There it was again, the 30th annual Okanagan Fall Wine Festival, and with it the Great Judging. And there we were: a dozen of us split into three groups, slogging our way through more than 450 wines of all types, grapes, levels of dryness and sweetness—the highest number of entries in the festival’s history—ready to hand out some precious metal.
The Okanagan Wine Festivals’ Society has renamed the competition the more user-friendly B.C. Wine Awards and thrown it open to any winery anywhere in the province, not just the 102 member wineries. Nor was the competition limited to wines made from grapes, as many are; there was a welcome preponderance of fruit wines, more than a few of which made for some pleasant surprises.
As always, the judges didn’t know which wineries’ efforts were in the glass. The flights were grouped according to varietals, blends, still or sparkling, et cetera. For me, it was the first time back in a judge’s seat in seven years, and I was happy to work under the supreme efficiency of judging co-coordinator Marjorie King once again. We were comfortably sequestered for three days in Kelowna’s pleasant Manteo Resort, lakeside in the Mission, still one of the nicest parts of that bursting-at-the-seams city.
Chef Bernard Casavant, who pretty much single-handedly put Whistler on the culinary map, departed his kitchen at the Burrowing Owl winery in the South Okanagan some months earlier and now hangs his toque at the Manteo, to my considerable delight. His imaginative breakfasts were a treat each morning. As a chef, if you can come up with something original to do with eggs and bacon, you’re on top of your game.
After a hearty first one of those, we trooped into our assigned rooms and the swirling, sniffing, sipping, and spitting began. When the smoke cleared and the glasses had been emptied, we had us some winners: 34 gold medals, 92 silvers, and 124 bronzes, which meant that roughly half of this year’s entries got some heavy metal to take home to the tasting rooms. (The complete list can be seen at www.thewinefestivals.com/.)
There were, of course, many familiar names when the counting was done: Jackson-Triggs Okanagan Estate, Sandhill and Calona, Mission Hill, CedarCreek, Blasted Church, Wild Goose, Tinhorn Creek, and many more, from Arrowleaf Cellars to Twisted Tree, quite a few of which we’ve been calling here all year.
Best of all, there were some major surprises. Two of the highest-ranking wines came from a long-time favourite in this corner, Road 13, and a newcomer fruit winery called Rustic Roots, also discussed not long ago in a column about the Similkameen wineries tasting. And there was the welcome phoenix of winemaker Roger Wong’s once-upon-a-time single-varietal (Riesling) operation, Focus, as Intrigue Wines, and more fine fruit wine from Summerland Sweets’ recently established Sleeping Giant Fruit Winery. More on those in a moment.
The list of gold-medal winners:
- Arrowleaf Cellars First Crush Rosé 2009
- Blasted Church Chardonnay Musqué 2009
- Cassini Cellars Pinot Noir Reserve 2007
- CedarCreek Pinot Noir 2008
- Church & State Hollenbach Pinot Noir 2007
- Desert Hills Syrah Select 2007
- Domaine de Chaberton Siegerrebe 2008
- Hester Creek Reserve Cabernet Franc 2007
- Inniskillin Okanagan Dark Horse Vineyard Riesling Icewine 2008
- Intrigue Wines Riesling 2009
- from Jackson-Triggs Okanagan Estate: Proprietors’ Reserve Dry Riesling 2008, Grand Reserve Riesling 2008, Grand Reserve Merlot 2007, Proprietors’ Reserve Shiraz 2007, and Grand Reserve Shiraz 2006
- La Frenz Sauvignon Blanc 2009
- Lake Breeze Pinot Gris 2009
- Laughing Stock Portfolio 2008
- Mission Hill Reserve Riesling 2007
- Nk’Mip Cellars Qwam Qwmt Cabernet Sauvignon 2007
- Painted Rock Merlot 2007
- Peller Estates Family Series Chardonnay 2009
- Quails’ Gate Optima Late Harvest 2008
- Road 13 Sparkling Chenin Blanc 2007
- Rustic Roots Mulberry-Pear Port-style 2008
- from Sandhill: Pinot Gris 2009, Small Lots Barbera 2007, Small Lots Petit Verdot 2008, and Small Lots Syrah 2008
- See Ya Later Ranch Brut n/v
- Silkscarf Winery Viognier 2009
- Sleeping Giant Fruit Winery Raspberry 2009
- Tinhorn Creek Oldfield Series Syrah 2007
- Twisted Tree Tempranillo 2008
Best red wine was Desert Hills’ Syrah Select. Best white wine was Mission Hill’s Reserve Riesling. Best dessert wine was Inniskillin Okanagan’s Dark Horse Vineyard Riesling Icewine. Best new winery was Cassini Cellars.
While I liked all of those, I had some issues with the best white choice. Mission Hill admittedly makes excellent Riesling, but the standout was Road 13’s Sparkling Chenin Blanc. This is only the second release of this special project, which chief winemaker Michael Bartier entrusted to his associate Bailey Williamson, and it is brilliant. Again, very limited production, available only from the winery. It received near-unanimous accolades from the judges: 11 of us gave it gold, one awarded it silver.
If such acclaim is any indication of excellence, it should have been named best white wine, in my opinion. I was overruled because it was “sparkling”. Yeah, but it’s white, was my reply. No go. I continue to enjoy the small supply I bought and brought home with me, and my original opinion stands.
The other wine to win very high golds (10 out of 12) was the mulberry-pear dessert wine from Rustic Roots. The organic farm and small winery in Cawston is where winemaker Sara Harker holds forth. Her portfolio of dessert wines is magnificent, and this is its apogee. Ditto for the raspberry wine from Sleeping Giant, made for the winery by veteran B.C. winemaker Ron Taylor. Perhaps next year we can add a category, best fruit wine?
Roger Wong proved that he still ranks among Canada’s best Riesling winemakers with his new label Intrigue, from which we expect even greater things in the future.
Congratulations to all who entered for continuing to provide proof that B.C. wines are second to none. Good luck finding these; it’s a worthy and enjoyable quest.