As the world starts to emerge from its pandemic-enforced hibernation, the release of pent-up energy that built through the spring seems to have been expressed in the heat of the BC summer. However, record high temperatures in the province have done nothing to temper the desire to get out and get reacquainted with friends as social distancing restrictions are relaxed.
words: Dr Oliver Finlay images: Vanessa Vorbach
As small social gatherings over barbecues, garden parties and picnics start to creep their way back into our calendars, the question of selecting a suitable summer wine becomes a pertinent topic of conversation. Whilst lockdown statistics illustrated that social isolation did little to quench our love of wine, there’s something a little more magical about corking a bottle under a topaz blue sky, however, not all wines scream to be sipped in the sunshine.
Sunny weather demands a drink that will refresh. Therefore, wines with high alcohol content and higher levels of tannin will do little to satiate and instead, the optimal choice should favour fruit-forwardness, low tannins and thirst-slaking acidity.
Given the ongoing restrictions on international travel, allied to the drive for rebuilding the economy at home, we decided to venture to the Okanagan and do some research to help answer this important question. However, as the quality of wines in BC has rocketed in recent years, the demand has increased exponentially and consequently, it is hard to keep up with all the new wineries popping up from Osoyoos to Kamloops. So, we asked for recommendations from those in the know, read plenty of reviews and laid out some key criteria as we planned our trip to Canada’s only desert.
We shortlisted only boutique wineries, that had won recent acclaim for at least one of their varietals, with a focus on sustainable viticulture and a preference for producing small lots of high-quality wine. Furthermore, whilst the quality of the wine was paramount, given that many people will vacation closer to home this year, we also wanted to cater our recommendations for those of you that enjoy the tasting experience.
Terravista – Fandango, 2020 ($29)
Terravista Vineyards are producers of small-lot specialty white wines, located on the Naramata Bench. Owners, Dallas and Eric Thor, have sought to simplify their viticulture practices since acquiring the property from Okanagan wine pioneers Bob and Senka Tennant in 2019, with the aim of reducing their energy and water consumption. Additionally, they installed solar panels, use electric utility vehicles, manage their canopies and vines manually and have consequently been able to shift to a more regenerative agricultural approach to farming.
Our tasting experience was excellent. Not only was the welcome warm and the conversation fun, yet informative, each of the wines we sampled was of a really high quality, reflecting the collaboration between former owners Bob and Senka, who continue to consult alongside winemaker, Nadine Allander. The vineyard location, with a southwestern slope allied to till sediment and stony soil characteristics are well suited to Spanish varietals such as Albariño and Verdejo and their aromatic white wines have a crisp acidity.
Our favourite was a 2020 Fandango, which blends the Albariño with Verdejo and is on its 10th vintage. It is a lively, fruit-forward wine, with a medium body and an invigorating, bright palate. Think citrus, tropical fruit, melon and green herbal notes on the nose, with a pinch of ginger spice.
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Little Engine Wines – Silver Sauvignon Blanc, 2020 ($32)
Little Engine Wines was founded in 2011, when Steven and Nicole French left their careers in the energy and education sectors and moved to Naramata, to combine their love of wine with the passion for creating wines that reflect the tradition and culture of sustainable practices. Intent on overcoming the naysayers and obstacles through determination and dedication, just like the Little Engine of children’s fables (now you know the inspiration for the name), the couple set out on a journey to slowly build a sustainable wine brand with a philosophy of delivering excellence without compromise.
We spent a thoroughly enjoyable couple of hours with Steven, who described the commitment to sustainable practices in the vineyards, using precise pruning, canopy management and cluster thinning techniques, as we toured around the beautiful buildings. Only the best grapes make it from the vines to production, where minimally invasive wine making techniques combine natural indigenous yeasts, gentle maceration and storage in French oak barrels, to ensure the wines display depth, character, elegance and finish.
The commitment to quality was evident throughout the range of wines we tasted, and had we not been on a quest for the perfect summer wine, we would have been quick to highlight the award-winning 2018 Gold Pinot Noir and 2018 Union, which is a Bordeaux blend of Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. However, we had to retain focus and choose between the 2018 Gold Chardonnay, which whilst expressing a subtle oakiness, retained a smooth balance between a full, rounded creaminess and a crisp freshness, and the 2020 Silver Sauvignon Blanc. The Sauvignon Blanc just edged it, thanks to its medium-bodied, crisply dry vibrancy, lemon, vanilla passionfruit and gooseberry flavours, and a wonderfully fresh aroma of lemon, quince and fruit blossoms.
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Covert Farms Family Estate – Sparkling Zinfandel, 2020 ($29)
Covert Farm is a fourth-generation, family run farm, bought by Gene Covert’s grandfather in 1959. Up until the late 1980s, the farm grew fruit and vegetables, whilst accommodating one of the larger vineyards in the region, but the varietals made consistently underwhelming wines and, in 1985, the focus shifted to apple growing. However, when Gene and his wife, Shelly, assumed custody of the farm in 2005, Covert Farms converted 140 acres to organic production, upgraded the vineyards and started a winery. 15 years later, the Coverts implement organic and regenerative farming practices of minimal soil disturbance, utilising multi-species cover crops, rotating a diverse range of crops and integrating livestock to ensure the sustainability of the farm for future generations to enjoy.
Today Covert Farms Family Estate is buzzing with life. Tasting Room Manager, Jayna Walsh, hosted our tasting with a friendliness that genuinely reflected the general atmosphere in the farm and the range of certified organic, vegan wines was excellent. Each wine was paired with an item on the wonderfully crafted charcuterie plate that was adorned with fruits and vegetables from the farm as well as local meats and cheeses, each selected by Shelly, who is also a holistic nutritionist. We toured the farm, which is home to pigs, lamas, chickens, sheep and ducks, as well as a large field of fun activities including a slip and slide and bounce pillow. Not surprisingly, this was the winery that best catered for families and truly reflects Shelly’s love of education and passion for teaching children about sustainable farming practices, the importance of eating wholesome farm-grown foods and how such approaches can be adapted to implement at home.
Covert Farm’s Pinot Noir has received such attention in recent months, that the Sparkling Pinot Noir has fallen victim to the need to concentrate all said grapes to the more traditional format. However, the 2020 Sparkling Zinfandel is a fabulous alternative and a perfect summer option. Its appearance belies the petillant natural technique of winemaking, which involves the grapes undergoing natural fermentation in a stainless-steel tank, before being gravity fed into bottles, where fermentation is finished without intervention. The unique wine reveals layers of bright fruit, with a natural complexity and lovely minerality, which just edged our decision to choose this over the 2019 Rosé and their refreshing 2020 Chardonnay, which is fermented 75% in stainless-steel and 25% in new French oak. We’d also recommend reaching for their signature 2017 Amicitia, which is a Bordeaux blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Syrah, if you’re throwing a steak on the barbecue.
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Here’s the Thing Vineyards – Gorgeous Gamay Noir ($28)
Upon deciding to leave their successful careers in Vancouver, Jamie and Leah McDowell decided to move to the Okanagan. Following advice from their friends who owned a neighbouring winery, they bought a small property, in a great location and started building a winery. The team at Here’s the Thing is close and the McDowells are involved in the vines and on the business side, which makes for a very friendly, personal and relaxed tasting experience.
Purpose built from the ground up, in the middle of the vineyard, the winery is completely off-grid, relying on 100% solar power. It also stands out from the Black Sage Road, thanks to its bright yellow finish and Cape Cod style architecture, whilst it even has a lovely picnic area for you to enjoy a quick lunch after your tasting.
Whilst the décor and bottle labels portray a sense of fun, there are some serious wines in their range, thanks to the relationships that the family have in the industry, which allow them to call on some heavyweights to support the winemaking. The Really Roussanne, which is rare to see in an unblended format, and the Rich Orange Muscat offerings were strong contenders for our summer choice, but the Gorgeous Gamay Noir pipped them to the post, thanks to the fact this was the most refreshing red we encountered on our tour. Served chilled, the Gamay is light, fruity and had aromas of violets, accompanied by tastes of cherry and red plum.
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Pentâge – 2015 Rousanne/Marsanne ($31)
Following a familiar pattern, Paul Gardner and Julie Rennie bought the acreages that comprise Pentâge winery in 1996, after leaving their respective careers in engineering and business. The Vistaridge and Dirty Dozen Vineyards, located on the Skaha Bench in Penticton, have been planted with over 20 varietals and the small lot philosophy allows the winery to experiment accordingly, whilst staying true to their commitment to make excellent, elegant and well-balanced wines.
The winery has a vibrant tasting room but is particularly well known for the natural rock cellar, that Paul excavated after discovering a fault in the rock face. The temperature of this facility is naturally regulated, which helps reduce energy consumption, whilst the low-yield, hands on approach to viticulture further contributes to creating a sustainable winery.
All Pentâge red wines and select whites are bottle aged for between 1-3 years prior to release, which ensures the wines are ready to be enjoyed upon purchase, with an option to further cellar. Whilst we had come for the Gewürztraminer, supplies were running low at the time of our visit, and we were unable to sample a taste. However, the Rhone inspired 2015 Rousanne/Marsanne was worth the visit. With an old-world character, the aroma suggested burnt sugar and stone fruit, whilst on the palate, its full-bodied, oaky characteristic accompanied flavours of stone fruit and citrus with a mild minerality.
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Elephant Island – 2019 Reserve Chardonnay ($33)
Elephant Island Winery shares certain parallels with Covert Farms Family Estate in that the grandparents of the current proprietors purchased the property and initially farmed a variety of fruit on the acreage. Miranda and Del Halladay founded the winery at Elephant Island in 1999 in partnership with Miranda’s grandmother and have continued to make the fruit wines that her grandfather Paul had a passion for when he first farmed the orchards. Alongside the winery, the couple have also developed the Naramata Cider Co to further express the gifts of their farm’s fruit.
As the name suggests, Elephant Island Winery is a fun and family-centric establishment, which promotes an effervescent energy throughout the Tasting Room and Courtyard. Our tasting experience with Sheila was informal and fun, yet insightful and interesting.
The wide range of fruit wines was the largest we encountered on our tour, however, the more classic 2019 Reserve Chardonnay was our pick of the bunch. A limited production reserve, and barrelled for 12 months in new French oak, the aroma is of fresh apple and rose blossoms and is round and rich, yet fresh in the mouth. Perfect to pair with a selection of shellfish, drizzled in butter and garlic.
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Rust Wine Co – 2020 Gewürztraminer ($22) & 2020 Rose ($25)
There’s a reason we left Rust Wine Co until last…but we’ll get to that in a minute. However, the history of the brand is an interesting one, as it tells the story of a new vinous project (currently transitioning to organic viticulture), born out of some of the oldest vineyards in the Okanagan Valley, planted in the late 1960s. The wines are sourced from five vineyards located throughout the region, each characterised by distinctly different terroirs, climates and exposures to sunshine. Winemaker, Ryan DeWitte is enjoying a burgeoning reputation for creating distinct expressions from the same varietals grown in each of the acreages.
Rust Wine Co exudes a relaxed and unpretentious air, and the tasting experience is consistent with their philosophy that the best wine is the one you like the most, shared with friends and better still if bought by someone else! We were warmly welcomed by Tasting Room Manager, Katie with a glass of 2020 Gewürztraminer and enjoyed a potted history of the brand. From there, we shared an engaging and fun couple of hours with Hospitality Manager, Kane Morgan, who was instrumental in the building of the brand and for ensuring that their values of professional service, consummate hospitality and no pretention resonate in everything they do.
Another article would likely have started with Rust Wine Co’s incredible trio of Syrah’s, concurrently produced using the same techniques, yet each remarkably distinct from her sisters thanks to the impact that the respective terroirs of the Okanagan Valley, Golden Mile Bench and Similkameen Valley have had on the characteristics of the varietal. But, given our objective, we had to choose the perfect summer wine…and this is why we left Rust Wine Co until last. Whilst we had challenges choosing between several wines at other vineyards, we really felt we would be doing you an injustice if we didn’t select both the 2020 Gewürztraminer and the 2020 Rosé, which was our favourite of a strong line up of Rosés that we tasted during our tour. The Gewürztraminer is sourced from the one of the oldest blocks of vines in the Okanagan Valley, planted in 1973 along the Golden Mile Bench and it lights up the nose with notes of ginger and florals, with an unctuous mouthfeel – a perfect accompaniment to spicy Asian food, such as Thai or Malaysian. Meanwhile, the Rosé is 100% Syrah from the Black Sage Bench and is very berry forward and has a light, dry style that is ideal for a salad or light tapas.
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