Tuesday, September 20, 2011

BCWAS Bus Tour - Day 1 - Oliver & Environs

An 8.30 bus boarding comes pretty early but it's a sacrifice you'd best be willing to make when the alternative is to be the one holding back just shy of 50 wine lovers from their day of discovery. The Grrrlz and I managed to arrive on time - barely - however, our timing left little choice but to sit near the back of the bus.

Our itinerary for the day included four wineries with a lunch being held at one of the newest - and highly acclaimed - winery restaurants in the Oliver region.

First up was Cassini, a winery that I didn't know a whole lot about. I'd seen and tried a couple of their wines at tastings here or there, but this would be my first opportunity to see the winery and find out a little info in detail. Upon arriving at the winery, you first enter an impressive tasting and sales room. Indeed, the primary tasting bar can accommodate a couple dozen visitors.

Our visit, however, was handled more like a cocktail party with some introductory notes to each of the wines. Our party was hosted by owner Adrian Cassini - and that, in itself, was probably an indication of the access that our little bus tour was going to have to the real information that is available on BC wines. After all, how many times do you arrive at a winery and have the owner greet you, walk you through all his current wines and answers as many questions as you might like to throw at him?

I love a good back story to a winery and Adrian emigrated to Canada from Romania in 1990, following the fall of the Communist regime in his old country. Although he has legitimate wine roots coursing through his blood - his family owns a vineyard in Romania - John Schreiner reports that Adrian's appreciation of wine "developed in the years when he worked in restaurants."

The vineyard attached to the winery used to be an old lavender farm that was located on the Golden Mile about half way between Osoyoos and Oliver. It hadn't dawned on me that the old lavender farm I remembered was gone, but I do recall stories of locals being upset with the removal of the lavender for even more grapes in the Valley.

Adrian was very proud to announce that his winery - that still only produces around 4500 cases of wine a year - won Best New Winery in 2010 at the BC Wine Awards. Individual wines have also garnered the winery plenty of medals at various competitions. The 2008 Syrah won Gold medals at three different competitions and the Meritage blend, Maximus, has won a Gold medal with every vintage that's been released so far.

We tried six wines as Cassini and, if our first stop was going to be any indication, I was going to need the Grrrlz to tug on the leash on a regular basis.

Next up was Hester Creek. I guess I didn't pay enough attention to our itinerary because I'd actually come by and done a full tasting yesterday afternoon. It quickly became apparent that today's visit was going to be ever so more interesting and informative. Our group was split into three smaller teams - and it was clear that the "back of the bus" gang, Group C, would not be denied its place of prominence.

I found the Hester Creek tour to be absolutely top flight. Group C's guide was Wine Shop Manager, Kathy Mercier, and she took us for a quick visit to the vineyard and regaled us with some of the storied history of Hester Creek and of its new facilities, completed in 2008 - all the while we were sipping on a crisp Pinot Blanc. The vineyard exploration was followed by a tour of the winery and a tasting with winemaker, Rob Summers.

Rob walked us through another five wines, including a barrel tasting of the '09 vintage of his premium blend The Judge. The wine is only about half way through its journey before it will be available for sale. A true Meritage/Bordeaux blend of Cab Franc, Merlot and Cab Sauv, some of the components are still undergoing separate aging. The wine won't be finalized until it's bottled in 2012 and it won't be released until 2013. I'll have to be on the lookout for a bottle when it's released eventually. Even the barrel is aging in was a special barrel that was made of alternating staves of both French and American oak. It was made by a master cooper in Oliver and was made for the local Banée celebration.

928. 2010 Hester Creek Pinot Gris (VQA Okanagan Valley)

The gang was privileged to complete our Hester Creek visit with lunch in their new restaurant, Terrafina. I'm taking the liberty of adding the bottle of Pinot Gris we finished off to The List. There was red wine to be had as well, but it was the white that matched up particularly well to our antipasti and pasta. The fruit for the wine came from both the estate vineyard and from the bench on the opposite side of the valley on Black Sage Road. Their description of a crisp, easy drinking wine with notes of pear and minerality seemed pretty much bang on during our lunch.

All in all, I found it to be a superb visit - very reminiscent of the full deal tours you get in Italy or Argentina. This was why I was on the tour. But we still had two more wineries to hit this afternoon and, since we were starting to fall behind schedule, a gentle nudging was applied to our gang.

Church & State was our third stop. Our host was John Pullen, Sales & Marketing Director, and son of winery owner Kim Pullen. John did his dad proud as he walked us through a full slate of Church & State's wines. I've visited the old Vancouver Island winery in Saanich; however, I've never been to this new - and quite stunning - Okanagan tasting room.

Church & State is developing quite the reputation for big reds and this Coyote Bowl site (as they've named the vineyard area) is delivering. In fact, Boo and I picked their 2005 Coyote Bowl Syrah as the big red to serve at our 10 year anniversary party. The wines have only been getting bigger as the vines mature. Big reds aside, I have to say that I really enjoyed the 2009 Chardonnay that we tasted - and regular readers will remember that I'm not usually the first to reach for a Chardy. I took a re-pour of this one however.

I was intrigued to hear that the winery intends to keep operating the Vancouver Island property; however, they intend to use the Saanich fruit to produce sparkling wines. That should be an interesting project for the island.

An employee emergency (leading to a staff shortage) and the popularity of the wines (and resulting sales) left us even further behind on our schedule, but I suspect I won't regret the extra time spent in line as we enjoy the new wines down the road. (Sorry Boo but the Grrrlz didn't realize that they needed to grab the Leash before it was too late.)

Our final stop for the afternoon was Black Hills Estate Winery. Anyone familiar with iconic BC wines will know that Black Hills produces two of the biggest - their Nota Bene red has been one of the most sought after BC wines for years and Alibi, the white blend, has seen a past vintage called possibly the best white wine ever produced in BC up to that time.

Like the other wineries we visited today, Black Hills is home to a new winery and tasting room of its own. Long know for the old quonset hut that was Black Hills' trademark, 2007 saw the unveiling of its architectural award winery on Black Sage Road.

I noted, in one of my last posts, that Burrowing Owl may have lost a bit of its lustre with me in recent years. I suppose I should say that I no longer sit by the computer waiting for notices that Black Hills is releasing a new wine either. The winery once sold out a vintage of Nota Bene in 46 minutes - and I was one of the lucky folks that grabbed a case - but I can't say that I've felt so compelled lately.

I was still glad to be part of the visit to the new facility however - and I picked up a bottle of their first vintage of Syrah ever. I know I'll be back with more Black Hills wines down the road; so, I think I'll end the post for now.

If the rest of Bus Tour continues in the same vein, I'm going to regret having missed all the earlier years.

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