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 (www.bovwine.ca) - 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 (www.deserthills.ca) - 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 (www.blackhillswinery.com) - 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 (www.churchandstatewines.com) - 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 (www.stoneboatvineyards.com) -  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 (www.levieuxpin.ca) - 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 (www.quintaferreira.com) - 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 (www.riverstoneestatewinery.com) - 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!

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