Black Hills Estate – A winery profile

The Okanagan Valley creator of Nota Bene from the Black Sage Bench is led by the winemaking expertise of Ross Wise, Canada’s newest Master of Wine

By Michael Godel

This feature was commissioned by Black Hills Estate.

Black Hills winemaker Ross Wise is only the seventh to be awarded the Master of Wine honour in Canada and the fourth in British Columbia. He has always been a man to take things in stride. Considering all that has gone right for him over the past few years it’s amazing how little he has changed. My first question “congratulations on the MW, do you feel different?” was met with “answering the phone a bit more than I was two weeks ago.” Classic Ross Wise. Intelligent, pragmatic, soft-spoken, never over-complicating life or matters, always finding success. Gets to work, follows through, moves forward to the next task. All the Canadian wines Wise has touched have continued on this way.

First and foremost Black Hills Estate insists, and rightly so, on pointing out their outstanding terroir which happens to harbour some of the most favourable grape growing conditions in the country. The Okanagan Valley icon is located on the famed Black Sage Road, 13 kilometres north of Osoyoos, BC and 10 kilometres south of Oliver, BC. This places Black Hills Estate in the Okanagan Valley appellation, centred in the middle of Canada’s only official desert. The resulting microclimate leaves Black Hills with one of the hottest, driest and sunniest sites in the country. In fact, this northern latitude attracts more sunlight hours than Napa Valley in the key growing months of June through August.

Vineyard management, varietal and clonal diversity

The vineyards’ west-facing slope and deep desert sands experience exceptional diurnal temperature variation, at once providing daytime heat that fully ripens Bordeaux and Rhône Valley grapes, followed by cool nights that allow acid retention. The result? Intensely flavourful grapes. Black Hills careful irrigation techniques and thoughtfully focused viticulture practices provide ideal growing conditions for the specific chosen varietals on the property. They consider themselves so terroir-centric that winegrower and vineyard manager Steve Carberry lives literally right in the middle of the vineyard.

Everything begins in the vineyard. Clonal diversity is the grassroots, turn-key to the Black Hills success. Four clones of cabernet sauvignon are grown, two cabernet franc and four merlot. Each clone reflects its terroir with a unique flavour profile and respect for individuality is adhered by separated crushing, fermenting and barrel aging. When they are eventually blended together, this clonal diversity delivers multi-faceted depth and complexity, especially to the flagship red, Nota Bene.

Sustainable farming practices

As honoured stewards of the land, Black Hills respectfully harnesses the vineyard’s potential to produce the best fruit imaginable. Likewise, they have the highest respect for the legacy of the vineyard and the role that agriculture plays in the environmental cycle. The estate is committed to sustainable, environmentally friendly farming and winemaking practices. All of the vines are hand picked, hand pruned and manually maintained. An award of the Environmental Farm Plan Status by the B.C. Environmental Farm Plan speaks to this commitment. This plan is administered by the Federal and Provincial Departments of Agriculture as well as the BC Agriculture Council and the Investment Agriculture Foundation. Agricultural sustainability and contributing to a cleaner, healthier environment is essential as Black Hills continues to operate under the best practices of the Environmental Farm Plan.

Winemaker and Master of Wine

I first met Ross Wise in 2013 when he was making wines in Prince Edward County, Ontario with Bryan Rogers at Keint-He Vineyards. By February of 2014 I was already making comments such as “Voyageur’s integrity. Wise acumen” in reference to the Foxcroft Vineyard Chardonnay. Later “a necessary example of $20 Lincoln Lakeshore Cabernet Franc” concerning his consulting work at The Good Earth with Nicolette Novak. More consultation with Wils Roman of Rosewood Estates after some time spent working alongside Ed Madronich at Flat Rock Cellars (where he was known as Ross on the Rock), all on the bench-lands of Niagara. The last Ontario consult project was for Adnan Icel at Icellars where the wines began making waves and continue to impress in the industry. Much of Ontario’s success is due to what Ross brought to the vinicultural table.

When he left for British Columbia in 2016 the wine community waved good-bye to not just one of the great minds but also one of the good guys. Niagara’s and Prince Edward County’s loss immediately became the Okanagan Valley’s gain. First stop was Phantom Creek, right across the road from Black Hills. Four years later he’s running the show at Black Hills and has just become Canada’s newest Master of Wine. He’s one of seven to achieve the impossible and acceded the pinnacle just in time. With the rapidly advancing and changing global pandemic climate these eight MWs slid in just under the wire.

Originally from New Zealand, Wise holds a Bachelor of Viticulture and Advanced diploma in Wine Science from Charles Sturt University in Australia. Ross wise likes coffee, cheese, bread, beer and it may be assumed, long walks on the beach. He was also smoking BBQ back in 2011, as noted by an infamous Tweet in May, “Day 1 with new smoker: smoked chicken, salmon, back ribs, and t-shirt,” at about the same time that Toronto’s Barque Smokehouse began. Geekdom was always part of his M.O. as noted by attending Taste Camp, one of North America’s pionbeering geek-out-on-drinks gatherings. The official Ross Wise bio on the Masters of Wine website reads like this: “A New Zealand native, Ross is a Winemaker and Viticulturist based in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. Ross kicked off his wine career in 2002, studying viticulture and wine science at the Eastern Institute of Technology in Hawke’s Bay. He then worked with several wineries and vineyards in the Hawke’s Bay, Marlborough and Central Otago regions. In 2009 Ross moved to Canada and established Wise Consulting, providing viticulture and winemaking advice to several wineries across Ontario. In 2016 Ross moved west to the Okanagan Valley, where he now works as Winemaker at Black Hills Estate Winery and a Senior Winemaker within the Andrew Peller Limited family of wineries. Since arriving in the Okanagan Valley, he has expanded his organic and biodynamic viticulture knowledge, studied the potential implications of climate change in the valley, and developed a reputation as a prolific sourdough bread baker. Ross became a Master of Wine in February 2020, passing both the theory and practical exams at the first attempt.”

Selected Black Hills timeline

1995 – Black Hills begins the B.C. journey
1996 – The original 27 acre Sharp Rock Vineyard is planted on sandy soil of Black Sage Bench. Varieties cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, sauvignon blanc, sémillon and chardonnay are planted
1998 – The first crop of grapes from the vineyard are sold to various BC Wineries
1999 – First vintage of Nota Bene is made from small percentage of grapes grown in the Sharp Rock Vineyard
2003 – First vintage of Alibi produced
2006 – A new state-of-the-art Winery opens to replace the quonset hut. Designed by Penticton Architect Nick Bevanda, our winery goes on to wine the Lieutenant Governor Award in Architecture, the only winery in Western Canada to receive this award
2011 – A neighbouring vineyard is purchased that was also originally planted in 1996 with virtually identical clones and rootstock as our Sharp Rock Vineyard. As the road sign suggests, due to its location it is given the name “Double Black Vineyard”
2017 – Andrew Peller Ltd. purchases Black Hills. “Black Hills has been proud of how we have evolved our quality over the years. This new partnership allows us access to resources and tools to evolve even further,” said Glenn Fawcett, President, Black Hills Estate Winery.

Ross Wise, MW, winemaker

Which brings us to a Friday, March 13th, 2020 Q & A with winemaker Ross Wise

WineAlign: When did you make the decision to embark on the MW? How has it affected or more importantly, how were you supported by your employer?

Ross Wise: I first thought about it in 2014, as much as anything as an excuse to travel. In September 2015 I was accepted into the MW program. I was in Onatrio for stage one and in September 2016 moved to B.C. The studies were also encouraged. My employers always understood the importance and the significance.

WA: What does it change for you now that you have the designation?

RW: I’m not sure. I got into this because I wanted to travel to new wine regions. Keep learning. Keep meeting the great wine people of the world. So I suppose that’s something I’ll be able to do more frequently.

WA: In the beginning, did you choose Black Hills or did they choose you?

RW: I think we found each other. I was working across the road (at Phantom Creek) and I was very much a part of Andrew Peller, especially in my friendships ands working relationships with Emma (Garner of Thirty Bench), Katie (Dickieson of Peller Estates) and Craig (McDonald of Trius.)

WA: When you started at Black Hills, what was you first task?

RW: I started in January 2019. We bottled on the very first day. I drove a forklift.

WA: What was the first significant change, strategy or some sort of profound shift that you implemented as winemaker?

RW: Spending more time tasting through barrels to see how fruit and wood worked together, then worked on tweaking the barrel program.

WA: Do you ever exert influence over vineyard decisions and practices?

RW: We’re pretty much covered with Steve Carberry working as our vineyard manager. He’s right there and can’t get away from it. For 14-15 years he’s lived right in the middle of the vineyard.

WA: While we are on the subject, tell me about the significance of your location?

RW: The Black Sage Bench is the hottest little spot in Canada. Facing west, warm evening sun, sands heat up through the day and reflect that back through the night. In terms of ripening cabernet sauvignon there’s no where else as reliable. From an aspect point of view you can’t beat the site.

WA: What about the peculiarities of Sharp Rock Vineyard and Double Black Vineyard?

RW: They share the same altitude, separated by 500m. Sharp Rock has a steeper slope, more air flow, cool down and acidity. The rows have wider spacing in Double Black, but other than that they are very similar.

WA: Let’s talk about your team. Tell me about who, what and how makes it happen?

RW: Jesse Collins has been our Estate Manager for six-plus years. She’s the face of Black Hills, lives, breathes Black Hills and “she may have a tattoo of a certain wine we make.” She’s the team leader, the glue between the two buildings. Natasha Ponich is Assistant Winemaker, and already she has got us more organized. She’s a great person to have in the cellar. In the engine room we have Lindsay Ogden keeping the thing rolling from an events perspective. The back of house leader. Glenn Fawcett is “the chief evangelist,” very passionate and also chief pourer. Morna Cassidy is our great Brand Manager and the face of Black Hills to the world.

WA: In your tenure what is the most significant shift or alteration you’ve exercised or seen in how vineyards are cared for, vines are treated and grapes are grown?

RW: It’s probably too early to say but we’re investigating organics. It just makes sense in the Okanagan. It’s so dry and there is very little disease pressure. In the vineyard we are protecting fruit from the sun and managing leaf canopy, with less removal. In the cellar, I’ve learned a lot about white wine, about how to press grapes. I’ve learned a lot from Anne Vawter and Olivier Humbrecht over the years. Olivier and I would drive around vineyards all day long. From 7:00 am to 11:00 pm he shares information all day. That’s why I took the job at Phantom Creek. I worked three harvests there with Anne, in fact she hired me.

WA: Tell us about the focus on clonal diversity?

RW: There are five clones of cabernet sauvignon in particular, each of different bunches and berry characteristics. When they planted they got it right and it gives up so many other options. Also rootstock diversity, most is planted on Riparia gloire, as opposed to others that ripen 14 days later. This affects how we will plant going forward, meaning what temperatures and ripening are we planting for.

WA: What about harvest times?

RW: The last four have been all over the map, 2016 was the longest (early bud break and cool autumn).

WA: How are you feeling about these uncertain times?

RWPeople are definitely getting ready for the worst, not panic, but definitely preparing.

WA: Feels like it’s taking a back seat right now but what about climate change?

RW: Well my MS paper was titled “How will climate change be influencing viticulture in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley by the 2050s?”

Enough said.

The WineAlign team recently sat down together to taste through the wines from Black Hill’s impressive, premium portfolio. We had a tough time choosing a handful of favourites because there was so much consensus in finding quality across the board. Nevertheless here are the critics’ picks.

WineAlign Critics’ Black Hills Picks

Black Hills Alibi 2018, BC VQA Okanagan Valley, British Columbia ($28.74)
David Lawrason – This is a nicely clean, keen and precise blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon, with generous aromas of grapefruit/lime, fresh herbs, lemongrass, green pepper and green pear fruit. It is medium weight, nicely rounded without resorting to sweetness, leaving a warm, nicely bitter green finish. This is very well made with very good to excellent length.
John Szabo – 60% semillon, 40% sauvignon in the white Bordeaux idiom, this white blend from Black Hills delivers a nose-ful of ripe, white-fleshed orchard fruit, pear, green and red apple, lemon and orange citrus, and more, with no noticeable wood influence. The palate is pleasantly medium-full bodied, round and properly proportioned, with very good length and depth. Generous, satisfying.
Michael Godel – Alibi is the moniker for a Bordeaux-purported blend that pits sauvignon blanc slightly ahead of sémillon though the two work quite seamlessly together. The aromatics are quite brilliant and the palate gripped by length. That said there’s only a subtle and shadowy smoulder and even less flinty strike or metal grip. Ultimately just a lovely and delightful white blend for any and all moments. 

Black Hills Pinot Noir 2017, BC VQA Okanagan Valley, British Columbia ($45.99)
Michael Godel – One of the more glaringly pure and clearly glycerin textured pinot noir out of the Okanagan Valley is this stunner from Black Hills. Ripe to the nth degree and a marked smoky streak with high level phenols and a pesto of savour in herbs of all sorts. Basil, sage and tarragon to name three. Big pinot noir that takes no prisoners nor should it apologize for its hefty ability. Give it another year to settle in.

Black Hills Tempranillo 2017, BC VQA Okanagan Valley, British Columbia ($57.99)
Michael Godel – Hard to imagine a higher end Tempranillo produced anywhere in B.C. or all of Canada for that matter and truth be told this is more a wine of place than it is varietally speaking. The Black Hills idealism is pushed with prejudice without equivocation in a tempranillo as dark, pitchy and cimmerian as a moonless night. It’s a place wine as mentioned, without excessive oak treatment or the need to wait 10 years for to be enjoyed. That said the structure is solidly constructed and 10 years would do well to support the most prodigious and excellent fruit. 

Black Hills Syrah 2016, BC VQA Okanagan Valley, British Columbia ($44.95)
David Lawrason – A platinum winner at the BC Lieutenant Governors Awards, here’s a BC syrah for northern Rhone syrah fans, capturing classic pepper, smoked meat, tar and licorice around the ripe almost brown olive fruit. It is 100% syrah aged in French and American oak barrels. It is full bodied, loosely fitted with fairly soft tannin, alcohol warmth and a real sense of power and energy. Acidity rides nicely into the mid-palate and finishes with some grip. The length is excellent to outstanding.
John Szabo – Lifted, high toned, chewy, full, firm, briskly acidic syrah, with some cut, even some minerality, for which you’ll have to wait a few more years to grasp from the fruit underneath. Very good to excellent length; a variety obviously at home here in the Okanagan valley, and this is a fine example. 
Michael Godel – Syrah is formidable and very much a wine that will require patience, need coaxing and demand coddling to be extracted from its tannic shell. Tannins are not the only matter but fruit so dense, complicated, rich and luxe that the layering will ask for help in extrication. Wow is this a massive lapping of luxury developed fruit in cohorts with cool, minty savour and sweet wood accents. Very fine.

Black Hills Ipso Facto 2016, BC VQA Okanagan Valley, British Columbia ($57.49)
David Lawrason – The most approachable and delicious of the Black Hills offerings for current drinking, this is only the third vintage of this blend of 60% syrah then 25% merlot and 15% cabernet sauvignon. The generous aromatics fall nicely into line with syrah pepper and smoke, some merlot plumminess and florality and cabernet herbality. Very complex and refined aromas. It is quite full bodied, fairly dense yet juicy with some sweetness, good acidity, heat and fine tannin. There is more cabernet showing on the firm finish. Impressive with excellent length.
John Szabo – This is a terrific blend of mostly syrah, with 25% merlot and 15% syrah, ripe, rich, densely packed with flavour, dark, swarthy fruit, integrated oak spice, supple, abundant, ripe tannins and balanced acids. It’s built for the long haul, as delicious as it is now, but will surely last intothe late 20s-early 30s. I love the fine woven tannic grain, so nicely layered, and the excellent complexity. I’d be drinking this from the early 20s and on. Solid.
Michael Godel Ipso facto is as the tune suggests a mix of varietals and cultures, places and ideals. Puts syrah together with cabernet sauvignon and merlot because, well because you can. Quite a load of every aromatic exaggeration emits with power and deep luminosity. It’s a remarkable goblet of strong mocker though also linear, rising and electric. A true millennial red blend with plenty of figurative and eccentric upside. Why? Because it just is.

Black Hills Nota Bene 2017, BC VQA Okanagan Valley, British Columbia ($68.99)
David Lawrason – The 2017 vintage of Nota Bene – one of Canada’s most collected big reds – is 45% cabernet sauvignon, 41% merlot and 14% cabernet franc. It sports a generous, refined, fragrant and complex nose well integrated top notes of red and black berry fruit, fresh herbs and fine oak spicing, along with deep bass notes of oak resin and vanillin. It is full bodied, notably warm and youthfully tannic,with firm acidity. This is portending real elegance as it matures. Excellent to outstanding length. 
John Szabo – The flagship red blend of the estate, split between cabernet sauvignon and merlot, with 14% cabernet franc, the 2017 is a marvelously complex mix of black fruit, high quality wood spice, and rich and enveloping on the palate. Tannins are fleshy and supple, abundant but velvety, long lasting, like the finish here. This should age well into the late ’20s and beyond. Displays both the intense short warmth of the southern Okanagan season, and the tension-filled twangy acids of the cool temps on either side. Very solid wine, for fans of bold and large scale reds. 
Michael Godel Nota Bene is both the traditional Bordeaux blend and the flagship of Black Hills. For so many multifarious reasons it acts as spokesperson and dictionary entry for the hills, vineyards and Climat idealism of the place. An ideal vintage right from the aromatic go, floral and fragrant of everything that grows in and out of the vines. And more because the berry component is impressively sweet and unctuous, not to mention juicy as F. This is the gateway to expression of top drop quality and still with the possibility of getting better and better.


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This feature was commissioned by Black Hills Estate Winery. As a regular feature, WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery. Our writers independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines – good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted on WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the winery profile. Wineries and wine agents 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.