May long weekend was one of those where the sun cooperated with the clouds and both were in harmonic concert with the calendar. Which is to say, May long weekend was spectacular for wine tasting afternoons.
The Naramata Bench always invites,...perhaps it's the lake views, the easy meandering route - in via one road, out via the same road - or, just maybe, it's the wines themselves that consistently beckon.
A quick easy snack of Eggers at The Bench specialty market and cafe' as I started my journey provided fortification for the enjoyably foreseen alcohol consumption. Most days I spit, today I had decided to swirl. There's something grand about being on vacation in wine territory and not the designated driver...
The few outdoor tables at The Bench Market hosted clusters of Gelato lickers and some chowing down on their more substantial wraps and sandwiches. The little specialty cafe' that sits at the doorway to the Naramata Bench is such a fun place to poke around. I love looking through their tray of Naramata Handmade Seeds and imagine what it would be like to plant some Cape Gooseberry, perhaps some Togo Trefle, or even some Gigantesque or Ste. Lucie. All the seeds are “open-pollinated, grown in Naramata by natural chemical-free methods.” At $3.00 per packet, they make great gifts and garden projects. You can also find Okanagan Harvest Cake here. It comes vacuum-packed so you can take this deliciousness home for savoring later if you wish (and if willpower permits).
The Naramata Bench can be as much a treasure treat hunt as it is a wine tasting trail. With this thought, the first stop was in at Poplar Grove where they make, and sell, cheese and wine. The ever popular Poplar Grove boasted a packed tasting counter. The clamor for cheese could be heard even above the soft patter of the wine sippers. Fairly early in the day still, there were only three rounds of their Naramata Bench Blue cheese left. Fortune smiled on me that day as I was handed one of the precious rounds. Seems their 20% off sale on the cheese had precipitated a cheese run throughout the day.
But, first things first, so I made my way through their tasting flight. Outstanding is their Cabernet Franc '06. They hold their wines longer than anyone in the valley and this Cab Franc lives up to its, “Black Forest Cake In A Bottle,” reputation. Ripe, red fruits, silky cocoa. Their Ogopogo label also caught my eye from a design perspective but once you taste their '06 Cab Franc it's kind of hard (sorry!) to remember what came before that. As I worked through my purchases, I was delighted to see that the cheese came out to only $6. That was the deal of the day.
Back out on the main road I saw that the Marichel Vineyards' sign was proclaiming they were open. I had been wanting to stop in for some time, even just to take in the iconic Okanagan Lake views from their patio. Funny, but the definitive pictures you mostly see of the Okanagan are actually of Vaseux Lake and not the Okanagan.
Twice in the course of an afternoon, fortune blessed me as the sun was high overhead and the views from Marichel Vineyards patio were, well, iconic Lake Okanagan. Marichel's exquisitely trimmed vineyards that sit on the “Bench,” or bluff right there delight tribes of quail. It would be easy enough to spend a whole afternoon just watching the quail and their little quail babies weave through the manicured vines and talk to Richard and Elizabeth Roskell, Marichel Vineyard owners and winemakers.
Marichel's '07 Syrah is melt in your mouth good. If Syrah could be a dark chocolate in a bottle, this is it.
Marichel's tasting room is like one you'd find in Argentina. The comfortably-sized room opening up onto the outdoor veranda is furnished with a tasting table, a big wooden picnic table with benches that invites you to have a seat, take a moment, and enjoy the experience of tasting wine. The Roskells were the first on the bench to plant Viognier, so their vines now are 11 years old – and beautiful!
Their property features a gulch on it which serves to divide the acreage into “eight little different vineyard blocks, with different soils even,” explains Elizabeth. She remembers all too well when she and her husband Richard were out auguring the soil with a pickaxe to get the young vines in. She laughs and says that, yes, they are always open, it's just that often they are in the vineyard working. But they enjoy very much meeting and hosting people for tastings; It's just best to call ahead if you want to be sure to be greeted at the gate.
Their Syrah is well worth making the appointment for. Richard has planted six different Syrah blocks, and they expect each to be signature different. As you gaze out their veranda onto the golden afternoon sun-drenched lake you see a lone pine tree on the bluff, that is where they've planted their Sunset Block of Syrah.
On the afternoon I stopped in Elizabeth was pouring Marichel Syrah '07. As she poured the dark berry hued wine into the full, stemless tasting glass I could already see that I was in for a treat. I cupped the glass in the warmth of my hand and swirled the ripe juice to aid its flavor release. I could almost feel it melting in the glass. Elizabeth was telling me how one of her pastimes is baking and that she makes a dark chocolate cake where she soaks the cherries in this Syrah before cooking them in the cake.
Time to taste: Marichel's '07 Syrah is melt in your mouth good. If Syrah could be a dark chocolate in a bottle, this is it. Its nose, ever so slightly brisk, belies the full-bodied maturity of the vintage, hints of leather, a whiff of Autumn leaves. The mouth is full, velvety, smooth, round, well-balanced, specialized, with red fruits and a Godiva dark chocolate finish.
A few moments at Marichal Vineyards and you've carved into memory indelible images of Naramata taste, sight and sunshine.
It's said that laughter is the best therapy, so a must-stop was Laughingstock Vineyards. A table with crazy fun hats was on display to greet tasters. But really crazy hats, and big mirrors, to try them on and see which ones fit. Hats came in varietals like a WWII fighter pilot with goggles, Jimmi Hendrix afro wig, pointed Merlin's hat, Argentine Bolero, a witch's black hat, a chicken-o-your-head hat...and more.
“It's to remind us not to take ourselves too seriously,” stated the lady pouring Laughing Stock's tasting flight, explaining that it's only for special occasions that they put out the hats.
Not to miss in their flight is their Portfolio '07 which is a blend of 56% Merlot 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Cabernet Franc, 6% Malbec and 1% Petit Verdot. Vines magazine calls it one of Canada's “icon wines.”
Out in mid-June is their Pinot Noir '09. Looking forward to trying it as they did not release a Pinot Noir for '08. Also worth noting is their Syrah, with a Viognier blend, will be out soon. Now that sounds interesting...
Lunch on the patio at Hillside Estate Winery is a Bench landmark. Their new chef began back in April and even simple dishes of steamed mussels in a red sauce with some dipping bread can showcase why it's so great to be alive.
Hillside Estate Winery is one of the only wineries in the Valley to do a Muscat. They are also the only winery in all of Canada to do a Muscat Ottonel. The original owner of Hillside Estate Winery brought her 6 vines of Ottonel over in her backpack from Czechoslovakia. “She probably would have gotten into trouble, had she been caught. But she wasn't, so now we have this beautiful Muscat and thousands of Ottonel vines,” explained the tasting room pourer.
Kathy Malone is their winemaker and I wouldn't leave Hillside without trying their, Muscat Ottonel '09, '07 Reserve Merlot and also their '09 Gewurztraminer. The tasting room at Hillside Estate is always going to be full on weekends, so just hang in and press on 'til it's your turn at the tasting bar. Then dig in and enjoy.
A day of laughter and wine wouldn't be complete without a sojourn at Therapy Vineyards and Guesthouse. Therapy Vineyards' winemaker, Steve Latchford, makes a Malbec that's been getting people talking. He uses grapes grown down in Oliver. On the Naramata Bench, they have 7 acres under cultivation, though the property is so impressive, down there at the end of the Bench, that it's easy to think they have vast more under cultivation. Their Malbec is the first wine in Canada to feature a hockey player on the label. Go figure!
People flock in for the Freudian Sip; Aged eight months in French Oak gives this Chardonnay a strong spine. Their “Pink Freud,” rose' is also a crowd pleaser. Therapy Vineyards is one of the few wineries on the Bench that has a Guesthouse. It's a tough choice between there and the Naramata Heritage Inn And Spa. On a sunny summer weekend, it'll probably just come down to whoever has the first, or last remaining, opening.