Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Wineries of the Okanagan Valley

One of my goals whilst working and living in British Columbia's 'Wine Country' is to get around and taste at as many of the wineries as possible. My second weekend in Oliver was a chance to kickstart this venture, with my housemate along for the ride - literally.

Having obtained an excellent brochure detailing when each winery was open, tasting fees, other facilities, etc., we decided to select the wineries that were shutting down for the winter and tick them off the list first to make sure we did not miss out. We were also limited to the local Oliver area as we were planning a day out on our bikes.

We decided it would be fun to stop at each others' respective place of work so we could relate more to each other. So for that reason, our first stop was on Road 7 at Tinhorn Creek, where my German friend is doing vintage. There were two things that struck me immediately about this winery: 
1. The hill is even steeper than at Road 13!
2. The cellar door and restaurant are absolutely stunning - both in terms of views and design.

After strolling through the vineyards and past the pond designed in the shape of the Tinhorn Creek symbol, we entered through the huge wooden doors into the foyer, where we were immediately offered a complimentary glass of Gew├╝rztraminer. I honestly felt a little underdressed in my sweaty cycling gear!

Immediately to the left and right of the foyer were two halls that lead out to viewing chambers overlooking the cellar. Here you could watch the winemaker and his cellar hands at work as well as read about which wines were being stored in which tanks and how they were treated. This was a great touch as it immediately put you in closer connection with the winemaking process and the journey of the wines themselves. 

Onto the main tasting hall and we were cheerfully greeted by Wes who kindly allowed us to taste more than the usual 4 complimentary tastings (helps if you are working in the industry). Tinhorn Creek separate their wines into two ranges: the Varietal Series, which as the name suggests are single varietal wines and the Oldfield Series, named after their founder and CEO Sandra, which are their signature blends. I was primarily a fan of the 2012 Cabernet Franc, which exhibited bold red fruits with a strong line of cedar and good tannin structure. The Oldfield Series Pinot Noir 2010 was also to my liking for a smooth and soft style with a hint of stalkiness to pepper it up a little.

View from the tasting room at Tinhorn Creek

Although the range at Tinhorn was sound, it was their excellent use of the landscape that really impressed. The tasting room balcony looks out to a gorgeous little amphitheatre where regular concerts are held. Nearby, a series of small rows of vines exhibit examples of each varietal grown at the estate and visitors can sample grapes straight off the vine. What an excellent way to engage your audience! By the end of the visit, my head was buzzing with new ideas to take back to my role as a cellar door manager in Australia!

Standing outside Road 13 Vineyards Castle

It was with anticipation that we ventured onward to Road 13, to my winery. Another sweaty hill climb later, we arrived to a friendly welcome from the cellar door staff at the castle tasting room. 

I know this may sound biased, but I was honestly impressed by the range at Road 13 Vineyards. Even their entry level 'Honest John' series showed poise and style at an exceptional price point. The Honest John's White is a blend of German varietals - Bacchus, Riesling and Kerner and the Honest John's Rose contains Merlot, Gamay and Viognier for something a little different (I noted that the winemaker likes to add a dash of Viognier to quite a few of his wines).

From the main 'Road 13' range, I tasted my best Riesling yet in the Okanagan, with beautiful kaffir lime flavours and a dry finish. But it was the Chardonnay that stole the show with its fresh, crisp citrus characters and fine use of oak. The other standout would have to be the 2012 Seventy Four K, a co-fermented blend of Merlot, Syrah, Malbec and Viognier. The fine tannins, rich black fruit and oaky resin created a silky mouthfeel and it slid down the throat a little too easily! The name of this wine comes from the fact that if you strung all Road 13's vines out in a row they would stretch for 74km.

Again, we were allowed to taste everything that was open, but this unfortunately did not include the 'Jackpot' range, which is their upper eschelon of reserve wines. I will, however, be planning a visit to the executive tasting lounge where you can taste these wines paired with some local delicacies - watch this space!

C. C. Jentsch Cellars

We almost reached our next destination at C. C. Jentsch Cellars without a pedal stroke, after cruising back down the Road 13 hill and around the corner. Walking in the gates, I could see the evidence of recent grape crushing occurring and this put me in the mood for chatting about wine production. Gordon was well spoken and informative, clearly having a great understanding of the winemaking process, complimented by his background as a chef and viticulturist.

I have already mentioned my love of their rose The Dance and you can read my review of this wine here. It was not surprising that this was my favourite wine, as the winemaker Amber Pratt has a reputation for good rose. 

The Chase, which is the sister wine to The Dance, was also an interesting Bordeaux blend, containing Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot and Petit Verdot all rolled into a medium-bodied food wine with blossoming red fruits and approachable structure. The 2012 Syrah followed suit with the uplifted red fruit characters and delighted with a whiff of smokiness and a dash of black pepper.

Although not planned as our next destination, the series of signs advertising artisan breads and cheeses which were dotted along the road leading up to Platinum Bench Estate Winery were enough to convince us to stop. Unfortunately, the bread and cheese were the highlight of the visit. 

Artisan bread and cheese at Platinum Bench Estate Winery

The small cellar door with its sweeping wooden patios was an inviting spot, but unfortunately, it was too small to handle many visitors. On top of this, we were treated rather off-handedly by the cellar door staff, who seemed more interested in getting people in and out rather than fully engaging with their visitors. Also, their signature style, the Gamay Noir, was served slightly chilled, which made it difficult to ascertain the flavour profile appropriately.  The single vineyard Gamay Noir Block 28 (reserve version) was a step up and had some rich, ripe and juicy fruit, but I really could not see it lasting the distance in terms of structure. 

To give Platinum Bench credit, it was a nice touch that they had four of their artisan bread varieties paired with four of the wines for the tasting, and this perk was free. I feel that for those looking for some easy drinking, refreshing wine and a great pitstop to pick up picnic fare, the visit is worthwhile.

'Heavenly Tastes...Earthly Rewards' is the catch cry of Church & State Wines. I loved the fresh upbeat vibe we discovered here and the friendly staff at the outdoor tasting bar. Again, the industry connection was advantageous in that we were permitted to try more than the usual four samples. I was most impressed by their Coyote Bowl Series and could not choose a favourite between the 2010 Coyote Bowl Cabernet Sauvignon (cedar, blackcurrant and peppercorns) and the 2012 Coyote Bowl Chardonnay (oak and vanillin punch with lovely stone fruits). With an excellent range and consistent quality accross the board, they were definitely a close contender to Road 13 for my favourite winery of the day.

The Coyote Bowl at Church & State Wines

We were pretty over cycling up and down hills by the time we arrived at Stoneboat Vineyards. So I'm not sure whether it was just that the two sparkling wines were thirst quenching or if they really were as fresh, fruity and vibrant as I perceived at the time! Either way, the Piano Brut (Pinot Blanc and Muller Thurgau) and the Rose Brut (Pinot Noir), both made using the Charmat Method, were a great change from the still wines we had been sampling all day.

Pinotage is the hero grape at Stoneboat Vineyards, one that I have not encountered anywhere else in the Valley so far. The style was very different to the smoky, dark fruit flavours I had envisaged from previous sampling of South African Pinotage. The Solo Pinotage Reserve 2012, of which only 95 cases are produced, had rich red aromas, with hints of chocolate and cinammon and a taut structure. And then there was a Pinotage Icewine 2013 which is actually the only one produced in the world (according to Stoneboat). Although I don't usually go in much for sticky sweet wines, this wine had fresh raspberry acidity which made it enjoyable and not cloying.

Cute Cellar Door at Stoneboat Vineyards

At the end of a glorious Saturday of wine sampling and cycling, I was left with two impressions of hte Oliver area, which perhaps may be a reflection of the Okanagan Valley in general.

Firsty, it is excellent to see each and every winery experimenting with different varietals, styles and winemaking techniques. This is a good sign of ongoing innovation and a quest for success.

Secondly, I feel that the region has yet to distinguish itself as having one or two signature varietals, as so many other wine regions around the world have. I am sure this will evolve with time and assist in defining the identity of the region. It would seem that Chardonnay and Syrah are perhaps some good contenders, but I am still forming a full opinion on that and further tasting 'research' is required...