Vanessa Vineyard – A Winery Profile

Vanessa Vineyard’s Big, Break Out Similkameen Reds
by David Lawrason

This feature was commissioned by Vanessa Vineyard.

There’s a fantastic new vineyard called Vanessa in the little-known, idyllic Similkameen Valley of British Columbia’s southern interior, that is determined to power – and finesse – its way into the world of big “Bordeaux” reds, not just in Canada but on a global stage.

Certainly, the southern Okanagan Valley next door has proven winners in this field – Nota Bene from Black Hills, Oculus from Mission Hill, Osoyoos-Larose and big reds from Burrowing Owl spring to mind, with others emerging as well.

But what’s with this next-door neighbour upstart from Similkameen pricing its big reds at $40 to $80? And with winemaker Howard Soon claiming that “In Canada, I believe it is the best site for growing premium vinifera reds”?

The Similkameen Valley is the second largest wine region in B.C., situated one mountain range west of the Okanagan Valley. It is a smaller, narrower and higher altitude valley, without the moderating effect of the Okanagan Valley’s lakes. There are over a dozen wineries, most of them relatively small but focused on high quality wines.

The 75 acre Vanessa vineyard is situated on the bench land along the east side, south of the town of Cawston. The west-facing slope catches the warmer later day sun, while the incredibly rocky soils – like a sauna – radiate heat after the sun sets behind the dramatic peaks on the west side of the valley.

In the hot 2015 vintage the growing degree days (a measurement of how much time and warmth grapes need to ripen) the south Okanagan measured 1,764, which is one highest numbers I have seen in Canada. At Vanessa, the reading was an incredible 2,049 GDDs, on par with the world’s warmest areas like Australia’s Barossa Valley and parts of South Africa. Whether global warming contributes, or it is an anomaly, those kinds of heat units guarantee “big reds”.

No “new” winery or region is ever all that new. The Vanessa winery and tasting room only opened in the summer of 2017, but the vineyard has been in progress since 2006.

Vanessa Vineyard is the vision and partnership of two very good friends: John Welson who left a career in financial services and invested in a vineyard in the Similkameen, and Suki Sekhon, who is involved in commercial real estate and many philanthropic projects in western Canada. Winemaker Howard Soon was also integral at the outset, consulting on viticulture decisions, then purchasing and bottling its fruit for vineyard designated wines at Sandhill.

John Welson and Suki Sekhon

The key links from the start were B.C.’s legendary viticulturalists Robert Goltz and Richard “Dick” Cleave, who had been instrumental in the plantings on the Okanagan’s Black Sage Bench.  They were called in to evaluate the Vanessa site. John Welson recalls the conversation.

“Looking down on what was a cow pasture covered in rocks, Cleave turned to us and said, ‘This will be a bitch to plant. Look at all those rocks’. But then he added that because of all that rock this piece of dirt would produce some of the finest red grapes in the region, filled with intense flavours and character, with the vines having to struggle. Hearing those words of confidence, we immediately made the decision to grow only premium red grapes and to make classic wines, the best we could make, and not spare expense in our viticulture or winemaking.”  Their sons worked on planting the site and Nathan Goltz continues to manage it.

Howard Soon, whose career with Andrew Peller making some of B.C.’s first single-vineyard and small lot Sandhill wines, was involved at the outset too. He had worked with Robert and Dick on the Okanagan’s Black Sage Bench.

Howard Soon, winemaker

“Vanessa is extremely hot and drains well even with irrigation,” Soon explains, “so the berries stay small and concentrated, tannins are generous and fine grained. Fruit flavours are more concentrated. So, the red wines seem to have more liveliness with acidity and minerality. The grapes from Vanessa are not like any other vineyard I have worked with, the terroir that comes from the lower pH and minerality and generous heat is a trait that is unique.”

The terroir of Vanessa had framed the portfolio – with most of the wines being “big red” renditions involving Bordeaux varieties like cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. The wines would sit comfortably within blind tastings that involve California, South America, perhaps even Australia. But heat seeking syrah, is on the menu here as well.

Given their size and density, generous oak ageing is part of the red winemaking regimen at Vanessa. The reds average 20 months of barrel ageing, the type of oak varies according to variety and blend. The more elegant cabernet franc is 100% French oak (imparting fine and elegant spice) while other bigger wines are employed in American and French oak.

In November, some of the WineAlign team sat down to taste the Vanessa reds. Further detail on each wine, plus reviews and ratings can be found by following the links below. If you are interested in purchasing a wine, just click on Buy Now direct from Vanessa Vineyard when you are on the wine’s page.

Vanessa Vineyard 2015 Cabernet-Franc

Vanessa Vineyard Cabernet Franc 2015

Vanessa Vineyard 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon

Vanessa Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2015

Vanessa Vineyard 2014 Merlot

Vanessa Vineyard Merlot 2014

Vanessa Vineyard 2014 Meritage

Vanessa Vineyard Meritage 2014

Vanessa Vineyard 2014 Right-Bank

Vanessa Vineyard Right Bank 2014

Vanessa Vineyard 2014 Syrah

Vanessa Vineyard Syrah 2014

This feature was commissioned by Vanessa Vineyard. As a regular feature, WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery. Our critics independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines – good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted to WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the winery profile. Wineries pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, and its content, is entirely up to WineAlign.

For more information on Vanessa Vineyard or to purchase wines, please go to