Sandhill's Small Lots program provides a glimpse into its winemaking future

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      It may not be all that far from sunny Kitsilano to the sunnier Okanagan, but it’s a million miles or more as far as the B.C. wine industry is concerned. Decades ago, one of our true pioneering winemakers got his start not far from where he lived. Howard Soon began working with things we like to drink at Labatt. From there, he went into the then-wild-and-crazy heart of wine country, at Calona. In 1997, he was handed a big and, as it turned out to be, prestigious assignment: to establish a brand, a line of wines, a winery. It was called Sandhill.

      He rose to all the challenges he encountered with ease and skill, and, many will tell you, genius. Many firsts are to be found on his CV: he was the first B.C. winemaker to receive a gold medal at the Chardonnay du Monde in France; the first to release a series of single-vineyard-designated wines; the first to produce a “Super Tuscan” blend, Sandhill Small Lots “three”. As might well be reasonable for a “small lot”, the names of these wines were always lowercase.

      Three decades on, Soon continues his avowed program of winemaking excellence with various varietals in the Small Lots program. The ones I’ve always had considerable fondness for are known simply as “one”, “two”, and “three”.

      Soon will tell anyone who will listen that the winemaking team under his direction appreciates that great wine “begins in the soil and on the vines”¦[with] grapes that have been nurtured to balanced ripeness”. And so Sandhill established close working relationships with premium-grape growers in the Okanagan, striving for innovation on every frontier. “Small Lots is the best of the best,” he says, pointing out that the team experiments with new techniques or plants new grape varieties, looking for individual barrels that stand out from the rest. “It provides a glimpse into our winemaking future.”

      To say nothing of garnering awards and accolades and a near-fanatical following for the Small Lots vintages. At the recent B.C. Wine Awards, he took home three golds for three Small Lots varietals, silver for two more (including “one”), and bronze for another four (including “two” and “three”). That Soon can sure make some wine out there. I wonder if he remembers the days of “Strawberry Angel” as I do.

      Today, as it was in the beginning, Sandhill produces wines from only single vineyards from four Okanagan properties: Sandhill Estate vineyard, Phantom Creek vineyard, King Family vineyard, and Osprey Ridge vineyard. Sandhill Estate is the largest, at 174 acres, and Phantom Creek is the smallest, with seven acres.

      Last year, Sandhill was named Canadian winery of the year in Wine Access magazine’s Canadian Wine Awards. Soon recently set up a lot of glasses and bottles at Lift on Coal Harbour to pour current releases—reds, whites, and a pink, including “one”, “two”, and “three”, all of those 2007 vintages, all priced at $34.99 each and available in extremely limited numbers. (In fact, the ’07 “one” is already sold out at the winery.) In my own cellar, I found the same three wines of the 2005 vintage (same price at the time). It made for an interesting comparison tasting. One thing is certain: these are long-lived wines with panache and elegance, delivering ongoing pleasure to the palate.

      one 2007 (498 cases)
      From Phantom Creek vineyard (which sits right next to Black Hills winery), a classic blend of Bordeaux varieties (read: Meritage, if you like)—67 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 20 percent Petit Verdot, 10 percent Malbec, and three percent Syrah—with 20 months’ aging in new oak. Mellow and super-fruity, with huge spice, especially cloves. Bright and fresh, ripe berries all the way. A lovely wine for after-dinner cheese and crusty artisan bread with sweet herb butter.

      two 2007 (336 cases)
      This one has 43 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 43 percent Merlot, and 14 percent Cabernet Franc, plus 16 months in new oak. Of the three wines of this vintage, this is the most complex, with so many fruit and herb and spice elements crowding the palate, it’s difficult to stop and focus on just one or two. There’s lovely balance and complete harmony, the wood nicely subservient to the fruit, as it ought to be, and the smoky plum and rich blackberry just luscious.

      three 2007 (266 cases)
      This is the Super Tuscan, with 55 percent Barbera, 36 percent Sangiovese, and nine percent Merlot (each of which is also made into a single-varietal Small Lots wine, priced at $29.99, just in case you want to blend your own at home). Some gentle mistiness hides on the back of the palate; sun-ripe wild raspberries mellow the full finish. Great fresh aromas, layers of bright fruit, restrained tannins. The winemaker likes it with “comfort foods” and says all will drink well till 2014.

      Back five years, then”¦

      one 2005 (532 cases)
      The blend is Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Verdot, and Malbec; I no longer recall the proportions, but they wouldn’t be greatly different from those of the 2007. Fine and elegant, very rich, and Bordeaux-styled. It rewarded Morbier and Mimolette cheese, with ripe, ice-cold Macintosh apples and fresh walnuts from Keremeos. The last bottle, alas.

      two 2005 (338 cases)
      Featuring 53 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 33 percent Merlot, and 14 percent Cabernet Franc. Shy aromas to start, then opening up into a big and still very fresh wine that peppered the palate with herbs and green peppers. Culminated in a supple, mellow finish reminiscent of a Mayacamas hills style of Cabernet, bold and intense.

      Three 2005 (315 cases)
      This one had 53 percent Barbera, 20 percent Sangiovese, 20 percent Merlot, and seven percent Cabernet Sauvignon. The addition of Cabernet to this mix works very well, fleshing out some sweet cinnamon and blackcurrants, along with dry fruit and dark chocolate. Of the three 2005s, this had the roundest, softest finish. All were handsome and fresh and lively, attesting to their superiority in aging potential.

      The current release of Sandhill Small Lots wines includes six other labels, among them a Viognier (which is fantastic) and a single-block Chardonnay (which was too, but is already sold out at the winery), plus Sangiovese, Barbera, Syrah, and single-block Merlot. Seven other Sandhill wines are not part of the Small Lots program.

      As mentioned, each vintage is composed of very small amounts of wines. Throughout the years, releases are announced (if not always very loudly), so the best way to be sure of what’s coming (and about to be gone) is to check in at and click on “Small Lots Program”. A per-customer limit of six bottles is in place, the good news being that there are prerelease discounts available. All you have to do is ask.