Vacay.ca is publishing a series of articles by Managing Editor Adrian Brijbassi focused on the wine region of British Columbia. The following article is the first in the series.
Wine enthusiasts long ago dubbed the Okanagan Valley the “Napa of the North”. The catchy moniker was meant to connote new-found excellence of western Canada’s hotbed of wine production. Now, the Okanagan Valley, particularly the southern region of Oliver and Osoyoos, where the majority of British Columbia’s vinifera grapes are grown, is showing another aspect of California’s wine kingdom — big-dollar investments producing bottles with big-dollar pricetags.
Mega-millionaire investors are purchasing vineyard land in the South Okanagan’s coveted Golden Mile, Black Sage Bench, and Similkameen Valley at prices that are flooring jaws, and causing some tongues to wag and others to become whetted with anticipation of what wines are to come.
Winemakers with California pedigrees have been recruited to level up the reputation of Canadian wines, which, despite international awards, remain under the radar for most consumers, both inside and outside of this nation. The goal is to bring more acclaim and achieve what would have seemed laughable to many a decade or two ago — attract collectors who would purchase $100-plus bottles of Canadian wine and hold them as either an investment or a keepsake to pull out from a cellar for a special occasion, placing it alongside California Cabs, Burgundy Pinot Noirs, and Brunellos from Tuscany.
The ambition to push British Columbia wines to greater heights accelerates this year with the planned September opening of Phantom Creek Estates, a project as bold and pricey as the premium red wines it sells. Vancouver area businessman Richter Bai, whose fortune was made in the energy sector in his native China, has reportedly invested $100 million into Phantom Creek, outfitting it with some of the latest technology in the industry, including a computerized sorting machine that can analyze each grape and instantly pluck out the deficient ones, ensuring only the best vinifera make it to the barrel. It’s the level of invention being used at new mega-wineries around the world, such as Uruguay’s $85-million Bodega Garzon, which the Bulgheroni wine empire opened in 2016.
Phantom Creek uses the same interior architecture firm — based in California — which gives the striking hall containing its fermentation tanks a similar look as the much-lauded Garzon. The 45,000-square-foot winery, which sits atop a hill like a jewel on Black Sage Road, will include numerous exquisite art pieces. A large bronze sculpture of the South Okanagan Valley will greet visitors while a mesmerizing Chihuly chandelier will hang in the circular barrel room above an eight-seat table used for private-dining events.
Cameron Vawter, one of Phantom Creek’s wine consultants who previously worked at Dana Estates in Napa Valley, says the property is seeking a well-known chef to lead the culinary operations, which will include a full kitchen and a 120-seat dining room bathed in sunlight. Phantom Creek has already achieved one notable coup, hiring France’s first Master of Wine, Olivier Humbrecht, as its consulting white winemaker. It is the first project Humbrecht has worked on as a consultant, giving more notoriety to Phantom Creek even before it unlocks its doors.
“They are building a world-class winery aimed at making the best possible quality site-specific wines from these historic vineyards. The Okanagan itself is such an exciting place right now, and I think Phantom Creek will be a draw for people from the international wine community looking to see what is happening with cutting-edge viticulture and winemaking,” Humbrecht said in an interview conducted by email. He points out that his interest in the project stemmed from the potential to make great wines from vineyards whose grapes resulted in top-ranking wines for previous owners and Phantom Creek’s pursuit of biodynamic farming, a passion for Humbrecht. Phantom Creek achieved full biodynamic farming last year and Vawter says the winery will be eligible for biodynamic certification in 2020.
Along with being environmentally beneficial, biodynamic wines retain more of the characteristics of the terroir than wines from operations that use pesticides, but it typically involves more labour and operating costs. Its one of the ways Phantom Creek intends to standout in an increasingly crowded marketplace for Canadian wine and wine tourism. The winery will initially be open by appointment, but will have its public launch in spring 2020. Outside, a 529-seat amphitheatre will host intimate concerts.
For most oenophiles familiar with the Okanagan Valley, Phantom Estates appears to be taking the shape of Mission Hill Estate Winery, the Kelowna-based icon that features an amphitheatre, a rich collection of artwork, and acclaimed wines. What Mission Hill has that Phantom Creek avoids is affordable entry-level wines. Phantom Creek’s Pinot Gris and Riesling sell for $30 each while its current reds start at $55. It has two cuvée options. The winery’s flagship product is priced at $100 for a six-grape cuvée from the estate’s namesake vineyard. A Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon blend from the Becker Vineyard at the foot of the property costs $60. It was in that lot where wine grapes were planted in 1977 by a German viticulturist, Helmut Becker, who was among the first to determine the region could sustain quality wine production. The winery has the capacity to turn out more than 30,000 cases of wine a year and Vawter says the goal is to steadfastly work toward that maximum output.
As Phantom Creek emerges, anyone involved with the wine industry in the Okanagan Valley is keenly watching.
“I think what they’re doing is going to be excellent for that southern part of the valley because it will be a draw, people will want to see it, and that’s going to benefit everyone in that region. A lot of travelers stick to Kelowna because it’s where the hotels are. When Mission Hill opened, it made people want to come and see it, so it’s the same thing with this development. You absolutely will want to check it out,” says Stephen Ward, manager at Great Estates, a tasting room in Penticton, a city midway between Kelowna and Osoyoos. His tasting experiences focus on educating consumers on the wines of the South Okanagan.
While Phantom Creek gears up for a launch that very well may be the biggest opening in the history of the Canadian wine industry, the patriarch of Mission Hill, Anthony von Mandl, is continuing to do his part to show BC wines can be California-esque in stature — and price.
Von Mandl’s CheckMate Artisanal Winery produces only two varieties of single-grape wines — eight kinds of Chardonnay that sell for $80 to $125, and four kinds of Merlot that go for $85 each. Winemaker and general manager Phil McGahan was recruited in 2012 from the boutique Sonoma County winery Williams Selyem to lead the operations.
“I was blown away by the age of the vines. I knew that they needed work to bring them back. That was where the leap of faith came in. But I knew the Okanagan was capable of producing very good Chardonnay,” says McGahan, an Australian who has focused on creating wines that can age beautifully.
The old vines are what impressed him enough to make the jump from one of the world’s most established wine regions to an area that he says he only knew as “up and coming”. The vines date as far back as 1973 and were responsible for one of the most momentous successes in Canadian wine history. In 1994, Mission Hill’s 1992 Grand Reserve Barrel Select Chardonnay won top prize in its category at the International Wine and Spirit Competition, alerting the world that Canada needed to be taken seriously for more than just icewine.
These days, the challenge for the industry is seeing how far Canada’s best wines can go in reputation and price. CheckMate recently earned the first 100-point ranking of any Canadian wine when critic John Schreiner bestowed that honour on a $110 bottle of the recently released 2015 Little Pawn Chardonnay. More and more critics are joining McGahan in noting the conditions of the South Okanagan have some qualities that are superior to what California and other well-known regions offer.
“There is less disease than in California and the quality of the fruit in the Okanagan is superior to pretty much anywhere else. People in the wine industry know that,” he notes.
Like Phantom Creek, CheckMate is in the midst of a major construction project. In 2020, it will open a gorgeous new tasting room at its Golden Mile location that is adjacent to Road 13 Vineyards, the 2018 BC Winery of the Year that Mission Hill recently purchased. A restaurant experience and private events program will be part of the offerings.
Both Phantom Creek and CheckMate rely largely on a direct-to-consumer sales strategy. A tasting session at CheckMate costs $20 (for drop-ins who will sample two wines) or $35 for guests who book a tasting by appointment and then taste six wines. The cost of the tasting is refundable with the purchase of a bottle.
For wine connoisseurs, having more high-quality Canadian wines will be welcome. For travellers who want added wine-tourism experiences, the changes in the Okanagan will excite. For certain, the rise of facilities at Phantom Creek and CheckMate will alter the valley’s viticulture scene. How much they impact the charm of the South Okanagan and how well they fit into what is a tight-knit community of small businesses will be seen in coming years.
MORE ABOUT PHANTOM CREEK ESTATES
Location: 4315 Black Sage Road, Oliver, BC
Tasting Fee: To be announced
Best Wine: The 2016 Phantom Creek Estate Cuvée ($100, 14.5% alcohol) is an exquisite wine that is pleasing to drink now. Although it is Cabernet Sauvignon dominant (38%), Petit Verdot (26%) and Malbec (15%) bring balance and softness to the bottle.
MORE ABOUT CHECKMATE ARTISANAL WINERY
Location: 4799 Wild Rose Street, Oliver, BC
Tasting Fee: $20 (drop-ins) for two wines; $35 (by appointment) for six wines. Either fee is refundable with the purchase of a bottle.
Best Wine: The 2014 Little Pawn Chardonnay ($110, 14.3% alcohol) is not the most expensive wine in the CheckMate arsenal but in most other wineries it would be the star attraction. Complex, full-bodied, and luscious, it will please both connoisseurs and occasional drinkers. (I have yet to try the 2015 vintage of this wine to which John Schreiner awarded a perfect ranking.)