wonders in BC.

Desert Hills ( - Aptly named given its location on sandy hills in a certifiable desert, Desert Hills excels with its multi-award winning Syrah and Meritage reds. These are full-bodied, rich, and spicy reds that will defy anyone who thinks BC cannot do warm-climate viticulture. The whites, however, do not live up to the same standard. On the other hand, the Gamay is a unique expression for the grape of Beaujolais with its rich flavour and texture.

Black Hills ( - A great example of how success can be achieved with a focussed portfolio. Only 6 wines are produced, each of which are to of benchmark quality for BC (and, pun intended, Black Sage benchmark quality). Nota Bene is their iconic Meritage that is released after within 2 years of harvest, yet still capable of longer-term aging. Most unique is their Carmenere; the only single-varietal Carmenere (that I'm aware of) outside Chile. Not as chocolate-minty as the Chileans, but still very good. Syrah, Chardonnay, Viognier, and the Sem-Sauv Alibi round out the portfolio, each made to excellent quality.

Church & State ( - Along with Naramata's Township 7, Church & State is one of the few wineries to have vineyards and cellar doors both in the Okanagan and in the Lower Mainland. In the case of Church & State, their Okanagan winery is located at Coyote Bowl on the Black Sage. This location lends it's name to a series of structured, ageable reds (the Cabernet Sauvignon is among the best in BC) as well as a very Burundian Chardonnay. The Church Mouse series is also a great value.
So many choices on the Black Sage!
Stoneboat ( -  A boutique producer, Stoneboat excels at small production of a limited portfolio of wines.
The slightly off-dry Pinot Gris is excellent as is their Pinot Noir, but two unique wines really stand out. First, there is the meaty and savoury Pinotage, which has not a hint of the barnyard-gaminess of the South African classics. Second, there is the dessert wine Verglas; an ice wine that has also seen noble rot, a rare occurrence in the wine world and only produced in select years. Amazing as the icewines are in BC, Verglas stands out at the top for me.

Le Vieux Pin ( - Sister winery to Osoyoos' La Stella, Le Vieux Pin concentrates on Rhone varietals; the Syrah in particular is very good. Merlot is also made here, but it is their Vaila Rose that stands out amongst its Okanagan peers; bone dry, pale coloured, and delicate flavours of dried strawberries, pink grapefruit, and rosemary are a great reflection of any Rhone rose.

Quinta Ferreira ( - Quinta Ferreira is the perfect reflection of how the Okanagan wine industry has developed. The Ferreira family had orchards on their land for 20 years before converting to vines in the late 90s. These grapes once supplied bigger wineries before the Ferreira's moved out onto their own label. A lovely family, look for their Viognier, Rose, and Merlot to best reflect their labour of love.

River Stone ( - As with Covert Farms being just outside of the Golden Mile, so too is River Stone just on the outskirts of the heart of the Black Sage Bench. Just north of Oliver, the 9.5 acres of River Stone benefit from the west-facing slopes, but the soil is a little less sandy than on the Bench itself. A new winery, they are off to a good start with their Cabernet programme (both Franc and Sauv), as well as their Meritage "Cornerstone." The Malbec Rose is also freshly unique.

And yes, the Black Sage Bench is named so because of the type of sagebrush that grows in the area. As a result, the red wines of this region tend to have a hint of savoury notes akin to the garrigue of Southern France (if but much more restrained). Sun, sand, and sagebrush; you can't go wrong with that combination!