Phantom Creek Estates – A Winery Profile

Here Comes Phantom Creek!
by David Lawrason

This feature was commissioned by Phantom Creek Estates.

March 2019 brings the first release of the wines from Phantom Creek Estates, the most highly anticipated new winery in Canada. The project has been over three years in the making, with the winery itself not set to open until Summer 2019. By any stretch it is one of the most ambitious winery developments in Canadian wine history.

(Tickets are now on sale for an exclusive five-course dinner at George restaurant featuring Phantom Creek Estates’ inaugural releases on April 4th and 5th. Tickets will sell out quickly. Buy Tickets Now)

The owner of Phantom Creek is Richter Bai, a Vancouver-based businessman formerly involved with mining in China. He has established the winery as a legacy project for his family, and has done so in the heart of the some of most coveted BC wine real estate.

Perched on the brow of a hill with magnificent views from the tasting room looking south down the Valley, the 45,000 square foot winery is in the last stages of construction. The strategically designed fermentation, ageing and bottling chambers will have a capacity to produce 35,000 cases, but production will not ramp up to that level right away. In 2017 about 5,000 cases have been produced.

Phantom Creek Estates

Phantom Creek Estates

Phantom Creek is not just grand in scale, it is aiming high in terms of quality and price. Its wines range from $30 to $100, right out of the gate. But when you taste them, and begin to grasp the detail that has gone into their creation, the ambition is borne out.

When I visited the winery in early February I was not only impressed by the scope and grandeur of the project, but by some of those little details that spoke of a very intelligent, strategic approach to the creation of a certain style and quality level.

I will revisit those details in a moment, but first some overview and background.

The Vineyards

Phantom Creek Estates is situated on the Black Sage Bench of the southern Okanagan Valley in British Columbia interior.  This is the warmest wine growing region in Canada, capable of ripening “big reds” made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. It is the closest this country can come to competing stylistically with California and other New World reds. In fact, Phantom Creek counts Cabernet Sauvignon as its core red grape – a rarity for wineries in B.C.

Phantom Creek Vineyard

Phantom Creek Vineyard

If the name Phantom Creek is resonating, it is because the Phantom Creek Vineyard was one of the first planted on this stretch of sandy-soiled bench land back in 1996.  The man who planted it was Dick Cleave, today regarded as the father of viticulture in the southern interior of BC. He sold his fruit from the prized small seven-acre vineyard to other area wineries, until it was purchased by Phantom Creek Estates in 2016.

But the vineyard history runs even deeper. The main Becker Vineyard site within which the winery is set was actually one of the first sites planted in the Oliver area in 1977 as part of a project by Helmut Becker to trial various varieties. The main focus of the trials was aromatic white varieties but by the early 90s it was becoming apparent that Bordeaux reds actually thrived in the region, and the 52-acre Becker Vineyard was fully planted to Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Carmenere and Syrah.

Becker Vineyard

Becker Vineyard

A third vineyard was added to the portfolio in 2017, this time on the opposite side of the valley in the slightly cooler and gravelly Golden Mile Bench. The 44-acre Kobau Vineyard was planted in 2005 – again largely to Bordeaux red varieties plus Syrah and Viognier, and since being purchased by Phantom Creek it is undergoing conversion to organic and biodynamic viticulture – as are all the sites.

A fourth property called Evernden Springs in the neighbouring Similkameen Valley was cleared last year for the planting of white grapes this year.  Back on the Black Sage Bench, a site called Richter is being re-developed with Viognier in mind, and last year a 15-acre vineyard called Ryegrass was planted on a steep west facing slope just below Phantom Creek Vineyard.

The Winemakers

With the 2016 vintage winemaking began in a temporary facility within the Becker Vineyard.  The first wines were started by the married team of Anne and Cameron Vawter from California’s Napa Valley. Each brought their deep experience with Bordeaux reds to the project.  Anne consults to several small, prestigious Napa projects, while Cameron was the founding winemaker of Dana Estates. Both Anne and Cameron continue to be actively involved as Consulting Winemakers.

Anne and Cameron Vawter

Anne and Cameron Vawter

Then in 2017 Phantom Creek shocked the Canadian wine world by hiring superstar Alsatian winemaker Olivier Humbrecht as Consulting Winemaker, his first such consulting job.

Olivier Humbrecht, France’s first Master of Wine, is the owner of Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, one of the most prestigious biodynamic wineries in Alsace, indeed all of France.  He is also the President of Biodyvin, a European biodynamic certifying body.

His role will be to oversee white wine production and conversion of Phantom Creek’s vineyards to organic and biodynamic growing.

“Having visited several times, I know the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys are capable of producing exceptional Pinot Gris and Riesling with great vineyard character,” said Humbrecht, when his involvement was announced.  “And if you can’t do organics in the Okanagan Valley, where can you?”

Olivier Humbrecht

Olivier Humbrecht

As I spoke with Anne in February, she was clearly impressed by what Olivier Humbrecht brings to the project. “I was trained at UC Davis (in California) to be a typical winemaker,” she said. “But Olivier has shifted my perspective. He is very intelligent, very technical and gets involved with the details of the winemaking like a cellar hand.”

The Winemaking

The attention to detail at Phantom Creek begins in vineyard design where they try to match vineyard block yields to capacity of the presses for whites (they have three) and oak vats for reds. They can process 80 different lots, some as small as one barrel. “Every lot has its own personality, and we let it go,” says Vawter.

Harvesting is done by hand with very selective picking, often over multiple passes. In the winery grape clusters are hand sorted, then put through a Pellenc de-stemmer and if necessary, an optical sorter that ejects unripe berries that don’t conform to size, shape and colour.

Among the winemaking techniques that set Phantom Creek apart include long press cycles and very long wild yeast fermentation for the whites. The wines are on their lees for 40 or 50 days with temperatures down to 8 to 10 Celsius.  “The textural element this imparts is so important,” says Vawter.

For red winemaking, much of the red fermented is in one to two-year-old oak vats with frequent punch downs to help manage the significant tannins of the south Okanagan. And the reds are made in a fairly reductive style to help preserve aromatics. They are racked and returned to the same barrel under nitrogen to lessen oxygen exposure.

When the new winery goes into production for the 2019 vintage the grand scheme will fully come to fruition, the designing of each batch of wine from the ground up.  I am not sure I have ever seen such seamless integration and tailoring of viticulture and winemaking.

The Wines

The WineAlign team tasted the current releases in Toronto in mid-February.  It was among the most impressive tastings of BC wines our critics have ever done. The reviews from each critic are now posted to WineAlign. The wines are being released to the public through the winery’s website at phantomcreekestates.com beginning on March 5th. Receive complimentary shipping on a purchase of 12 bottles or more.

The Whites

Phantom Creek 2017 Pinot Gris, Okanagan Valley ($30.00)
David Lawrason – From two sites in Okanagan Falls, this is a gorgeous, elegant pinot gris that heads off in a very Alsatian direction, thanks to the influence of consultant Olivier Humbrecht. The nose is fairly generous, ripe complex and refined with woven peach, honey, florals and vague spice from being aged 40% in foudres. Lovely texture here – almost silky, creamy yet dry with fine warmth. The length is excellent to outstanding.

Phantom Creek Pinot Gris 2017

Phantom Creek 2017 Riesling, Okanagan Valley  ($30.00)
David Lawrason – From 10-year-old vines in East Kelowna this riesling underwent a long four-month fermentation with native yeasts. It pours quite bright deep yellow. The nose is generous and complex with nicely meshed pear, honey, yellow flower and some flintiness. It is medium bodied (12% alcohol), notably firm, dry and tart edged with some sourness on the finish. The length is excellent.

Phantom Creek Riesling 2017

Phantom Creek 2017 Viognier, Okanagan Valley ($40.00)
David Lawrason – From an east-facing (cooler) site in Osoyoos this walks the lighter side for viognier. Some can be full on tropical and rich, while this example shows more classic apricot/starfruit, spice, wax and honeysuckle florality. It is medium-full bodied with notable sweetness offset by some sourness on the palate. The 14% alcohol is nicely balanced. The fruit carries to excellent length.

Phantom Creek Viognier 2017

The Reds

Phantom Creek 2016 Phantom Creek Vineyard Syrah, Okanagan Valley ($75.00)
David Lawrason -This deeply coloured, rich, smooth yet elegant syrah from the home estate has gorgeous nose of black cherry compote with fine vanillin, subtle pepper and smoky notes. Lovely even texture here despite its size, with fine tannin, some alcohol warmth and fine tannin. It spent 20 months in French oak. Supple enough to enjoy now. The length is excellent to outstanding.

Phantom Creek Phantom Creek Vineyard Syrah 2016

Phantom Creek 2016 Phantom Creek Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Okanagan Valley ($80.00)
David Lawrason – From the home base Phantom Creek Vineyard planted in 1996 comes a ripe and alluring cabernet with generous aromas of blackberry/cassis, violet, fine oak vanillin/chocolate and spice. It is full bodied, plush yet just firm enough with decent acidity, and very little greenness common to many BC cabernets. Cabernet’s firm tannins stand up on the finish; the length is excellent; the flavours are focused.

Phantom Creek Phantom Creek Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2016

Phantom Creek 2016 Becker Vineyard Cuvée, Okanagan Valley ($60.00)
­ David Lawrason – The Becker Vineyard was first planted in 1977 has part of project to trial various vinifera and hybrid varieties in the Okanagan, with Bordeaux reds planted in 1993. This cuvee is comprised of 39% Merlot, 35% Cab Franc, 26% Cab Sauvignon.  It is fine, rich and detailed with generous and layered aromas of blackberry, plum chocolate and subtle cedary spice and dried herbs. It is full bodied, rich and balanced with fine tannin and excellent length. Best 2020 to 2030.

Phantom Creek Becker Vineyard Cuvée 2016

Phantom Creek 2016 Phantom Creek Vineyard Cuvée, Okanagan Valley ($100.00)
David Lawrason – This is a very impressive, single vineyard, multi-grape blend led by 38% cabernet sauvignon and 26% petit verdot. It has a gorgeous, layered and ripe nose with impressive intensity. Expect ripe blueberry/blackberry fruit, chocolate, violets, tobacco and fine spice. It is full bodied, quite dense, firm and smooth with great fruit and flavour follow through. The length is outstanding.

Phantom Creek Phantom Creek Vineyard Cuvée 2016

This feature was commissioned by Phantom Creek Estates. 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 Phantom Creek Estates or to purchase wines, please go to phantomcreekestates.com. Receive complimentary shipping on a purchase of 12 bottles or more.

Phantom Creek Estates