After being lulled to sleep by the sound of waves, I woke up to sunlight glinting off the smooth lake and rugged mountains. And then, it was time to taste some wine…
We were off to the Naramata Bench, perhaps the Okanagan’s fastest-growing wine region, a short drive from the center of Penticton. Its 21 wineries are along an 11 km road following the Okanagan Lake.
Before we got to tasting, though, we stopped at the Bench Artisan Market for breakfast. It’s not really a market, but a colorful café a short walk from the conference center. (It should be a convenient stop for breakfast, a caffeine fix, or snack during next year’s conference.) I can vouch for the locally roasted coffee and the salmon-and-egger breakfast sandwich, but I’ll have to return next year to try something called a “coffee mojito.” Once we were fully caffeinated, it was off to the tasting races…
Laughing Stock Vineyards was created by two former employees of the stock market industry. Cynthia and Dave Enns haven’t quite shed their roots: they pay homage to it in their logo, bottle designs, and wine names. They make meticulously blended wines, mostly in a Bordeaux style.
David explained their various experiments with fermentation vessels (oak barrels, stainless steel, concrete tanks, concrete eggs) used to create complexity in the final blend. He’s not one to go for natural fermentation with indigenous yeast, feeling that the “house yeast” doesn’t necessarily fit all. His style is modern and technical, and he believes blending is the best way to keep consistent quality and build complexity. True to his roots, his even uses a spreadsheet to keep track of blending trials.
The “two best days in a winemaker’s life,” said David, are the day you pick the grapes and the day you bottle the wine. “In between, you’re always nervous.”
While not all the wines were my personal style, they were all well made. The Syrah 2010 (which had 6% Viognier added for the fermentation) was smooth, smoky, lush, and fragrant. It had a lot going on. The Pinot Gris 2011 had a lot going on as well, with an interesting complexity blending oak influence and more mineral notes. We tried both the 2009 and the 2006 of their Portfolio blend. The 2006, my favourite, was noticeably softer and more subtle in its berry-and-mocha charm, with some cranberry and green pepper rounding it out.
Over at Lake Breeze Vineyards, the focus is on aromatic whites. I found their Ehrenfelser 2011 particularly intriguing. Ehrenfelser is a German grape variety that’s a cross of Riesling and Sylvaner. Slightly sweet yet well balanced, it was very fragrant and full of fruit, blending ripe citrus, tropical fruit, and a hint of spice.
Kettle Valley Winery has its origins in a rented apartment, where Tim Watts and his brother-in-law Bob Ferguson began making wine as a hobby. When it came to the point that the closets were overflowing with wine, it was time to take things a step further, and they started making wine in a garage. In 1988, they planted their first vines, ignoring the common belief that the area wasn’t suited to vitis vinifera grapes. Their winery could still be called a “garage winery” today (the garage is now their tasting room), although they’ve grown considerably.
Tim Watts also happens to be a geologist, and treated us to a fascinating lecture on B.C. geology (which I wouldn’t even attempt to replicate here – you’ll have to meet him for that).
I was particularly taken with Kettle Valley’s unusual take on Pinot Gris. For starters, it’s pink, a result of some grape skin contact during fermentation. The 2011 was full, rich and fragrant, with bright strawberry and stone fruit flavours and a lovely texture. I also enjoyed the Merlot 2007, which had a very smooth palate of berries, green pepper, and bitter chocolate.