When I wrote about the Red Squirrel portfolio tasting the other day, I promised to devote another piece entirely to the wonderful Okanagan Crush Pad. I think most of us are probably au fait with what the concept of a crush pad is, a place geared up to make wines for a number of, perhaps, small producers. This has worked to a point in places like California, where creative small labels make use of winemaking facilities on a contract basis. The first such facility I heard of, which came to fame in the mid-2000s, was the eponymous Crushpad in San Francisco. Set up in an industrial neighbourhood in 2004 it grew to a 45,000 case operation before spiralling out of the wine scene six or so years later. But the concept was established, and it led to many similar contract wine facilities all over the world. Although not the same, London Cru’s urban winery is a kind of cousin, doubtless inspired to a degree by the concept.
Okanagan Crush Pad began crushing grapes five years ago, in 2011, and differs from many of those similar facilities in that viticulture and winemaking are all part of a single vision. Along with contract crushing they also make wines of their own under the Narrative and Haywire labels. Okanagan Valley, in British Columbia, Canada, is a 120 mile long chain of rivers and lakes with glacial deposits forming benches, experiencing warm summer days (up to 35 degrees celsius), cool nights, and winter temperatures which may not reach the levels below zero you’ll find over in Niagara, but still promises annual lows of -10 degrees celsius. The winter snow tends to sit on the vines through the cold months, and average rainfall is about ten inches per year, higher in the north and a bit lower in the south, but that’s pretty low. The southern end of the valley stretches towards Washington State, over the US border.
Crush Pad was founded by Christine Coletta (who I tasted with) and Steve Lornie, the home team more or less completed by winemaker Matt Dumayne, a New Zealander who has also worked in Australia, California and Oregon in his journey ever northward.
Christine at the Red Squirrel Tasting (Winemakers Club, London, 6 September 2016)
Winemaking philosophy here is “natural”. You might therefore be surprised to know that Alberto Antonini has a role as a winemaking consultant, whilst Pedro Parra, from Chile, is viticultural consultant. He’s the man who introduced precision viticulture, digging exploratory pits all over the Garnet Valley Ranch, a 120+ hectare site which will eventually form the heart of the Crush Pad’s operation, initially with about 28 hectares to be planted to vines.
Grape growing is organic, and the grapes have to be completely healthy, that’s the key to the success of low intervention winemaking, especially when aiming for low sulphur levels. Virtually no oak is used in the winery, concrete being the preferred vessel. There are small and larger concrete tanks, and some Italian amphorae (800 litre), which seem to impart a freshness the world over. In this Canadian Valley the more extreme northern climate seems perhaps to enhance this, and the wines exude freshness above all other qualities.
Christine showed me four wines from their growing portfolio, one delicious sparkler, one white and two reds. The Narrative Ancient Method 2013 sparkler (£40) is a Chardonnay sourced from John and Maria Cerqueira in Oliver, self-styled “Wine Capital of Canada” due to the high concentration of wineries in the town. As the name suggests, it’s made by the same method known in France as “Rural” or “Ancestral”, the same as is used for many pét-nats. It’s bottled whilst the primary fermentation is still underway, without filtration, and with zero dosage. It has a great bead and the nose is very fresh. It doesn’t of course have the depth of a Blanc de Blancs Champagne, such as David Levasseur’s, which I liked so much at the same tasting. There are no older reserve wines here, it’s not made in the same way, and it’s only three years old. But it really makes up for that in nervosity, and that freshness. A lovely wine. I want to drink it again, as I can’t stop wondering whether it was really as good as I remember (I’m sure it was).
Haywire Free Form White 2014 (£35) comes from a steep 3ha slope in Trout Creek Canyon. It’s Sauvignon Blanc fermented in stainless steel, but it has over five months skin contact, reached 13.5% alcohol and was bottled with no filtration and no additives (including sulphur). It also doesn’t undergo a malolactic fermentation, hence (in part) the amazing zip and freshness. Orange in colour, the nose is impressively wild. A touch of salinity seems to meld with tropical fruit. It’s Sauvignon Blanc of a very different kind. It’s odd…the technical data mentions nothing of it but you’d really think this was made in amphora. The “Haywire” label is meant to signify something unpredictable. At this winery, risk taking seems to bring the desired result.
Haywire White Label Gamay 2014 (£23) comes from a site called Secrest, farmed by Brad and David Wise, 15ha situated on a mountain bench at just under 500 metres above sea level. The soils consist of alluvial deposits with coarse gravels and limestone. As with the Sauvignon Blanc, the Gamay is picked late (October) and fermented in open-top concrete. The maceration is pretty long, four weeks, thereafter going into different concrete tanks for eleven months before bottling. The wine smells and tastes of both cherries and raspberries. There are some tannins which give grip, but generally there’s an underlying smoothness, and of course a characteristic fresh lick of acidity. 12% alc.
Haywire Cannonview Pinot Noir 2013 (£35) comes from Trout Creek, like the Free Form White. The vineyard, Cannonview, consists 2ha on south facing terraces which benefit from the cool air off Okanagan Lake in the growing season. Subsoils are limestone, again. Fermentation is in concrete using around 25% whole clusters and skin contact is once again the norm – around 30 days before pressing, when the juice is moved into one concrete tank and left on its gross lees for 14 months before bottling. Skin contact considered, this wine is pale. It reminded me a little, in the light of the Holborn arches, of a Rosé des Riceys in its elegant, gentle hue. It smells wild, with a bit of maturity on the nose. The palate shows red fruits, given a definite edge by the concrete. You don’t really notice you are getting 13.5% alcohol.
There’s also another wine in the Red Squirrel portfolio, Haywire Switchback Pinot Gris 2014 (£23), which comes from Crush Pad’s home vineyard near the winery. Fermentation is in egg-shaped concrete, again producing a wine with a mineral edge.
You’ll note that I’ve not really made a qualitative assessment of each wine. Suffice to say that the wines really impressed, as did Christine Coletta, in both her knowledge and the vision she sets out. I also think that a good number of you will be aware of the buzz these wines created at Raw Wine 2016 earlier in the year. It’s difficult to say which wines I liked most, but committing myself I’d say that the Gamay was wonderful for what it was, not attempting complexity but winning hands down on purity and fruit. It’s also well priced, comparative to good Beaujolais. The Narrative Ancient Method Sparkler also impressed, quite dramatically, then you know I love my pét-nats. But I don’t want to miss out the Sauvignon Blanc. This will perhaps appeal most to the more adventurous. It’s a wine which is a bit like a spirited horse, capable of being ridden but maybe a touch unpredictable. Just my assessment.
For a link to my main article on the Red Squirrel 2016 Portfolio Tasting follow the link at the top of this article: “Red Squirrel”.
I’m sorry to have splurged out so many words in the past few days. I’m off to Arbois soon, to breath in the harvest, and to seek out a few wines and producers who, even with the massive growth in availability of Jura wines in my home market, are still pretty hard to find. I hope to have plenty to write about when I return.
Really interesting looking wines, David, and I’m sure fascinating drinking-but are not the prices rather absurd, with no connection to production costs whatever?
I can’t comment on production costs, but I agree that the prices do appear high at first glance. But if you look at who buys these wines I’m guessing that the profile is youngish and affluent. The wine world is changing. The wines we more or less cut our teeth on are now, let’s face it, wines for very rich collectors, or people so devoted to wine that they will go without other things to buy a bottle.
Younger wine drinkers, the ones who are sustaining a phenomenal wine scene in London (read a list of who attended the Wine Car Boot event this weekend) are not drinking Latour, Leflaive and Lafon. And because of this they are not really interested in the less expensive wines from these regions. What is on offer for them is an adventure in wine unlike anything offered before. New countries like Canada and Slovenia are exciting for them, as is the natural wine phenomenon and skin contact or amphora wines.
I think classic wine regions may come to regret alienating younger drinkers who have been led elsewhere. But back to the prices. Some would merely ask what is more exciting, a Cru Bourgeois Bordeaux or a Hungarian Grüner Veltliner with 40 days on skins, a Jaffelin Village Burgundy or a Canadian Gamay? If you have decided you enjoy this wine thing and don’t mind splashing £30 on a bottle, perhaps it’s not such a surprise that you might go for the latter.
I am 100% certain I know where I would look for excitement. There are exceptions, which is why I can write about Red Squirrel and a Howard Ripley German tasting with equal enthusiasm. German wines are still affordable for just about anyone who appreciates them, unless you desire the auction wines or drink nothing but Auslese.
For me it’s almost a philosophical question as to whether such wines are worth the money. For me, they are. They may lack a track record but you pay for the excitement. Arnold Holzer’s “Orange” is forty quid. For me, it is 100% worth it in a way that some classic wines from classic regions are not always. That’s just my approach, Tom.
Your point about people not being interested in a region’s lesser wines because they can’t afford the top ones hadn’t occurred to me but since you mention it it makes perfect sense. I wonder how that will shape the future of the classic wine regions.. £35 still buys some fairly serious burgundy, though and at that price level burgundy offers serious value in relation to the competition . I don’t really castigate myself for my relative monomania on the grounds that I have only one foie and I like drinking not tasting. There is an amazing amount of wine out there though and I think it really is probably better than ever.
I think Bordeaux is the classic example of a region suffering because it’s best wines are no longer experienced by most new wine drinkers. I think that the way Burgundy has developed, with top producers making wines at different levels will help people to experience them. But there is indeed so much exciting wine to try that some consumers might be less inclined to bother.
I actually think that what we used to see as objective quality is changing. People are no longer restricted by the old norms relating to what a wine should look, smell and taste like. Whether a love of innovation and difference is ultimately a positive thing, well, we shall see. But the old certainties about what is good have been broken by prices. If you can’t afford a Rolex then why not save your money and buy a fun Swatch? Latour too expensive, well, I can drink this tasty pét-nat without getting a hangover or selling the car.