Sunday, 23 November 2014

Wineries of the Okanagan Valley - Part 4

There is a little pocket of the world called Naramata Bench whose pristine beauty is difficult to capture in word or on camera. Even if you don't have an interest or taste for good wine or artisinal produce, you still must visit. And there is really no excuse, as it is eaily accessible from Penticton.

It will not surprise anyone that my initial reason for visiting was to explore the wineries of the Naramata Bench, of which I had heard good things. Being around one hour north of Oliver, this (unofficial) subregion of the Okanagan Valley experiences a cooler climate than the desert floor. I was looking forward to what the terroir of the region would tell me about the area and comparing this to the many wines I had now sampled further south.

My first stop was purposefully directed at La Frenz, with their Australian winemaker and excellent reputation for quality. I was chuffed to see they had a 'Shiraz' (rather than a 'Syrah') - a nod to Australian roots. They only had a selection of their extensive list open for tasting that day, which was a shame, as I had been really keen to sample the Viognier. Never mind, the 2013 Chardonnay was a hit. I found that it wasn't trying to be something that it was not: there was bountiful stonefruit and a hint of pineapple well balanced by vanilla, toast and cream. By far my favourite wine was the 2012 Reserve Pinot Noir and this has remained one of the finest examples I have tasted in the Valley. 

Next up was Red Rooster Winery. To be perfectly honest, I found the name slightly off-putting but the cellar door staff were wonderfully welcoming and well-educated, putting my mind at ease immediately. I enjoyed discussing the finer points of the flavour profile of their newly released 2012 Cabernet Merlot (I found some black olives and charred coconut hidden in there) and I rather enjoyed the smokiness and meatiness coming through in their 2011 Syrah. It was exciting to find another winery utilising a ceramic egg in their winemaking arsenal and I ended up walking away with a bottle of the 2012 Riesling which was 'egg fermented'. I found it just had some extra oomph in terms of both colour and citrus integration, and was excellent value at $17 a bottle.

Next, I turned my attention to some of the smaller producers in the area. Howling Bluff winemaker Luke Smith was pottering around during my visit and kindly stopped for a quick chat about Vintage and how it was progressing. From his small list of offerings, the 2013 Pinot Gris really shone. The nose had some zesty lemon pith and grapefruit, and then the palate blossomed into a complex array of fruit: red apple skin, citrus zing. Luke then referred me on to a lovely little operation perched high up on the hill called Terravista. I am very glad I did not bypass this stop, as I stumbled accross the Spanish varietals AlbariƱo and Verdejo, of which I am quite a fan. It apears they are the only winery in the Okanagan cultivating these grapes so far.

I was attracted to the simple and striking logo of a painted 'V' utilised by Van Westen Vineyards. The place had a sense of purpose and style about it, despite being housed in a rustic looking barn. Starting with the whites, the 2012 Pinot Gris exhibited honeydew and melon backed by great minerality and acidity. The 2012 Viognier was also classy, having the tropical fruit profile of the region but much drier than some of the other versions I have tried, which seem to use residual sugar to create a rounding effect.

Van Westen's Bordeaux blend wine is simply called V. I preferred the 2009 over the 2010, despite the year being more challenging (hot weather followed by an early frost). The nose was aromatic with delicate cedar character and the palate was luscious with butterscotch and dark spices. I found the 2010 was slightly richer and warmer, perhaps less elegant but with excellent length. 

Lunch was at Lake Breeze. I cannot say I was a fan of their wines, finding them slightly watered down in texture. But I was not at all phased by this, as the food and view were to die for. I selected the mediterranean style cheese and charcuterie board and was quite happy to sit there for a good hour nibbling and enjoying the vista of Okanagan Lake from their lovely garden restaurant.

Another winery worth visiting in the area is Nichol, which has the oldest vineyards in Canada. Their 2011 Syrah was dark and gamey with some secondary and herbal characteristics showing. But in general, I found their wines highly acidic. They are located right at the end of the route, with superb views and a lovely open tasting room.

My day around Naramata was a bit of a whirlwind trip. If you venture here, ensure you allocate more time than I had available to really appreciate the location. There is not a single winery along the route that does not have an amazing view of the lake and mountains. Trust me - you won't want to leave.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Red Wine Stains

Many people have a morning ritual. For the past two weeks, mine has looked something like this:

At one point, we had around forty 1-tonne Open Fermenters (OFs) that I was required to 'massage' each morning. The idea is that the grape skins which have risen to the surface need to be gently put back in contact with the fermenting grape juice to encourage tannin and flavour extraction. 

Sometimes you can be lucky. If the juice has been fermenting for a while, the grape skins have broken down somewhat and a metal plunger can be used to push down the cap. However, in the earlier stages of fermentation, the cap is quite tough to get through and a more manual technique (ie. arms up to your armpits) is required.

Let me tell you, no one will ever think that you have not been working hard after conducting plunge downs for a few hours each morning! Your hands and arms will very quickly stain a lovely dirty-red colour and you will find that skin dryness to the point of cracking and bleeding will occur after only a few days of this practice.

The best part about looking after the OFs every day is watching the ferment progress. Each OF has its own unique flavour profile and every day I have discovered new flavours developing and transforming. For example, one morning there was an OF of Cabernet France that smelt exactly like Vegemite. I contacted the Assistant Winemaker, as I was concerned this might be detrimental, he said it should 'blow-off' over time and, true to his word, two days later, the ferment was smelling like the fruit from a cherry pie straight from the oven. Yum.

We are now at the point of draining and pressing off many OFs and putting them into barrels. It is very exciting to taste each pressed wine as it goes into barrel, where it will remain for months at a time to complete fermentation, both of sugar and malic acid.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Looking after the High End Red Wine

After 10 weeks of harvest, we are finally nearing the last stages of fruit intake for the season. It has been a marathon of grape varieties: from early picked Chenin Blanc for sparkling wine, through bulk Pinot Blanc and small batches of Chardonnay and Viognier (to name a few of the whites). Then we waded through a sea of Merlot, interspersed by Petit Verdot, Malbec, Syrah and others. Now we are approaching the finish line with the later ripening Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache.

For the highest quality red fruit, we have a different setup to the usual sorting table and destemmer/crusher. This setup is meant to be gentler on the fruit and is more labour intensive, requiring three people to process small batches into Open Fermenters (OFs). 

One person is responsible for loading fruit from a bin onto the conveyor. The next person is perched up top on the destemmer picking out leaves and the third person has a sort of 'go-go gadget' arm that they use to pick out any leaves or stems that manage to find their way through the maze of the destemmer and in with the berries.

Crusher/Destemmer Setup
In winemaking terms, the central stem of a grape cluster is called the rachis and the smaller protrusions which attach to the berries are called pedicels. Some winemakers do like to include some of this stem material in the wine, but that is a whole discussion in itself. Here, we have been trying to minimise the amount of stem material in the Cabernet Sauvignon to prevent 'green' or 'herbaceous' flavours. Leaves are even worse, as they can create oxidative characteristics. 

Discarded Rachis
Whilst I was standing for hours on end out in the cold picking leaves and stems out of the Open Fermenters (OFs) into which we were processing, I was wondering how effective my role actually was, as there is no way you can effectively remove all the stem material that makes its way in. Oh well, I guess every little bit counts!

Collected Cabernet Sauvignon berries
(and a few stems that escaped sorting)
Once the OF is adequately full, we generally leave them closed up and protected with a blanket of nitrogen gas to sit for a few days of cold soaking. Then, once ready, we warm them up ready for inoculation.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Fall in Canadian Wine Country

Did you know Thanksgiving is celebrated much earlier in Canada than in America? I didn't. But I'm definitely not complaining, as it resulted in a day off work with pay! They pay you here on public holidays even when you are a seasonal worker, as long as you have been with the company for more than 30 days. 

To top this off, I was lucky enough to be invited to two consecutive Thanksgiving dinners - bonus! The first dinner was of the more traditional variety, which is what I was hoping for. We arrived just in time to witness the turkey going into the pot. Basically a cylindrical pot of boiling oil (peanut in this case) was heated to around 350 degrees and then the whole turkey was plunged into it for about half an hour. Perhaps the thought of all that oil is offputting? Well, I recommend you try this at least once in your life, as the resulting succulent, juicy and tender meat will have your diet worries melting away in no time.

Along with the turkey, we enjoyed all the usual trimmings and side dishes: roasted vegetables, Waldorf salad, a plethora of sauces and, of course, lots of wine. As this dinner was at the home of an Assistant Winemaker, there was an excellent selection of both local Okanagan Valley and Washington State wines, of which I took full advantage (for educational purposes of course).

The only thing missing from a lovely dinner and evening was... pumpkin pie! They had decided to opt for apple pie instead, much to my disappointment. I have always wanted to try this strange take on a sweet, but luckily one of the cellarhands had an excellent cook for a girlfriend and she surprised us with a pie on Halloween. Although I don't usually go in for sweet things, this was quite enjoyable and my mug of spiced chai brought out the lovely cinnamon flavours.

Speaking of Halloween, I was interested to see how much hype there would be. Every shop seemed to have at least one aisle dedicated to all the gimmicky, ghoulish adornments and costumes. And of course, pumpkins were everywhere. But this elaborate display set up in an acquaintances home really took the cake for me - it was complete with a lights show and dancing skeletons!

Apart from all the traditions, what I really have loved about experiencing fall in Canada is witnessing the change of seasons. Unlike in Australia, where you don't notice a huge difference until the height of Summer or Winter, the change here has been marked. Day by day, sunrise was later and the clouds crept closer. Now we are lucky to see the sun for one day a week, but there is no lack of colour, with the gorgeous yellow, orange and red hues of the vine leaves making up for it.