2013-11-25
A DIY week-end get-away to Okanagan Wine regions

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Henry Yuen (Chinese blog:                                                      http://taiyangbao.ca/author/henryyuen/?variant=zh-hans )

To thoroughly enjoy a wine tour of the Okanagan, a lot of people assume a weekend trip will be an undercut. I can certainly understand the rationale as there are so many fun things to do and interesting places to visit. With over 200 wineries and growing, it certainly is a challenge to choose where to go and perhaps a bit greedy to try and cover the entire area searching for a particular vinous exploration.

Having said that, if you only have a weekend, an awesome trip to the Okanagan to taste food and wines is more than achievable than you may think. Sure, a thorough map-out plan would enhance the journey but not necessary since over the years Okanagan’s hospitality industry has grown to comprehend and deliver what hospitality is all about, ergo a spontaneous decision simply to get away can still be a pleasant road trip - just drive up there late Friday afternoon and return Sunday evening. Well, that’s what we recently did! We confined our trip to the southern Okanagan region visiting wineries and vineyards in Oliver, Osoyoos, Summerland and Penticton.

We may be familiar with the area but the wine industry’s rapid growth in recent years makes it difficult at times to keep up with the latest news and developments! Glad to notice recent changes are not only promising but have definitely raised the Valley’s overall profile as the food and wine destination.

Bravo to the pioneering effort of Summerhill Pyramid Estate Winery whose winery restaurant finally got the approval from the liquor distribution branch to serve not just their own wines but wines from other places; as well as spirits if customers fancy a cocktail. Other similar winery restaurants’ eager anticipation to be granted the same flexibility will likely happen soon. This certainly is a big step forward to show the Province’s liquor law is in alignment with times and doesn’t loiter in the dark ages any more.  Other than the regulation changes, we also saw the regions becoming much more user-friendly. Wine route signs are prominent so getting to destinations is a whisk. From local artisan bread, cheese and farm produce; casual picnic in the vineyard to gourmet fine-dining, the food scene is noticeable. Hotels and accommodations are readily available. People are friendly and willing to help and please. From the young server that knew exactly what to do upon approaching our table to the gas station attendant offering warm assistance; the overall experience was a charming one.

Upon arrival Friday evening we checked into the Watermark Beach Resort in Osoyoos. This modern lakefront hotel is both chic and quaint with apt amenities, not surprised at all to find a pair of washer and dryer in our suite! We then took a short drive to Tinhorn Creek Vineyards in Oliver just in time for a fantastic six-course wine-pairing dinner at their Miradoro Restaurant to wet our appetite for the next two days! The dinner featured two Gold Medal Plates champions ‘Marc & Marc’ showcasing their skills and collaborating with the restaurant resident chef Jeff to create a line-up of amazing plates paired with outstanding local wines. The welcoming drinks to pair with the canapés were the refreshing 2012 Moscato Frizzante from Orofino Vineyards and the never-disappointing 2005 Steller’s Jay from Sumac Ridge Winery. Next up were the 2012 Alibi, a Sauvignon Blanc & Semillon blend from Black Hills Estate Winery and the mood-setting 2012 Two Bench Rose from Tinhorn Creek Vineyards to go with local heirloom tomatoes. The beautifully crafted 2012 Old Vines Trebbiano from Hester Creek Estate Winery and the pleasing 2011 Pinot Noir from Baillie-Grohman Estate Winery were paired with the albacore tuna. Two seemingly contrasting wines: The 2010 Nk’Mip Cellars Chardonnay and the 2009 Tinhorn Creek Vineyards Pinot Noir were poured and both worked magically with the buttered-poached scallops and lobster. For the Angus beef dish, we had the very desirable 2009 Tinhorn Creek Vineyards 2 Bench Red and the harmonizing 2010 Church & State Wines Coyote Bowl Petit Verdot Malbec. Before dessert came the aromatic 2011 St. Hubertus & Oak Bay Estate Winery Gewurztraminer to go with local artisan cheeses. To round out the evening, we had the 2011 Inniskillin Okanagan Vineyards Riesling Icewine. We were having such good time we didn’t want to leave but after a few hours of driving and a stomach full of brilliantly matched food & wine, the soft down duvet and comfortable bedding at the Watermark Beach Resort was calling.

IMG_4706Miradoro dining roomAfter a restful sleep, we were ready for a full Saturday of wine tastings. A short drive to Black Hills Estate Winery up on the Black Sage bench in Oliver was the first stop. Established in 1996, this winery has 27 acres up on the Bench and has been producing some amazing grapes; thanks to the dry desert condition with warm days and cool nights. The strong breeze keeps the moisture in check, providing ideal growing condition.  Adjacent to the pool and patio area framing a nice view of the valley, the tasting room is set up to welcome both big and small groups. Black Hills has large followers and a growing list of wine club members. Exclusive wines like the 2011 Nota Bene can only be purchased through the wine club. A blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc, this Nota Bene was aged 80% in French and 20% in American oak. It’s a mellow fruit-forward wine full of blackberries, plum and a hint of sage on the nose with a toasty, lengthy finish; definitely a wine worth cellaring.  The flight of samplings included the 2011 Viognier, the 2011 Chardonnay, the 2011 Carmenere and the 2010 Syrah, chosen carefully to showcase the particular season’s harvest. IMG_4753

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Hester Creek Estate Winery has gone through quite a transformation since 1968. Hard work and improvement paved every step of the way. Not only the wines are outstanding, the winery is a not-to-be-missed wine tour destination with lots of history! Featuring Mediterranean villa style guest houses, a fantastic Terrafina Restaurant on site and a tasting room offering small plates to go with the wines, a state-of-the-art demonstration kitchen to conduct cooking classes and wine-paired events etc, the exterior and interior designs, the ambiance, the décor are all ravishing. Under the tutelage of winemaker Rob Summers, General Manager Mark Sheridan and Director of hospitality Roger Gillespie, the exploring and wine-tasting experience guarantee to be enjoyable - you can literally feel their passion; their pride and joy in being integral parts of the improvement process. Roger guided us through their wine portfolio. The Character Red and White are good value wines for all occasions. The line-up of whites  were the 2012 Pinot Gris, 2012 Pinot Blanc and the 2012 Chardonnay. For the reds, there were the 2011 Reserve Cabernet Franc, 2011 Reserve Merlot and the well-crafted 2010 Judge. From the oldest vines planted in the Golden Mile Bench, the Judge is a Bordeaux blend aged over 24 months in 75% in French oak and 25% American oak; fantastically laced with ripened berries, a soft plum aroma and a hint of spice. Bold and jammy, this wine finishes nicely with a bit of cocoa and toasted fragrant and is definitely a collector’s wine!IMG_4777 

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After a delectable lunch at Terrafina, we headed north to Naramata just in time to catch the harvesting activities at Serendipity Winery. Converted from an orchard, this young winery established was in 2005 with 10 acre producing some promising fruits and the proprietor, Judy Kingston, a lawyer-turned winery operator who finds much joy in working with nature, is expecting a good harvest. Pickers from Quebec and the Atlantic provinces had been working hard in the vineyards since day break. Soon after, meal time was served and we sat down to join them for some team-bonding conversations and most rewardingly, wine tasting with Judy. Outside, winemaker Richard Kanawaza was busy working with other staff on the de-stemmer making sure the time frame from picking to de-stemming was as short as possible. We sampled the 2011 Rose, lively and fruit forward but not too sweet displaying generous Asian fruit aroma and a dry finish. The cutely-named White Lie blend has lots of pear, honeydew aroma with crisp and juicy ending note. The 2010 Devil’s Advocate is a red blend with bouquet of dark cherries and spices. The finish is soft with black fruits and a bit of vanilla and chocolate at the end. As we depart, truckloads of grapes on crates were coming in from neighbouring vineyards to bolster the production. What better way to witness a busy harvest in action when time is of essence!IMG_4810

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Not too far away on Naramata Road in Penticton is Hillside Winery & Bistro. The winery was founded in the 1980’s also by converting an orchard to a vineyard. The objective all along is to craft wines in its natural state that best expresses what the vineyard has to offer. With meal time approaching, we decided to have the tasting in conjunction with our dinner at the Bistro which is tucked away at the garden-like back porch. The 2012 un-oaked Pinot Gris is refreshing and crisp with bright fruit character. A different style is the 2010 Pinot Gris Reserve that has a vivid bouquet of tropical fruits. The time spent in Hungarian oak barrel gives it the supple treatment and a smooth finish. The 2010 Old Vines Gamay Noir has lots of berry fruits in the bottle. Eight months in barrel adds nice texture but adequate acidity of the Gamay still retains. The 2010 Syrah is from the HiddenValley vineyards and is filled with berry aroma with a touch of clove and spices and enough tannin to offer a pleasant finish. Cabernet Franc is a varietal that flourishes in Okanagan and the Hillside Winery 2010 Cabernet Franc is consistent with that assertion. A medium-bodied wine with raspberry and red fruit aroma, it is velvety due to the well-integrated oak treatment. The finale is the Hillside Winery 2008 Mosaic crafted as a Bordeaux style blend with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Verdot exhibit in harmony. It is luscious and silky on the palate with an elegant finish.

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IMG_4826The stay at the Summerland Waterfront Resort & Spa for the evening was greeted by an art show at the lobby displaying works from various local artists, a lovely way to end the day. Waved goodbye to the cool evening breeze, we relaxed in front of the fireplace to reminiscent the tasty events of the day. Accompanied by the morning sun the next morning, we enjoyed our breakfast in the balcony overlooking the glistering OkanaganLake. What a sight to behold and what a splendid start to another day!

We headed back to Naramata in Penticton to kick off our packed Sunday activities.  Perseus Winery on Lower Bench Road was the first on the itinerary. Built upon the hillside, the tasting room has a picturesque view of the OkanaganLake and the Penticton city proper. Greeted by Rob Ingram, the President of the parent company, Terrabella who is a chartered Accountant by trade and brings years of valuable experience in the management and financial fields to the Winery. It was refreshing to hear somebody from an entrepreneurial aspect balancing the passion from the wine side with the practicality and common sense of the business operations. IMG_4862

An array of whites and reds awaited us for tasting. The 2010 Sauvignon Blanc has rich aroma of honeydew and grapefruit. Lightly oaked, it is crisp and sprightly. To offer flexibility, there is the innovative 2012 Pinot Blanc 3 Litres ‘bag in a box’ that caters to special events and larger groups. With no spoilage and 6 weeks shelf life, it is a make-sense alternative to guarantee freshness of this Pinot Blanc which is loaded with peach and melon bouquet and a palate-pleasing finish.

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The 2012 Gewurztraminer was harvested right from the Naramata Bench. It has lots of green apple and a floral aroma on the dry side which I quite enjoyed. The 2012 Viognier is from the dryer and warmer Similkameen region. Asian fruits aroma exhibiting fragrances of lychee and mandarin orange peel made this wine sensual and very appealing. On the reds, we sampled the 2011 Cabernet Franc, from the dryer Blind Creek also in the Similkameen, has tantalizing red fruit aroma. The light oak treatment balanced the acidity and tannins well. The 2010 Perseus Invictus, a blend of 56% Merlot, 29% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Petit Verdot, 4% Cabernet Franc and 3% Malbec, is regarded as their flagship red.  On the palate, the luscious fruity and spicy hint linger along the beautifully-balanced tannin. With a silky structure, a complex aroma of dried figs, berries and subtle mint and smokiness, this crafted wine offers good potential; decant or cellar. The limited release 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, with 75% in French oak and 25% in American oak, is another solid and profound surprise. Flows of black current and preserved plum on the nose; dry cherries and berries to prelude the cocoa and tobacco finish, is no doubt a candidate for your private cellar.

Poplar Grove Winery is our next destination. High upon the hill of Naramata overlooking the breath-taking OkanaganLake, the contemporary building hosting an airy and open tasting area and a warm and welcoming restaurant the Vanilla Pod was built in 2011. Led by Ian Sutherland, owner and Executive Winemaker, we had a visual and descriptive tour of the gorgeous tasting room and the cellar room, while sipping the refreshing Rose refreshing our palate with gusto lime aroma. Transforming from an artisan winery in 1993 to the existing breathtaking 36,000 sq. ft. building operation, their wines have also come a long way to the current stellar status. Staying with the tradition of doing what they know best, they start with six core wines: Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah and the Legacy blend on their over 110 acres estate vineyards. Besides this core wine group, other specific series are crafted for the restaurant and the wine club to showcase the skills of the winemaker and the philosophy of the winery. To pair with our lunch orders, we had the 2011 Pinot Gris. 100% stainless steel tank fermented, it is crisp and lively with grapefruit and star-fruit aroma. The limited production 2011 Chardonnay has a golden colour; thanks to 20% fermented in French oak which also provides the smoothness on the palate. On the nose is the enticing hints of Asian pear and pineapple. We couldn’t give up tasting the CSM, a well-balanced blend of Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Merlot exclusively at the winery restaurant and wine club. We also tasted the 2009 Cabernet Franc with raspberry and caramelized onion on the nose; red currents on the palate with a balanced finish, a well-crafted wine that supports the winery’s focus of sticking to the core and doing the best with it.IMG_4876

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Arriving at the other side of Penticton, we went into Painted Rock Estate Winery’s   immaculate architectural building with a stunning view enveloping from the east side to the equally beautiful SkahaLake. With 60 acres planted, the expansion plan on the horizon is to build a restaurant and maybe guest houses to go in next to the sleek and high-tech tasting room. Starting as an apricot orchard, the site was not converted until 2004 to the current vineyard with first planting in 2005. The topography of the slope and the wind from the mountain blowing down to the lake provide the ideal condition   preventing infestation and rotting. Planted mostly were Bordeaux varietals at the beginning and other varietals were introduced later. The 2012 Chardonnay has good flavour intensity and structure resulted from 50% in new French oak which also renders the golden colour, complimented by the stone fruit aroma and smooth mouth feel. The 2010 Merlot seduces with prunes and plum aroma. With 80% in new French oak, it has a toasty and cocoa note on the palate with soft tannins. The 2010 Syrah, benefited from 18 months in 60% new French oak and 40% new American oak, demonstrates well-balanced tannin and a hint of toffee and coffee beans on the nose. The award winning 2010 Red Icon blend infused with blackberries and dry cherries hints is ranked highly amongst the top. 18 months in 80% new French oak gave the wine the added structure lined with smoky and earthy mouth-feel.IMG_4898

IMG_4901The afternoon tour ended with a visit to the Okanagan Crush Pad in Summerland.  My first visit to this facility, I can easily feel the energy and excitement in the air as workers were busy loading grapes into the de-stemmer. We were told they would be doing this throughout the night as new crews were coming in. Launched in 2010 by industry stalwart, Christine Coletta, it is a facility setup to provide custom- winemaking for others in the industry. However, with experienced winemaker, Michael Bartier and other renowned international experts providing advice and expertise on a regular basis, their own labels of Haywire and Bartier & Scholefield (B & S) wines are well received. Christine Coletta is evidently the pioneer in the BC wine industry who back at the hay days successfully helped position the VQA brand to its current status. Also a visionary and astute marketer with many years in the PR and Marketing sector for the industry, her recent induction into the BC Restaurant Association’s ‘Hall of Fame’ is an attestation. Outside in the vineyard, we couldn’t help but noticed each row of vine was marked with different names and soon found out they were the names of those who helped planted the vines. What a wonderful and thoughtful gesture to appreciate and recognize the hard-working folks; a good story to share with visitors for sure. IMG_4939

Under the watchful eyes of winemaker Michael Bartier and winery manager, Julian Scholefield, the winery is full of activity and excitements! The large concrete egg-shaped tanks to give the wines more depth and complexity are in full production mode. Thinking outside the box and addressing to the fine details are what this winery does approvingly. We sampled a number of wines and I must admit they were all impressive! The 2012 Haywire Gewurztraminer emits floral bouquet. The 2012 B & S Sauvignon Blanc caresses with baked apple and grapefruit aroma and balanced acidity. The 2012 B & S Semillon displays subtle minerality and oyster shell hints due to its rocky and stony soil profile in the Black Sage Bench. 3rd vintage 2011 Pinot Gris from Switchback Vineyard is brisk and fruit-forward. The refreshing 2011 Gamay Noir Rose has luring strawberry aroma and a light body with restrained acidity. The 2011 B & S Chardonnay carries the lightly oaked treatment nicely, 50% in new French oak and 50% in new American oak brings out the creaminess. The 2011 Haywire White label Pinot Noir has bright fruits and plum aroma. A good contrast is the 2011 Haywire Silver label Pinot Noir that has gone through some fermentation in those egg-shaped concrete tanks which fine-tuned and smoothed the wine structure. The 2011 B & S Merlot and Syrah are both fine products to express the terroir and the best of BC grapes. To round out the sampling, we had the 2011 B & S Goal as the finale. With a blend of 90% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc, this is a nicely crafted wine with a silky, lengthy finish.IMG_4925We were happy to walk out of the place knowing we just had sampled some outstanding wines that represent the terroir and the meticulous efforts put into the vineyards and the winery. We got a lot out of this weekend; an awesome snapshot of what Okanagan wine tour is all about and how hard folks work behind the scene to make everything come together. If you go, it’s guaranteed you will have a good time exploring!




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