North America's first aboriginal winery, Nk’Mip Cellars, sets high standard

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      The Osoyoos Indian Band reserve sprawls over 13,000 hectares at the southern tip of the Okanagan Valley. It is here where the 500 or so members of the band, led by Chief Clarence Louie, made history by starting the first aboriginal-owned winery in North America in 2002, originally in partnership with Vincor (now with Arterra Wines Canada).

      Subsequent years have seen Nk’Mip (“Inkameep”) Cellars become a commercial and critical success, and one of British Columbia’s most lauded (and visited) wineries. This week, we take a look at three of their most acclaimed labels.

      Nk’Mip Cellars Pinot Blanc 2015

      ($17.49, B.C. Liquor Stores)

      With white flowers and fresh-sliced Granny Smith apple aromatics, and then on the palate, the first thing that hits you is how bright this is. This wine truly shines with lemony notes and juicy acidity right off the bat. It’s so clean and fresh, you’ll want a second (and third and fourth) sip immediately. Winemaker Randy Picton has made the right call by fermenting this in stainless steel, as it allows for intensely concentrated purity of fruit, all of it pristine and lovely.

      Those further sips see the Granny Smith apple notes return, with a light wisp of classic Okanagan sage and a crack of minerality following through the bone-dry finish. I like the idea of this with any clean and fresh seafood eats that’ll echo its notes: think sashimi, ceviche, or a simple grilled halibut with butter and a squeeze of lemon.

      Nk’Mip Cellars Qwam Qwmt Cabernet Sauvignon 2014

      ($30.49, website)

      One of the last varieties to properly ripen over the course of a harvest, Cabernet Sauvignon can be a challenge to grow and work into a quality wine here in British Columbia.

      It needs plenty of heat and adequate hang time on the vine, making it pretty much impossible to work with on Vancouver Island, in the Fraser Valley, and even on most sites in the northern part of the Okanagan Valley. We’ve learned during the past couple of decades that there are only a few places well suited to the noble variety; the Similkameen Valley has been flexing a little muscle with the grape, and the other main region is Nk’Mip Cellars’ desert home in Osoyoos.

      Even with all of that heat the area enjoys, in 2014 it wasn’t until October 29 that the grapes for this wine could finally be harvested. That timing is precarious, as it’s right around then when winter temperatures and frosts can whoosh in with little notice and do some serious vineyard damage. Harvest too early and your Cab is destined to be green and stemmy.

      When a winery is on it, though, a special wine can result, and that’s what we have here. Classic Cabernet aromas of currants, cigar box, mocha, and eucalyptus waft out of the glass and then fill the palate, loaded with charm (and maybe a few wedges of toasty gingerbread). The opulent fruit is tamed by 18 months of aging in French oak, which doesn’t overwhelm, instead providing a sturdy pedestal to show it all off. Rich, well balanced, and a nice mix of sweet and savoury: it’s showing well now, yet easily has a good four to six years to evolve into new heights.

      Nk’Mip Cellars Mer’r’iym Meritage 2014

      ($53.99, B.C. Liquor Stores)

      Sitting atop the mountain among Bordeaux-inspired local icons like Mission Hill Family Estate’s Oculus and Black Hills Estate Winery’s Nota Bene is Nk’Mip’s Mer’r’iym Meritage. Just to get any distraction out of the way, let’s quickly establish that the proprietary name Mer’r’iym is the Osoyoos Band’s indigenous term for “marriage”, and it’s pronounced “mur’-eem”. Oh, and while we’re here—Meritage rhymes with heritage.

      So now we know what to call it. Beyond the label is a composition of 55 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 30 percent Merlot, 10 percent Cabernet Franc, and five percent Malbec, all of them coming together for a multilayered ode to the land. That Cabernet Sauvignon brings dark currants and cocoa, while the Merlot fleshes things out with ripe, round dark-berry fruit, followed by Cabernet Franc’s herbaceous red fruit and the lavish blackberry jam brought by Malbec on the finish.

      There’s a distinct earthiness, and as I revisit the glass, it’s fairly certain things are pretty wound up at the moment; the wine is just a baby. If you’re pulling the cork anytime soon, do give it a good decanting to unfurl all of those flavours. Otherwise, tuck away a bottle or three and check in on it in two or three years, marvelling at how you thought to nab this gem while it was still available and how such a high-quality, built-for-the-cellar wine set you back just over 50 bucks.