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Mission Control

An Okanagan icon takes Winery of the Year

Reports by Amanda Allison, Kelly Schweitzer and Christopher Waters

Mission Hill Family Estate leads the pack of InterVin's top estates for 2011. Nearly 100 wineries vied for InterVin Winery of the Year honours, by virtue of submitting five wines or more to be judged. It was the top five scores for each winery that counted towards the overall standings. Our Top 10 list reflects a diverse array of producers, with different philosophies, varying specialties and wideranging ambitions. What they share is a prevailing quality of excellence in winemaking.

  Mission Hill Family Estate

Westbank, British Columbia
Established: 1966
Owner: Anthony von Mandl
Winemaker: John Simes

Aside from the stunning success rate in such a tough competition, the most striking thing about the 20 InterVin medals Mission Hill Family Estate achieved is the assortment of styles. The award-winners represent every grape variety and quality level of the portfolio, with significant awards being earned by top-tier luxury wines and value labels alike.

That across-the-board success is of crucial importance to proprietor Anthony von Mandl, who got his start in wine as a 22-year-old apprentice at a winery in Germany. His love of the industry led him to establish Mark Anthony Wine Merchants before purchasing a winery of his own.

"I never judge a winery by their top wines because anyone can make a few barrels of something exceptional," says von Mandl. "I always ask to taste the entry-level wines because they tell me about the cellar conditions, the talent of the winemaker and the sourcing of the grapes."

Von Mandl is also too savvy a businessman not to realize that Mission Hill's Five Vineyards tier are the wines that most consumers will associate with the winery.

So, he delights in the news that the valuepriced 2010 Five Vineyards Rosé earned a gold medal alongside the 2007 Legacy Series Compendium, 2007 Legacy Series Quatrain and 2008 Vidal Icewine Reserve, which each sell for more than $40 per bottle.

"The recognition means a huge amount to us," he says. "It encourages us to do better."

Mission Hill has emerged as one of the standard carriers for Canadian wine in general, and the Okanagan Valley in particular, since von Mandl rescued the original Mission Hill Winery from insolvency in 1981.

Since then, a lavish showcase winery that rivals the most breathtaking facilities in the world has been created. Some 900-acres of prime vineyards have been planted and fastidiously maintained and winemaker John Simes has learned the nuances of how to best cultivate and craft Okanagan wines.

"It's been a long road since I purchased a nearly bankrupt winery with the seemingly insurmountable goal to grow and produce wine that would stand alongside the best in the world," explains von Mandl. "Having been working at it for 30 years now, I truly believe that this is only the beginning."

2   Inniskillin Wines

Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario
Established: 1975
Owner: Vincor Canada/Constellation Brands
Winemaker: Bruce Nicholson

Ever since Inniskillin put Canadian wine on the global wine map in 1991 by taking the top trophy at VinExpo in Bordeaux, gold medals for its glorious Icewines have become commonplace. The steady stream of international awards continue to raise the pioneering winery's profile and add to the growing luster surrounding the obvious talent of winemaker Bruce Nicholson, who has amassed more than 1,500 trophies and medals over the years.

Inniskillin's 2008 Riesling Icewine ranked as the top-scoring sweet wine in this year's competition, the second consecutive time the Niagara-on-the-Lake winery has been responsible for InterVin's best sweet wine. The 2007 Vidal Icewine, 2007 Cabernet Franc Icewine and 2010 Sparkling Vidal Icewine stand proudly among our silver medallists.

But it's the gold medal awarded to the 2010 Winemaker's Series Barrel Fermented Pinot Gris that has Nicholson truly excited.

"Amidst all the key varieties of Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc that I enjoy working with in Niagara, I have found the Pinot Gris a source of keen interest," explains Nicholson. He started working with the variety when he took the reins at Inniskillin in 2007 after a storied career at Jackson-Triggs Okanagan Estate.

"Leaving the grape on the vine as long as possible after picking for Pinot Grigio style wine has given added depth and character … barrel aging for a few months rounds out the great mouth-feel, making it a great wine for both sipping or with food."

Nicholson recalled tasting the width and breadth of styles of Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio available to him at the London Wine Fair back in 2008 as part of his research into the type of wines he wanted to create with the variety in Niagara.

Not to be overlooked among Inniskillin's total haul of nine InterVin medals is the bronze earned by the refreshingly fruity 2010 Pinot Grigio. In some vintages, Nicholson has made as many as four different whites with the Pinot Gris grape that showcases both its versatility and suitability to Niagara's climate.

Says Nicholson, "I am very happy with my venture into making Pinot Gris and glad to see the gold medal recognition of my 2010 at InterVin."

Sandhill Wines

Kelowna, British Columbia
Established: 1997
Owner: Andrew Peller Ltd.
Winemaker: Howard Soon

From the start, Sandhill has stood out.

From its inception in 1997 as the premium label for Calona Vineyards to its evolution as a smartly focused single-vineyard only producer operated by Andrew Peller Ltd., the boutique winery has emerged as one of the Okanagan's most consistent producers.

Winemaker Howard Soon has been in charge of production since the beginning, which has given him keen insight into the mix of vineyards that he works with, including the company-owned Sandhill Estate Vineyard in the Southern Okanagan as well as contracted sites like the Osprey Ridge, Phantom Creek and King Family vineyards.

"Being the only single-vineyard brand in Canada is a mixed blessing," says Soon, a Vancouver native who has been making wine in the Okanagan for 20-plus years.

While it takes discipline to craft wines from a specific place, especially when many believe blending different vineyards together can create great wine, Soon enjoys the creative challenge.

"I like it because it's a pure concept," he says. "Most laymen understand that wine comes from grapes and grapes come from vineyards. But with our brand, it's one piece of land. The taste in the wine is coming from that place and those grapes … No one else can say that they offer the same glass of wine or award-winning bottle that we have."

Sandhill's mix of InterVin medals shows how effective that concept can be. Nine medals for nine different varieties proves that quality winemaking is happening across the board.

The top-scoring 2009 Sandhill Estate Vineyard Cabernet Franc captured our judges' hearts, but they were equally attentive to the 2009 Merlot, 2009 Syrah, 2010 Pinot Blanc, 2010 Sauvignon Blanc and the 2010 Rosé coming from the winery's estate vineyard which all earned silver medals. A highlight among the bronze winners is a new 2009 Cabernet Merlot coming from the five-year-old Vanessa Vineyard in neighbouring Similkameen Valley.

Soon sees his role as capturing the flavours in the grapes that define the place where they are grown. "It's bringing the Okanagan to you," he explains. "When you taste it, it's a real, distinctive wine, but delicious. If I have done that, my mission is fulfilled."

  Southbrook Vineyards

Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario
Established: 2005
Owner: Bill and Marilyn Redelmeier
Winemaker: Ann Sperling

For winemaker Ann Sperling it's their "harmonious relationship with the land that shines through in delicious varietals and spectacular blends" at Southbrook.

From owners and operators of a boutique winery in Richmond Hill, Ontario to vineyard stewards of a 150-acre piece of land in the heart of the Niagara Peninsula, Marilyn and Bill Redelmeier have taken their small farmland shop and shaped it into one of Canada's green leaders in the wine industry. They were aided in their journey by Sperling, who has worked at several prestigious institutions, including CedarCreek in the Okanagan Valley and Malivoire Wine Co. in Beamsville, Ontario.

They are Canada's first biodynamic certified winery, hosting 75-acres of certified vineyard with another of equal size in transition and have had the entire property licensed as organic, even the hay and sheep.

Southbrook's grapes are harvested without the use of synthetic pesticides and other chemicals, but compost applications in the soil and the growth of diverse cover crops to support beneficial organisms like insects and birds are also applied in the organic process, says Sperling.

Having established the estate in 2005 the Redelmeiers have been committed to producing quality wines and reducing their carbon footprint. Their Connect series is a shining example of that. "Connect combines a laidback approach to wine and food with a serious respect for the environment," Sperling says.

Shipped in bottles that are lighter in weight and are made using glass from Ontario's bottle return program, the Connect Red, White and Rosé that brought in gold, silver and bronze medals respectively at InterVin, are products of the organic growing process that Sperling says, "produces grapes with density, flavour-packed berries, rich skins and ripe character — all components that are necessary for fine winemaking."

5   Coyote's Run Estate Winery

St. Davids, Ontario
Established: 2003
Owner: Jeff and Patti Aubry
Winemaker: David Sheppard

Winery has been terroir-driven when it comes to making wine. With two distinctly different soil types, winemaker David Sheppard and his team are able to produce the same varietal with two unique outcomes.

Roughly one half of the winery's property, known as the Black Paw Vineyard, is made of heavy black clay soil that produces conservative vine growth. This soil type yields small, but intensely flavoured berries that result in rich and robust wines.

The other half of the property is the Red Paw Vineyard where red clay soil, scarce to the region, is well-suited for vine growth and in turn produces delicate and refreshing fruit-forward wines.

To date, Coyote's Run has experimented with Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir on each of the two soils, having particular success with the 2009 vintage of Pinot Noir. A difficult variety to cultivate, Sheppard thinks their success with Pinot Noir is due in part to their "Pinot-friendly" site and terroir. Situated in a corner of the peninsula far from Lake Ontario, Coyote's Run vineyards escape the lake's summertime cooling effect, which gives them a jumpstart to the growing season, says Sheppard. "The net result is a longer growing season and more opportunity for reaching full maturity in the grapes."

The 2009 season was also ideal because of its weather conditions. "More importantly, a long stretch of sunny, dry weather leading up to and including harvest," made the vintage a success says Sheppard. He adds that viticulturalist Steven Trussler's "labour of love" also played a significant role in its superior quality. Trussler's passion for terroir reaches back to his time with L'Acadie Vineyards in Nova Scotia. It seems everyone is focused on the same goals at Coyote's Run.

  Thirty Bench Wine Makers

Beamsville, Ontario
Established: 1994
Owner: Andrew Peller Ltd.
Winemaker: Emma Garner

Overlooking Lake Ontario with a view of the Toronto skyline is Beamsville Bench, a small sub-appellation in the Niagara region. Here, the grapes grow on steep slopes which provide excellent airflow and water drainage. It's here that Thirty Bench Wine Makers sits, specializing in hand-crafted wines.

Production at Thirty Bench is mainly small lot based, so their wines can be difficult to find outside the tasting room.

However, because Thirty Bench has a focus on maintaining low yields in the vineyards, the fruit develops maximum intensity, resulting in outstanding, flavourful wines.

It's Riesling that has long been the estate's signature grape. "Riesling has always excelled at Thirty Bench," says winemaker Emma Garner. "Having some of the oldest vines in Ontario, the root system is very deep and as a result the vine has accessed the soil strata beneath it."

Three blocks of Riesling are grown on the property - the Wood Post, Steel Post and Triangle vineyards. Throughout the block the soil varies, which in production allows Garner to create three very different small lot styles of Riesling, in addition to a house blend.

Last year was an extremely good year for their signature grape. "2010 was an exceptionally hot vintage that was also very dry," says Garner, "but timely rains made it picture perfect for Riesling."

Fundamental to Riesling is its acidity, so it was integral that Garner pick the grapes at exactly the right time. If she didn't, the acidity levels would have dropped too low. "I was tasting grapes daily to determine when the correct harvesting day was," says Garner.

She's thrilled with the award-winning bottles that resulted from this excellent vintage. "The flavour profile was unique and the wines were quite fleshy and full."

7   Red Roster

Naramata Bench, British Columbia
Established: 1990
Owner: Andrew Peller Ltd.
Winemaker: Karen Gillis

When asked which wine she likes the best from the 2010 vintage, Red Rooster winemaker Karen Gillis responds with some difficulty. "That's a hard question to answer," she says. "I love them all. Possibly the Riesling, or the Gewürztraminer. The Pinot Blanc is fab and I love the Bantam."

Perhaps it is so difficult to choose an outright winner because the Red Rooster collection is so strong, winning seven medals at InterVin to place them in the top wineries of the year, including a bronze for the aforementioned five-grape white blend, 2010 Bantam.

In fact, it was a strong showing for their 2010 whites overall, with additional wins for their Chardonnays — a silver for their entry level in the under $20 category and a bronze for their reserve in the over $20 category. Gillis thinks the climate had much to do with the success Red Rooster had with last year's vintage. "Generally throughout the (Okanagan) Valley and on the Naramata Bench, it was a cool growing season with a couple of spikes in June and then again in August," she says. "We believed the white wines would be great in 2010 with the weather that we were having. It didn't disappoint."

However, it was the 2009 reds that truly landed Red Rooster among the top. Their Reserve Malbec, made from grapes picked from their on-site estate vineyard, took home gold. A silver medal was awarded for their Merlot, made from a collection of five vineyards across the South Okanagan. These medals show that the winery, perched high above Lake Okanagan, isn't just consistent year after year, but also throughout their portfolio.

Their fruit-forward wines showcase the Okanagan at its finest. Once you taste through their lineup, you'll have as hard a time as Gillis choosing a favourite.

  Rosewood Estates Winery

Beamsville, Ontario
Established: 2003
Owners: Eugene and Renata Roman
Winemaker: Natalie Spytkowsky

Rosewood might have a beekeeping history that dates back 70 years, but it's not the family-run winery's handcrafted honey wines that impressed judges at InterVin — it was their red wines.

Winning gold with their 2009 Cabernet France Barrel #86, produced in such limited quantities that it's truly a cult favourite, and taking home two medals for Pinot Noir secured Rosewood's place among the best of the best.

"Pinot Noir is a variety that gets a lot of attention because I love it," says winemaker Natalie Spytkowsky, who has worked her way up through the wine industry ranks in Ontario, starting in marketing at Vineland Estates Winery in Lincoln and eventually getting the Assistant Winemaker position at Strewn Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Here she learned valuable experience dealing with Niagara's love-it/hate-it grape.

"Pinot Noir is delicate and therefore any movement through racking or filtration or any additions plays a part in its structure and complexities," she continues. "My approach has always been to allow it to relax and evolve at its own pace."

Spytkowsky's patience in the creation of her wines pays dividends, especially in such a good year for Pinot as 2009. Their 2009 Pinot Noir Reserve Natural Fermentation and 2009 Pinot Noir both took home bronze medals.

It's the special attention that Spytkowsky pays to the notoriously finicky grape that makes Rosewood's Pinot Noir special, but also the wild yeast that allows the batch to ferment at a slower rate and brings out more flavours and character. "This is very risky, but I have had good luck," she says.

Those risks, both in the vineyard and in production, have more than been rewarded for one of the top wineries of the year.

9   Tawse Winery

Vineland, Ontario
Established: 2001
Owner: Moray Tawse
Winemaker: Paul Pender

The 2010 harvest was an excellent vintage for Tawse and it has paid off.

Not only did three of the year's wines win medals at InterVin, winemaker Paul Pender was rewarded for his hard work by being named as the 2011 Winemaker of the Year at the Ontario Wine Awards in June. Pender, who became head winemaker at Tawse in 2006, has led his team on the path of organic and biodynamic viticulture and winemaking.

These decisions have landed Tawse on the Wineries of the Year list for their second time in a row.

The results of that hard work, choosing organic and biodynamic efforts, are shown in two gold medals, the first for their 2010 Riesling. With powerful citrus notes, great minerality and a hint of floral, it's a perfect match for seafood.

The vintage was a great one for Riesling in Niagara and the grapes destined for Tawse's secondary label, Sketches of Niagara, were so unique they bottled it under its primary label instead. "I'd drink it all summer and into Thanksgiving," says Pender. "You get terroir in a wine that's also clean."

In addition, Tawse won a bronze medal for their 2010 Wismer Lakeview Riesling, showing their skilled hand with the varietal that does so well in Niagara's climate. Tawse's other gold came from the 2009 Robyn's Block Chardonnay, a full and rich wine with complex minerality and lively fruit. But it's something else entirely that Pender is truly impressed with - the 2008 David's Block Merlot.

This strong, rich, savoury Merlot has the stuffing to last. "Don't write ‘em off," he says. It's sage advice that's also true about Tawse as a whole. Just because they're at a peak now, doesn't mean you should count them out looking forward — the future looks as bright as their gold medals.

10   Flat Rock Cellars

Jordan, Ontario
Established: 1999
Owner: Ed Madronich Sr.
Winemaker: Ross Wise

Some assume that Flat Rock Cellars is all about Pinot Noir, but even winemaker Ross Wise says, "It was Riesling that caught my eye on this project."

Medals in a variety of categories, four out of six being white wines, secured the Jordan winery a spot among the top performers at InterVin.

A bronze medal for their 2009 Pinot Noir was a safe bet, but their whites stole the show, including their 2010 Gewürztraminer taking away a gold medal and two silvers for their 2010 Riesling and 2009 The Rusty Shed Chardonnay.

Flat Rock owes its stellar wines to low yields and a hands-on approach in the vineyard and winery.

Its location, perched on a gentle rolling slope on the Twenty Mile Bench in Jordan, not only provides a stunning view of Toronto across Lake Ontario, but also a special terroir. "A lot of me committing to this place is about the soil and how that quality imparts itself on the wine," says Wise, a native New Zealander.

From 80-acres of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Gewürztraminer, Flat Rock produces about 15,000 cases a year all under screw cap. They're the first Ontario winery to devote all their wines to this closure. Wise has been winemaker at Flat Rock since 2009 and he finally feels like he's gotten a good grip on what cool climate viticulture really is.

However, he knows there's also so much more to learn going forward in a relatively young, yet passionate, industry. "You could do this job for 30 years and still have a new challenge," he says.

If he's up for the challenge, the sky is the limit for this Kiwi-transplant who still has plenty to master outside the vineyard - like scoring a picture-perfect goal on the hockey rink.

Honourable Mentions

Burrowing Owl Estate Winery

Okanagan Valley, British Columbia
Established: 1997
Owner: The Wyse family
Senior Winemaker: Bertus Albertyn
This South Okanagan estate impressed with its strong collection of 2008 reds

Colaneri Estate Winery

Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario
Established: 2010
Owner: The Colaneri family
Winemaker: Andrzej Lipinski
This Niagara newcomer made a terrific first impression with distinctive reds and whites

Jackson-Triggs Niagara Estate

Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario
Established: 2001
Owner: Vincor Canada
Winemaker: Marco Piccoli
Stunning oaked whites and new sparkling wines showcase the talents of Marco Piccoli

Peller Estates

Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario
Established: 2001
Owner: Andrew Peller Ltd.
Winemaker: Lawrence Buhler
Stellar Vidal Icewines and bubblies helped propel this family estate to InterVin success

Wild Goose Vineyards

Okanagan Falls, British Columbia
Established: 1990
Owner: The Kruger family
Winemaker: Hagen Kruger
Impressive aromatic whites make this Okanagan producer one of Canada's best