By Susan Desjardins

A trip to the Okanagan is always an opportunity to explore familiar and  newly established wineries. And that’s exactly what we did in October this year.

Tinhorn Creek Vineyards now showcases not only their wonderful wines crafted by winemaker Sandra Oldfield (“She’s been here since the beginning, 16 years ago,” said Jerralynn at the tasting bar) but also the recently ensconced restaurant, Miradoro.

The restaurant flies out from the ridge, soaring over the south Okanagan valley like a bird on the wing. And the offerings to be found on the menu don’t disappoint.

We enjoyed the rich and flavourful meatballs in fresh tomato sauce with a glass of Sandra’s ‘Oldfield Series’ 2Bench Red 2009, which we’d tasted at the winery ($29.99/bottle) – aged 18 months in French oak and held in bottle 14 months before release, it’s a blend of the Cabernets, Merlot and a splash of Petit Verdot, a dry full-bodied wine, keenly balancing velvety tannins, fine acidity, well-integrated oak and a complexity of aromas and flavours including black cherry, plum, licorice and spices.

Of course, we tasted a few other wines at Tinhorn Creek’s spacious tasting room overlooking the valley, including the ‘Oldfield Series’ 2Bench Rosé 2011($22.99)— produced from 100% Cabernet Franc which spent 16 hours on the skins, it offers classic Cab Franc aromas, a crisp texture, lively herb-infused red fruit and a juicy long-lasting finish.

The 2008 ‘Oldfield Series’ Pinot Noir ($29.99) is a first release produced using only the vineyard’s best fruit, aged 12 months in neutral French oak, then held 3 years in bottle prior to release. Silky smooth on the palate, displaying beguiling balance, it layers bright red fruit on subtle caramel, spice, pepper and earthy notes. It’s clean and dry from start to finish.

The 2010 Cabernet Franc, selling for just $19.99, was aged in 2-3 year-old French and American oak for 12 months. It offers classic layered aromas, perceptible tannins and fresh acidity that define the clean dry palate, and flavours of bright red and black berries mingling with dried herbs and pepper.

The tasting ‘finale’ was the 2009 ‘Oldfield Series’ Syrah ($34.99), aged 18 months in new and neutral French oak, held 14 months in bottle prior to release. It offers high-toned aromas of mint, licorice and lush dark fruit. A dry, full bodied wine with great structure, full-bore fruit and lovely notes of exotic spice, it finishes long, dry and spicy.

Disappointed you won’t make it out to the Okanagan to taste these wines? Don’t despair, Tinhorn Creek’s ‘Crush Club’ offers you the opportunity to receive a minimum of one case of wine per year, reds, whites or mixed, shipped throughout Canada.

Forbidden Fruit Winery, located in the Simalkameen Valley, a short jaunt from Osoyoos or Penticton, is a regular stop for us. Steve Venables has been cultivating organic fruit and making organic fruit wines for over three decades, and has recently started producing grape wines as well.

At a recent dinner party, I served his apricot dessert wine, Caught Mistelle ($26.95, 375ml). with a peach and blueberry galette, to gushing reviews. We just had to stop in to replenish our supply.

Of course, Steve wouldn’t hear of us leaving without trying one or two of his other creations. The oaked Cerise d’Eve ($29.95, 375 ml), a red cherry port-style wine, was outstanding—true to the fruit flavours, intense and fruity yet clean and relatively light on the palate. We served it with dark chocolate, to rave reviews.

Among the grape wines, we tried his ‘Earth Series’ Merlot ($26.00), which offered ripe red and black fruit aromas and flavours, with touches of spice and vanilla.

While in the south Okanagan, we also visited a couple of new wineries, Adega Estate Winery, on the road into our condo at Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort & Spa, and Gold Hill Winery, located on the highway just south of Tinhorn Creek.

Adega sits just up the hill off Rancher Creek Road, surrounded by recently planted vineyards. Adega is family owned and operated by the Nunes clan, who purchased the vineyard on the hill in 1966, planting it to the classic soft fruits of the Okanagan.

They purchased other property nearby and eventually began cultivating and selling grapes to local wineries. Changes in the family led to the decision to uproot the existing fruit orchard and plant vines in 2007 and 2008. And since they were expanding their grape harvest, the decision was made to establish their own winery as well.

While most of their wines were sold out, we had the opportunity to taste the 2010 and 2011 Viognier, as well as their 2011 Rosé, which is produced primarily from Merlot with a dash of Viogner. The contrast in the Viogniers was fascinating.

Though both displayed great balance of fruit and acidity, the 2010 ($18.00) offered a lean, crisper profile with citrus and orchard fruit to the fore, while the 2011 ($21.00) displayed the more classic stone fruit and tropical notes with a lusher, fruitier body.

The Rosé ($17.00) is your quintessentially ‘gulpable’ wine (we did so shortly after purchasing a couple of bottles, enjoying it with grilled salmon), offering a dry texture underpinning rich ripe red fruits that mingle with a touch of Okanagan peach. An absolutely delectable sipper!

Gold Hill is a recently opened winery that’s well worth a visit. With vineyards located on the Golden Mile, the Gill family has for years been producing grapes used in the creation of award winning wines across the Okanagan Valley. With over 60 acres in production and another 40 ready to be planted to the vine, the family is justifiably proud of the quality of its grapes.

In the tasting room, their son talked about the rare qualities of the Golden Mile, which seems to have a unique microclimate that protects the vines from the worst of the ‘renegade’ frosts.

He quotes history:  A killing frost in spring of 1966 wiped out the soft fruit harvest in the entire Okanagan – except for the Golden Mile. The family’s first commercial vintage was 2009, and many of the wines we tasted were produced from 2-year old vines.

The quality of the fruit is attributed to knowledge of the vineyard and a vigorous program of thinning and cropping—“My father and uncle work the vineyards and have a great sense of the ripeness of the fruit”.

The 2011 Unoaked Chardonnay ($18.00) from the Deadman Lake Vineyard tasted fruity and just off-dry. Almost transparent, it balanced lovely lush stone and orchard fruit flavours with lively citrusy acidity and a touch of spice on the finish.

The 2011 Pinot Gris ($18.00) is a well-crafted, fruity wine that combines juicy apple, ripe pear and apricot with fine acidity that carries a touch of residual sugar through the fruity finish.

The 2009 Syrah ($27.00), at 14.9% alcohol is a big, bold, in-your-face wine that won gold at the West Coast Wine Awards. Aged 16 months in new and neutral French oak, it’s loaded with black fruit, toasty oak and a whiff of lavender. Dry, full bodied and spicy, the fruit is lush, the pepper building across the palate through a finish that’s bursting with ripe fruit.

On the recommendation of a friend, we made a side trip to the Naramata Bench and visited two new wineries there. Oleg Aristarkhov, with his wife Svetlana, is  the proprietor of newly opened Moraine Estate Winery. He owns 15 acres on the bench, 10 of which have established 12-year-old vines, 5 of which he has planted to Pinot Noir.

From a background in geology and the oil industry, Oleg, with his Kiwi winemaker Jacq Kemp, is creating wines that celebrate the history of his terroir—and you can taste the mineral notes across his portfolio.

The Cliffhanger White 2011 ($14.00) is a blend of Pinot Gris and Viognier, offering quite intense fruit aromas , a crisp texture, flavours of citrus and green apple with a touch of minerality through the tangy finish.

The Pinot Gris 2011 ($21.00) spent 2-3 months on the lees and offers a crisp, lively profile, with some flinty, citrus notes, pear and a refreshing finish.

The Viognier 2011 ($23.00) combines beautiful floral, stone and tropical fruit aromas with zesty, slightly pithy flavours of citrus and stone fruit. It’s well crafted and balanced, finishing with that classic tart zing.

The Cliffhanger Red 2011 ($24.00) is a blend of Gamay which he purchased from an Oliver vineyard, with his own Syrah. The wine spent 17 months in Frnech oak, displaying aromas of ripe berries and overtones of vanilla and sweet spice. Medium bodied, the ripe red fruit flavours blend with spice, pepper and a touch of underlying minerality. An intriguing blend that offers complexity and a clean crisp texture.

Heading back toward Penticton from Moraine, I couldn’t resist stopping in at Upper Bench Estate Winery and Creamery – who can withstand the urge to taste cheese and wine together.

There’s a story here, of Gavin Miller who came from the U.K. to visit a friend, and met his wife Shana (the Big Cheese) who had migrated to the Okanagan from Nova Scotia. Sixteen years later, they’re still here! They purchased the property in January 2011, and opened the winery earlier this year.

We savoured the nice, fresh 2011 Pinot Gris ($20.00) with their melt-in-the-mouth brine-washed Gold. It’s a finely balanced wine with sweet fruit aromas, dry texture and crisp lively flavours of green apple and melon.

The 2011 Rosé ($19.00) was served with their creamy ‘U & Brie’. Made with Zweigelt, if offers good red fruit aromas and flavours, hints of rhubarb, and a fresh lively texture.

The 2011 Chardonnay ($25), served with their King Cole Blue, is a 50/50 blend of unoaked wine with wine aged 3 months in French oak. Dry, mid-weight, it offers aromas of ripe apple, tropical fruit and toast, a creamy yet fresh texture, flavours of apple pie fresh from the oven and a nice toasty finish.

Susan Desjardins has been involved with the marketing and promotion of wines for the last seven years, as an accredited sommelier.  In addition to organizing and hosting both public and private wine and food events, she has participated in the LCBO’s Vintages release tastings for the last two years.

An Algonquin College-trained sommelier and avid amateur ‘foodie’, Susan spends her spare time traveling in Western Europe and the wine regions of Canada meeting winemakers, vineyard owners and other wine industry personalities.

Her background in business, horticulture and wine has created a broad interest in and familiarity with the diverse aspects of the industry.  She seeks value and quality in wine tasting, and looks forward to introducing people to varietals and wines with which they may not yet be familiar.