Canadian Wine Insider – March 2022

Snapshots from a Winter Tour of B.C. Wine Country

By David Lawrason

Mid-February is not the best time to visit wine country anywhere in Canada, weather aside. Many winemakers and restaurateurs close up shop to go into hibernation and, with Covid on the loose, even more so. But I got lucky with a week of great 10°C spring-like weather in the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys, and winemakers ready to welcome me whether open or not. It was a self-directed, last-minute tour. It was also a getaway from the oppressive dreariness of locked-down Ontario. I called it my Old Friends and New Acquaintances Tour, undertaken largely to feel the road again. And the roads were clear and quiet, which has not been the story in B.C. in recent months with all those heat domes, atmospheric rivers and polar vortexes.

This column takes snapshots of experiences, places and people that made an impact, with an illustrative wine linked to the full review on the WineAlign database. I did some Instagram posts along the way that had excellent uptake, so I thought this snapshot approach might still be appealing, without the photos. Wineries are presented in the order of my itinerary.


The Big Picture: Shortages!

Before getting to individual properties and wines, a comment on the most important trend looming in 2022: crop shortages due to a December deep freeze with damaging temps of –20°C to –25°C (which many vinifera vines cannot tolerate). No one was venturing figures on crop losses to a journalist in February but it is likely to be significant, especially in more northern vineyards around Lake Country and Kelowna. It sounds like it will be hit and miss depending on location and aspect in Naramata, OK Falls, Oliver and Osoyoos.

One bad winter event is concerning enough, but it is the third “short crop” season in a row, putting significant pressure on B.C. wine supply just at a critical point where COVID-related demand and consumption is peaking. And as tasting rooms and restaurants re-open, the shortages will become more acute. Which could, of course, mean increasing prices just at a point where quality and reputation are peaking too. It feels like a Napa moment.

I defer here to “old friend” Karen Graham of, a self-described B.C. wine policy wonk who directly addressed the issue in a blog post called How Cold is Too Cold. She issued this warning and advice to wineries in February:

“There’s no sugar coating it: the news is grim. As has been reported elsewhere, 2021 was the latest in a series of smaller than usual harvests. The (December) 2021 winter freeze all but guarantees the 2022 harvest will again be small. Wineries will need to have strategies in place, and for some, these will be survival strategies: be nimble in securing grapes (an open chequebook may be helpful), be rigorous in allocating wines to most valued trade channels (no easy feat when the on- and off-premise markets have been turned upside down by the pandemic), and feathering supply to connect one short vintage to the next to maintain the customer base, or simply selling out, also a valid strategy.”

And now on to the good news, winery by winery, as I encountered them in sequence day by day.

Kitsch Wines (East Kelowna)

I first heard about the 2022 crop shortage from old friend Graham Pearce, the winemaker at Kitsch since 2020, who I have followed through most of his career in the Okanagan (Mt. Boucherie 2003, Black Hills 2008, Time 2018).  He explained that the flatter estate vineyards on the hilltop in East Kelowna suffered more damage than those on the steeper southwest-facing slope. The winery was closed, but we tasted through some 2021 tank samples, including a riveting estate grown riesling, a very fragrant and detailed pinot noir and his first Kitsch syrah, from purchased fruit, that is truly superb. Watch for reviews in the months ahead, and check our reviews of current releases including the smashing 2020 Riesling.

Kitsch Esther's Block Riesling 2020

Kitsch Esther’s Block Riesling 2020, Okanagan Valley

Fox & Archer (Naramata Bench)

My first new acquaintances were Diane Fox and Tyson Archer who have launched a tiny pinot noir-based winery from their garage on Naramata Road (no signage yet). There is a small vineyard on the property with some merlot, where eventually a tasting room and larger winery will be built. For now, most of their pinot fruit is coming from an established 12-acre Naramata site owned by Fox’s family. Archer, who has made wine in Australia, New Zealand and other wineries in the Okanagan, has packed small stainless steel tanks, clay amphorae and several barrels into his tiny winery and is turning out brilliant Creekside and Three Block pinot noir bottlings that took silver medals at the National Wine Awards, as did an excellent 2019 Malbec.

Fox & Archer Creekside Pinot Noir 2019

Fox & Archer Creekside Pinot Noir 2019, Naramata Bench

Wesbert (Naramata Bench)

Nearby on Naramata Road I met up with owner Wessel Joubert and winemaker Pieter Coetzer at Wesbert Winery, which this South African family acquired in 2019 (formerly Quidni). Coetzer stepped into the breach with virtually no experience, taking viticulture and winemaking courses at Okanagan College and relying on the experience of consultant Pascal Madevon, an old friend of mine whose name will appear again in this column. They tidied up the 6.6 acres of vineyard, opened the wine shop in 2020 and renovated a guest house with three Airbnb suites. The value-priced lineup includes sparkling merlot, aromatic whites including impressive viognier, gamay, pinotage (a nod to their South African roots) and a very good merlot that took silver at the National Wine Awards.

Wesbert Winery Merlot 2019, Naramata Bench

Four Shadows (Naramata Bench)

Closer to Penticton on Upper Bench Road I stopped by during a classic, big-flakes Valentine’s Day snowfall to meet and taste with Wilbert and Joka Borren, a Dutch couple with four sons (four-shadowed on the label) who farmed in Alberta before buying the foreclosed 12 acre vineyard in 2011. They sold grapes for the first six years, making their first vintage in 2017 with the help of Lindsay and Graham O’Rourke of Tightrope. More recently they are also being advised by consultant Pascal Madevon, who is now largely involved in blending. “We both love this business,” said Wilbert, “but the sales and marketing side is really challenging.” Maybe so, but the wines are excellent, including a rare zweigelt, racy old vine riesling from one of Naramata’s steepest slopes, very fine pinot noir and surprisingly excellent Merlot 2019 Reserve.

Four Shadows Merlot Reserve 2019

Four Shadows Merlot Reserve 2019, Naramata Bench

Horseshoe Found Winery (Similkameen Valley)

The theme of meeting new, hard-working, hands-on wine couples continued next day during a visit to the Similkameen Valley, where Pavel and Michaela Horak, Vancouverites of Czech descent, bought valley flat land in 2006 and started from scratch, planting and tending by hand, and farming by organic principles, not opening the winery until 2020. They have planted viognier, gewurztraminer and morio muskat, with intriguing essential Alsatian, central European white bottlings being blends thereof. The only red is an evolved 2018 Pinot Noir, which captured a silver medal at the 2021 NWACs. Having tasted the range recently on WineAlign, I only tried a couple of barrel and tank samples during the visit, an loved the even better 2019 Pinot Noir set for September release

Horseshoe Found Pinot Noir 2018, Similkameen Valley

Corcelettes (Similkameen Valley)

The generous wines of Corcelettes seem like old friends, and I had briefly met owners Charlie and Jesce Baessler previously. But I had never visited their winery and spectacular 27-acre vineyard on benchlands near Keremeos. Since purchasing the Herder Winery and making 200 cases in their first vintage in 2011 Corcelettes has grown to 5000 cases, with more on the way. On this day Charlie was in Covid isolation, leaving Jesce and Sarah Crockett, marketing director of the Similkameen Independent Wine Growers, to conduct a tour and comprehensive Similkameen tasting on which I will be reporting soon. The wines of Corcelettes were certainly included and showed very well, as they have in recent NWAC competitions. In 2019 Corcelettes made the Top Ten in Canada. Their premium red Talus scored a Gold in the 2021 NWACs, with individual scores ranging from 91 to 94 points in a separate tasting last September.

Corcelettes Talus 2019, Similkameen Valley

Upper Case (Black Sage Bench)

One of the most ambitious new projects in the South Okanagan is temporarily housed in a micro-winery and tasting room in new District Wine Village north of Oliver, while plantings and planning for a new winery on Black Sage Road are underway this spring. The property was purchased in 2019 by the Evertt family of Vancouver, one of four vineyards in the South Okanagan that will eventually produce 20,000 cases, making it one of the largest new projects in B.C. Everrt has hired consultant Pascal Madevon to guide the project. Madevon, who consults for over 20 Okanagan wineries, made his name in the region in the 2000s as winemaker for Osoyoos Larose, the ground-breaking, now wholly French-owned project in West Osoyoos. I tasted the new spring releases with Madevon, winemaker Michael Anderson and marketing consultant Geoff Moss MW — an impressive team. I was very taken by the quality, particularly by the sauvignon blanc-semillon White Meritage 2021 and the Malbec 2020.

Uppercase White Meritage 2021

Uppercase White Meritage 2021, Okanagan Valley

Uppercase Malbec 2020, Okanagan Valley

Burrowing Owl (Black Sage Bench)

It had been a decade at least since I visited one of the most famous, pioneering wineries of the South Okanagan. On a tour with a new acquaintance, marketing director Stephen Neumann, I was surprised by the additions to production capacity that has seen the winery grow to a big-time 45,000 cases. Opened in 1998 it has undergone almost constant expansion, with the most recent addition of a new crush pad in 2020. But the gravity flow infrastructure has been very cleverly designed, with much of it underground so as not to impose on the picturesque 145 acres of rolling vineyard aproned below craggy rock faces. There are another 45 acres in Osoyoos and 11 acres the Similkameen, planted mostly to sauvignon blanc. And last year Burrowing Owl purchased Wild Goose Vineyards, a noted white wine specialist in Okanagan Falls. President Chris Wyse joined us for a tasting of “online only” wines and to talk about broader industry issues. Meanwhile I was very impressed by the Sauvignon Blanc 2020 which we rarely see, plus the 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon. It seems the winemaking is evolving away from outright power and ripeness to more elegant, savoury, detailed varietal expressions..

Quails’ Gate (West Kelowna)

The last on-site tasting was back in the north Okanagan the day before my flight home, when I sat down for a library tasting with two new acquaintances. Jeff Del-Nin, head winemaker, came to Quail’s Gate in March 2021 after training in Australia and working in the Okanagan at Burrowing Owl, Church & State and Road 13. Kailee Frash has been an assistant winemaker at Quails’ Gate for six years, after graduating from Brock University in Niagara and working at Amisfield in Central Otago, New Zealand. I was impressed by both.

We tasted short vertical flights of 2020, 2016 and 2012 Estate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with all wines in excellent condition and life yet to live, and showing definitive vintage variation. The next tasting was the new 2019 releases of the top-tier single-block wines: Rosemary’s Block Chardonnay, Richard’s Block Pinot Noir, and The Boswell Syrah, all from old vines in the adjacent, home Boucherie Road vineyards. My reviews of all three stellar wines are posted, with a special nod to Rosemary’s Block Chardonnay an NWAC Platinum Award winner which is among a handful of the best table wines I have ever tasted in Canada, with a personal 95 point rating.

Quails' Gate Rosémary's Block Chardonnay 2019

Quails’ Gate Rosémary’s Block Chardonnay 2019, Okanagan Valley

Rust Wine Co. (Golden Mile Bench)

Upon returning home I was greeted at the WineAlign office by four single vineyard bottlings of syrah by Rust Wine Co., owned by Mt. Boucherie, with wines made by Jeff Hundertmark, who has spent many years in Niagara. The idea of exploring Okanagan and Similkameen terroirs through single-vineyard bottlings is growing and helping define sub-appellations, with other examples by Spearhead in East Kelowna, Martin’s Lane in South Kelowna, and Checkmate in Golden Mile. The Rust Wine Co. is situated on the southernmost site on the Golden Mile with its South Rock Vineyard being the source of one of the syrahs. Others are from the Ferreira Vineyard on Black Sage Bench, the Lost Horn Vineyard in Okanagan Falls and the Lazy River Vineyard in the Similkameen Valley. I have tried to detail the differences in soils and textures in my posted reviews, with my preference being for the charm and delicacy of the sandy soiled Ferreira Vineyard Syrah.

Rust Wine Co. Syrah Ferreira Vineyard 2020, Okanagan Valley

And that is it for this edition. I look forward to more travels in Canada’s burgeoning and fascinating wine regions now that Covid restrictions are lifting, with intention by year’s end to visit old friends and make new acquaintances in Nova Scotia, Quebec, Niagara and on Vancouver Island.

David Lawrason

VP of Wine