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Soon takes reins at B.C.’s Vanessa Vineyard, plus reviews for Right Bank red, Fort Berens and Township 7 wines

B.C. wine

By Rick VanSickle

When legendary Okanagan Valley winemaker Howard Soon announced he was retiring from Sandhill Wines and Andrew Peller Ltd. last July, few believed he would go gently into that good night.

As we all know, he did not retire at all. He just moved one valley over — to the Similkameen Valley to become master winemaker at Vanessa Vineyard.

Okanagan wine

Described by his former boss, Peller’s senior winemaker Craig McDonald, as “the longest serving winemaker in Canada — amassing an incredible 37 consecutive vintages” he heaped praise on the veteran winemaker on news of his retirement:

“As a fellow winemaker, I will remain in awe at his depth of knowledge, dedication to the craft and unwavering passion toward never compromising wine quality,” McDonald said. “Indeed, Howard has served the wine consumer well and has touched so many industry professionals along the way it’s too numerous to count. Howard’s legacy continues on with Sandhill and with the many winemakers he has mentored over the years, all respecting his experience, wisdom and dedication to their learning.”

His last gift to the wine world before taking on his new position with Vanessa was the Sandhill Howard Soon Red 2014, a highly awarded and powerful Meritage with grapes sourced from Phantom Creek Vineyards.

Best B.C. wine

In accepting his new gig at Vanessa, soon had this to say:

“I’ve worked with Vanessa Vineyard grapes since its founding, and believe it is unlike any other vineyard due to the site’s unique topography, climatic conditions, and soil types — the perfect combination for making truly distinctive wine. When we first started getting fruit from Vanessa for Sandhill Wines we saw the potential, and when I tried our first vintage of Cabernet Franc I was blown away,” he said. “I’m excited to go back to the workbench, it will be refreshing to be hands-on with these small productions. I believe this special terroir is the best site for growing premium reds in Canada.”

Vanessa Vineyard is situated high on a hillside overlooking the Similkameen Valley with red grapes cultivated on sloping terrain. The vines grow in rows of rock, absorbing the day heat and imparting that warmth during the cooler nights, thus bestowing complex flavours and minerality that are truly distinctive. A burgeoning appellation, the Similkameen Valley has been touted as “the next great Canadian wine region.”

As he settles in at his new job, Vanessa keeps churning out impressive wines, which can only continue to get better with Soon’s stamp on the wines.

Canada wine

The latest red to be released is the Right Bank red from the 2014 vintage. It’s a not-so-inconspicuous nod to the classic “Right Bank” style of Bordeaux, a Merlot-dominate Meritage with Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon rounding out the blend.

While I’m not crazy in love with the name, Right Bank for me will always belong to Bordeaux, Vanessa isn’t the first to name a Merlot-dominant red after Bordeaux language describing vineyards divided by the Gironde River — Cabernet Sauvignon being the dominant grape on the left bank and Merlot on the right.

Best Canada wine

I only recently came across the Anderson Conn Valley Vineyards Right Bank red from Napa Valley, and there’s also the Firehouse “West Bank” red from South Dakota, which uses the mighty Missouri as a dividing line to pay “homage to our own left bank, the West Bank.” I’m sure there others, and I’m sure there will be more.

It’s confusing, yes, but clearly trading off the brand recognition of a historically established wine region, when focusing on the unique climate and soils you have in your own backyard is more exciting and enticing, at least to me.

But, hey! I’m not a marketer and I have no skin in the game. The bottom line is the wine, what’s in the bottle, and Vanessa’s newest entry into its well-rounded red blend portfolio is a wonderful wine and perfect complement to the Merlot and Meritage previously reviewed here.

We Review the Right Bank below along with reviews from new releases from B.C.’s Township 7 and Fort Berens.

Note: Reviews are by Rick VanSickle and Michael Lowe (indicated with his initials ML).

Vanessa Vineyard

Vanessa Vineyard Right Bank 2014 ($40, 91 points) — Crafted from estate grown and hand-picked Similkameen Valley fruit, the grapes were destemmed and underwent a gentle crush before small-batch fermentation and hand punch down. This cuvée is almost entirely comprised of free run juice with only a small quantity of pressed juice added to balance the tannins. It was fermented and barrel aged for 26 months in 90% new American and French oak barrels. The nose has a smoky note on first whiff then turns earthy and brambly before revealing cherries, raspberries, anise, black currants and elegant oak spices. It’s rich and mouth-filling on the palate with a smooth delivery that shows a range of ripe blackberries, anise, red fruits, licorice, dark chocolate and beautiful spice that is all lifted by freshening acidity through a long finish. Can enjoy new or cellar 5+ years.

Fort Berens Estate Winery

Lillooet’s Fort Berens Estate Winery released some exciting new wines this fall. For the first time, winemaker Danny Hattingh crafted a Meritage Reserve, subtly marked with a grey wrap-around bar and the word “Reserve” on the bottom of the bottle, from the 2015 vintage.

Hattingh selected a number of barrels that he found of “exceptional quality” and allocated a selection of those for the Reserve.

Also released Nov. 1 was the sophomore vintage of the Red Gold 2015, a Meritage blend that sees 28% of the fruit dried appassimento style.

Here’s what we can recommend:

Fort Berens Meritage 2015 ($24, 89 points) — Merlot does the heavy lifting in this blend with the rest Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. The fruit is sourced from the Similkameen Valley, the Black Sage Bench and Osoyoos and is aged in both French and American oak. It has a smoky/savoury nose of cherries, anise, black currants, cocoa and barrel spices. It shows rich cherry fruit on the palate with complementing raspberry and currant notes on a soft texture with smooth tannins, spice, black licorice, pepper and touch of anise on the finish. Drinking fine right now.

Fort Berens Meritage Reserve 2015 ($28, 92 points) — A much denser, deeper, darker expression of the classic Meritage blend (above) from estate fruit in the Similkameen and Okanagan valleys. It displays thick notes of black cherries, black currants, wild berries, expressive barrel spices and melted dark chocolate on the nose. The dark, concentrated cherry fruit dominates on the palate with supporting roles from black currants, anise, elegant spice notes that are fortified by ripe tannins and structure. Lovely all the way through the finish with plenty of room to cellars 3+ years.

Fort Berens Pinot Noir 2015 ($25, 89 points) — The nose exhibits raspberry, cherry, black pepper, and a mushroom-like earthiness with a hint of cinnamon. Red berries and cherries comprise a solid fruit core on the palate with notes of licorice and spice on the finish, while juicy acidity balances the whole nicely. Will pair well with salmon and mushroom or truffle infused dishes. (ML)

Fort Berens Cabernet Franc 2015 ($25, 90 points) — Black currant and raspberry aromas leap from the glass supported by notes of dusty oak, mint and pepper. The palate is rich, laden with the aforementioned fruit, and a touch of anise and vanilla to follow. The 14.5% alcohol does not detract much from this well-made Franc that shows good weight and lively acidity. Brassy and youthful now but shows signs of more good things to come with age. (ML)

Fort Berens Red Gold 2015 ($45, Nov. 1 release, 92 points) — My, oh, my. We don’t see a lot of appassimento style wines coming out of B.C., at least not at the pace of, say, Niagara, but it does make a lot of sense considering the drier climate and ability to air dry in the Okanagan vs. the more modern techniques employed in Niagara with innovative drying chambers built to mimic the more traditional methods. This is an ultra premium blend of 43% Cabernet Franc, 31% Cabernet Sauvignon and 26% Merlot from Similkameen and Okanagan valleys. 28% of the blend was made from Cabernet Franc grapes air dried for a month where the fruit lost 30% of its volume. Those berries were then fermented over a period of a month to allow for maximum extraction. So, a big wine, finished with a whopping 15.5% abv. It’s highly extracted on the nose with kirsch, black currant jam, graphite, lovely barrel oak spices and earthy notes. The range of ripe fruits hide the heat of the alcohol somewhat, but no denying this is a wine for lovers of big, bold reds. Look for an expressive range of red fruits, minerals, licorice, anise, currants and loads of spice with tannic structure and power through a long, lush finish that has a long future ahead. Cellar 5+ years.

Fort Berens White Gold 2015 ($26, Nov. 1 release, 91 points) — From 100% estate fruit from the home farm in Lillooet, half this Chardonnay was wild fermented and all the fruit was aged for 6 months in 100% new French oak. It shows an enticing golden colour in the glass with aromas of poached pear, peach, vanilla toast, caramel and barrel spices. It’s quite rich on the palate and full throttle Chardonnay with broad orchard fruits, bold spice notes and a lush feel on the finish. Could cellar 3+ years for full integration of the oak spice notes.

Township 7 Vineyards and Winery

With wineries in both Langley and on the Naramata Bench in the Okanagan Valley, it’s a busy time for this producer races to finish its 17th vintage in B.C.

Fellow reviewer Michael Lowe was impressed with the 2016 reserve Sauvignon Blanc that sees a little oak to round things out. Equally impressive was the Cab Sauvignon, crafted from a blend of South Okanagan vineyards.

Here’s what we can recommend:

Township 7 Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($27, 91 points) — I like Sauvignon Blanc, period. Especially when it’s made like this one. Barrel-fermentation and ageing in 15% new and 85% neutral French oak has rounded the wine beautifully. Intense aromas of passion fruit and gooseberry with underlying grassy and subtle barrel notes are simply enticing. The first sip is like a fruit bowl of flavour, but it’s intertwined with soft spice and fresh grass tones. Fruit is persistent through the long finish balanced with lip-smacking acidity. (ML)

Township 7 Gewürztraminer 2016 ($20, 89 points) — Varietally correct, this G-wine expresses plenty of floral aromas, primarily rose petal and orange blossoms. These follow on to the palate along with a touch of sweet lychee fruit and some ginger spice for good measure. It’s all braced with refreshing acidity, which will pair nicely with mildly spiced Indian or Thai dishes. (ML)

Township 7 Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($27, 90 points) — Fruit is from south Okanagan’s Blue Terrace Vineyard and Sundial Vineyard on the Black Sage Bench in the near perfect 2015 vintage that favoured red varietals. The nose show rich aromas of black berries, currants, cherries, raspberries, cigar box cedar, toasted vanilla and oak spice notes. It has intense dark fruits on the palate with cherry accents, leather, licorice and a range of barrel spice notes. Look for firm tannic structure and length through the finish. Can cellar 4+ years for further integration.