The Canada House “Taste Canada” event took place this year on 16th May. It was my second year at the tasting. In 2018 I was frankly blown away by some of the wines. The 2019 event was, if anything, even better. It is taking a relatively long time for my peers to cotton on to just what an impact Canada should be making as a wine producing country. Most people probably think about Icewine when they think about Canada, and Icewine still continues to interest people, and of course win medals internationally, doing much to raise Canada’s wine profile. But alongside increasingly good dry white wines it is surely the reds which are truly exciting.
In my next article I shall cover a range of producers, from British Columbia to Ontario and even one from Nova Scotia. But in this article I am going to focus on just one operation, Okanagan Crush Pad Winery. This British Columbia producer, which began as a custom crush facility but soon morphed into something much more, has been the source of my favourite Canadian wines ever since I tasted with co-founder Christine Coletta. It was a few bottles on an upturned barrel at Winemakers Club several years ago now, wines which at the time made me sit up and take notice.
Since then the Crush Pad has gone from strength to strength. Today they are certainly seen as one of the leading wineries in the valley, but without doubt I think they are the Okanagan Valley’s greatest innovator. I tasted eight of their wines at Canada House, but although I have written about Okanagan Crush Pad before, I shall begin with a bit of the back story.
Christine came to wine in the Vancouver restaurant industry, before graduating to head-up, as executive director, both the BC Wine Institute and Wines of Canada. With her husband, Steve Lornie, they built a winery on their Switchback Vineyard in Summerland in 2011. The winery has a 40,000 case capacity and even now, there are many wine producers in Okanagan who don’t have their own winemaking facility, for whom the crush pad model works well. They are based right in the middle of this beautiful 120 mile long valley which reaches from the US Border near Osoyoos (east of Vancouver) to Lake Country in the north. It’s a classic cool climate region for vines, which are established mainly on the benches which overlook the valley’s many lakes. The geology is varied, with glacial deposits and river silts on the valley floor.
The south of the region contains Canada’s only dessert, but by the time we reach Summerland temperatures are usually not more than 35 Degrees in summer, and annual rainfall across the valley is around 8 to 16 inches, June being the wettest month. The revelation with Okanagan wines in general is their freshness. It’s a word bandied around a lot, especially by me because it’s a trait I love in wine. But people tasting Okanagan for the first time always remark on that freshness.
The team at OCP is made up of chief winemaker Matt Dumayne, an Aucklander who has also worked in Margaret River, Australia and Napa Valley. He is ably assisted by two rather famous names, consultant Alberto Antonini and renowned viticultural guru Pedro Para, who Christine told me once could always be relied on to look at a terroir and recommend exactly the right grape variety to thrive there.
Winemaking is what one might call “natural”, or additive free. The whole OCP philosophy runs from creating biodiversity out in the vineyards which they own or manage, to a continuous search for improvement in the winery. This has led to much experimentation, and techniques like skin contact, along with the use of amphorae and concrete tanks are the norm, not the exception.
The range is split broadly into three: Haywire, Narrative and Free Form, labels which aim to present different aspects of the purity of the valley’s cool climate from a range of individual terroirs. People often describe these wines as “game changing” in the Okanagan context. They all share the trait of purity. The eight wines below provide a snapshot of what I think is almost certainly the most exciting range of wines from any single Canadian producer today. You can find more expensive Canadian wines, more established ones, certainly ones with a more inflated reputation on the international stage, but Crush Pad bottles speak gently of a thrilling new place in the world of wine.
Haywire Vintage Bub 2013 Sealed with a crown cap and at just 11% abv, this blend of equal parts Pinot Noir and Chardonnay was first bottled in January 2014 and spent 52 months on lees. It’s effectively a Brut Nature, with zero dosage. This lees aged wine has already gained some autolytic character and development, building the kind of complexity you don’t usually see under crown cap. There is a nuttiness which is overlain with crisp apple zip. An impressive wine which you probably can’t believe can be had for less than thirty quid.
Haywire Secrest Mountain Chardonnay 2017 is an interesting example of what the future may hold for white wine more widely in the Okanagan Valley VQA. As implied, the grapes are grown at a reasonable altitude for the valley, here at just under 500 metres on a flat mountain bench of alluvial deposits. The berries are whole bunch pressed into concrete egg fermenters, after which the juice goes through its malolactic. The wine is surprisingly rich, and even a little buttery, but it has a bright purity which is assisted by very nice acid balance, giving a tiny bit of crispness too. Alcohol seems well balanced at 13%. A very impressive Chardonnay.
Free Form Vin Gris 2017 is 100% Pinot Noir from the Heckman Family Vineyard at Summerland. The grapes were harvested quite late, at the end of October, and again saw whole bunches pressed into (this time) large concrete. The wine is certainly fruit forward, a mix of tropical and floral elements (not very Pinot Noir, I know) all driven along by great acidity. It’s not an especially complex wine, yet it does have an extra element: texture. This comes from the concrete fermentation. Not a lot of texture, but enough to add interest. It certainly is an interesting wine.
Haywire Gamay Rosé 2018 OCP makes lovely Gamay, the red kind, and this pink version is an extension of that wine. This is made with fruit from near the town of Oliver, further south in the valley. Although it’s warmer down there, we are still looking at fruit grown on another mountain bench at 500 metres above sea level. So the wine, which sees a mix of concrete and stainless steel for its vinification, is basically delicious fruit juice. You get zippy, concentrated fruit and mouth licking acidity. Here comes the summer.
Haywire Pinot Noir 2017 This originates from the same Secrest vineyard as the Chardonnay, farmed by Duncan Billing, although Christine and Steve now own the property. So it is high altitude Pinot. As well as the alluvial deposits with sand and loam, there’s also limestone up here, which I’m sure enhances some of the wine’s flavour elements described below. The vinification is interesting. After destemming, some grapes (with skins) went into two small clay amphora where they spent nine months macerating. The rest went into two large Nico Velo concrete tanks. After those nine months all the juice was blended together prior to bottling.
The wine is all about concentrated cherry, both on the nose and on the palate. It has a real brightness, but also spice elements. And, of course, a lovely graininess, a blend of dusty tannins and skin contact texture.
Haywire Secrest Mountain Gamay 2017 The grapes here were partly destemmed and partly whole bunch fermented in both open top and closed concrete fermenters. Ageing was carried out in larger concrete tanks for around eight months before bottling. The profile is quite different to a lot of French Gamay, and quite a surprise when you first try it, but Gamay has become one of my favourite of Matt’s wines. It has more lifted red fruits rather than cherry, but there’s an additional dimension added by what might be chocolate, mocha or even coffee. Unlike many Gamays, you get a lick of grippy tannin too. It’s a lovely wine which to me speaks of a different terroir.
There was a focus this year on Cabernet Franc at Taste Canada. I was thrilled about this because Canada is really establishing itself as a source of amazingly fresh but ripe Cabernet Franc. Okanagan Crush Pad make two and they were both on my list of the best from a Cabernet Franc tasting table set up outside the main hall.
Narrative Cabernet Franc 2016 This comes from another pair of vineyards down south at Oliver, on Black Sage Bench and Golden Mile Bench. The simple vinification and ageing for nine months took place in concrete tank. There’s abundant ripe red fruits on the nose, and real elegance on the palate, which finishes with a solid grip. It comes from the 2016 vintage, but will probably enjoy a little more time in bottle.
Free Form Cabernet Franc 2017 is quite different. The destemmed grapes were split between two amphorae and three large wooden fermenters. A slow fermentation didn’t finish until spring 2018, and the wine had seen eight months skin contact by the time the juice was pressed in June. It went into large concrete to settle and was bottled in mid-August 2018. The fruit here is darker, more black fruits complemented with spice notes, coffee and herbs. The finish has the characteristic slightly bitter, savoury or bramble note that fine Cabernet Franc can often have when young. It’s a wine with structure to age, and is a little bit more expensive than the Narrative version.
Okanagan Crush Pad wines are imported into the UK by Red Squirrel.
Large concrete tanks at Okanagan Crush Pad (photo credit and © okcrushpad)