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Wine wire: B.C.’s Hester Creek celebrates 50-year-old vineyard, new Ontario ciders, Niagara wine highlights at Vintages

B.C. wines

By Rick VanSickle

Hester Creek Estate Winery celebrates its 50th anniversary of their Golden Mile Bench estate vineyard this year.

The historic vineyard was first planted with classic European vinifera varietals in 1968 with select blocks of Pinot Blanc, Trebbiano, “Italian Merlot” and Cabernet Franc that is now half a century old. Hester Creek’s 50th anniversary festivities started earlier this month at the Vancouver International Wine Festival where their unique old-vine Trebbiano was available for tasting. In honour of the occasion, Hester Creek will also issue special bottlings of its wines, and will hold a series of commemorative events throughout the year.

Fifty years ago, Hester Creek’s grapevines were first planted on the property by Italian immigrant Joe Busnardo with varietals that he had grown up with in northern Italy. The perfect location for European vinifera grapes, the site just south of Oliver was on a sun drenched, east-facing bench with sloping hills that facilitate a longer growing season.

Canada wine

Virtually unheard of at the time for British Columbia, over 80 classic European vinfera grapes were planted on the then 76-acre property. A half century ago, there were only a small handful of vineyards in B.C. growing vinifera, with the overwhelming majority of the 2,232 acres/1714 tons produced at the end of the decade in hybrids and vitis labrusca “fox grapes” for the half dozen B.C. wineries in existence.

Today, Busnardo’s Pinot Blanc, Trebbiano, Merlot and Cabernet Franc thrive on Hester Creek’s 95-acre estate. These unique old vines are said to have an intensity and certain elegance about them, that cannot be reproduced and bring a sense of old world to the vineyard.

“The British Columbia wine community has accomplished a remarkable feat in the past five decades, said Miles Prodan, CEO of the B.C. Wine Institute. “Growing from an unproven, nascent industry with a small handful of experimental premium vinifera vineyards to today over 900 vineyards in a business that contributes $2.8 billion in provincial economic growth annually.”

Ontario craft cider

“Congratulations to Hester Creek Estate Winery in their historic contribution to helping make B.C. wine internationally renowned.” 

“We are honoured to be a steward of these rare old vines,” said Hester Creek Estate Winery president Mark Sheridan. “The risk-taking spirit of the early B.C. wine pioneers is something we are proud to be a part of and are appreciative of the incredible successes that we and the B.C. wine community have achieved. We believe the best is yet to come and invite the community to join us in our year-long celebration.”

Here’s a review of the Terra Unica Merlot made from those old, original vines, along with a couple of newly released white wines from the estate.

Hester Creek Terra Unica Old Vines Merlot 2015 ($33, 92 points) — Crafted from some of the oldest vinifera vines in the Okanagan Valley, the grapes for this wine are the original “Italian Merlot” planted by Joe Busnardo over 50 years ago. It was sourced from Block 13 in the middle of the estate vineyard and is made 100% from free run juice and aged for 16 months in French American oak. It has such a beautiful nose of black currants, layered dark cherry, elegant oak stylings and a complementing earthiness. Fine-grained tannins carry a range of dark and red fruits on the palate all bolstered by earthy/savoury/meaty/spice notes on a long, long finish. Cellar this beauty five+ years.

Vintages releaseHester Creek Pinot Blanc 2017 ($18, 87 points) — A nose of sun-kissed peach, golden delicious apple and apricot in a fresh, vibrant style. It’s perfectly dry on the palate with a full range of Okanagan orchard fruits and a clean, refreshing finish.

Hester Creek Pinot Gris Viognier 2017 ($18, 88 points) — A rich, ripe nose of grapefruit, lemon, peach and melon notes. It’s ripe ad juicy on the palate with racy acidity and lovely melon/citrus fruit and just a kiss of honey on the finish.

The Ontario cider revolution continues

Ontario cider

With a plethora of new Ontario craft ciders arriving seemingly weekly at grocery stores and LCBO locations, they are slowly crowding out the international/mass-produced crap ciders made from juice concentrate and finished in an unbalanced sweet style.

We will always see the Strongbow, Stella Artois and Seagram ciders cramming the shelves, especially at LCBO stores where big companies seem to have a much easier time getting listed than small Ontario craft producers, but the sheer volume of local ciders now being made means a lot more tasty ciders for the discerning shopper.

The grocery stores appear to be attracting the bulk of local ciders with a growing selection of ciders that can’t be found at LCBO stores.

Whatever your favourite style of cider is — from fresh and dry (which Ontario does very well) to funky and sweeter — there is a style of cider out there for you. As we head into spring, also look for the various ciders being released at local Niagara wineries — Ravine Vineyard, Southbrook, Tawse, Creekside, for starters.

Here are a couple of Ontario ciders I had not tasted until now.

Ardiel Cider House Dry Apple Cider ($3.05 for 473 mL can, 6% abv, LCBO/grocery, 88 points) — Made from mostly eating apples grown for nearly a 100 years in Beaver Valley, Ontario, this is an every day cider that highlights freshness and vibrancy with a subtle effervescence on the palate. The pure demi-sweet-and-tart apple flavours explode on the palate leaving a clean and finessed feel on the finish. Ardiel practices the age-old tradition of adding unfermented fresh apple juice and a small amount of ice cider, called “back-blending,” to balance out the high acidity and alcohol.

Collective Arts Local Press Apple Cider ($3.50 for 473 mL can, 5.6%, LCBO/grocery, 89 points) — Made with 100% Ontario-grown northern spy, IDA red, and spartan apples and French cider yeast, this too sees a small portion of fresh unfermented juice blended back into the cider to impart fresh fruit aromas and flavours. This is a well-made and refreshing cider with ripe notes of apple, pear skin, and just a hint of citrus rind to keep it refreshingly perky through the finish. It’s a nice beginning cider that shows the emerging Ontario style — dry, crisp and tart.

Ontario wines released at Vintages Saturday

Here are three Niagara wines we can highly recommend from the release Saturday at Vintages stores in Ontario.

Ontario wineRosewood Locked & Loaded White 2016 ($17, 88 points) — A lot of thought has gone into this entry-level bistro white blend from Rosewood. Aging was conducted in oak from different coopers and stainless steel for varying periods of time. It has an interesting nose of apples, fresh-cut citrus, gunflint, pear and light spice notes. It has lovely texture on the palate with well-integrated orchard fruits, citrus and moderate spice notes. A white wine that punches outside its weight class.

Niagara wineHenry of Pelham Estate Cabernet/Merlot 2012 ($25, 91 points) — Henry of Pelham does a lot of things right from the grapes that grow best in Niagara, and, in particular, the Short Hills Bench sub-appellation, but red blends from Bordeaux grapes in warm vintages is certainly one of its strong suits. I am convinced, now that I have seen most of the 2012 reds released, that this warm vintage was just about perfect for Niagara’s “big” reds — the blends from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. This mid-tier red blend from the above grapes is just getting better in the bottle and still has a long way to go. Such a lovely, rich and enticing nose of blackberry, kirsch, cassis and oak barrel spices. It rocks on the palate, gorgeous, layered dark fruits, rousing spices, melting tannins and everything starting to harmonize beautifully. Exceptional value for a top Niagara red.

Featherstone Select Late Harvest 2016 ($24 for 375 mL, 91 points) — As no Icewine is made at Featherstone, call this “Icewine light.” It’s a late harvest Gew, picked just before Christmas from that miracle harvest in 2016. The nose shows pronounced apricot, canned peaches and super-ripe grapefruit and citrus. It’s quite ripe and delicious on the palate with exotic tropical fruits, especially apricot, and wild honey that finds some balance from the acidity.

Also released, but not reviewed:

• Rockway Block Blend Red 2015 ($20)
• Chateau des Charmes Riesling Icewine 2014 ($67 for 375 mL)
• Bachelder Niagara Chardonnay 2015 ($25)
• Cave Spring CSV Riesling 2016 ($30)
• Wildass Riesling 2016 ($18)
• Coyote’s Run Pinot Noir 2016 ($20)