Searching for Okanagan Terroir with Sparkle: Bella Wines
Over the last decade, from the time I began writing about wine seriously, I have been searching for the signal that the Okanagan has (1) interesting terroir, (2) the technical expertise to express that terroir, and (3) the passion driven risk taking mentality supported by community necessary to take it all to the next level.
These three ingredients have been elusive over the years. I have seen glimpses of it in the past at Tantalus and Blue Mountain, but nothing amounting to the total obsession you find with the best producers in the world’s great regions.
In the last two years I have noticed the etchings of a paradigm shift in the Valley, mostly driven by younger members of the industry who have found creative ways to deal with the prohibitive provincial rules for ‘land based wineries’ that require land ownership (and thus massive capital) to start a B.C. winery. (See, for example, Syncromesh, Lock and Worth, Kanazawa, Tyler Harlton). This younger set is passionate about my first criteron above: finding the Okanagan’s interesting terroir. They are learning number 2: the technical expertise (both in the farm and the winery) to best express that terroir. For example, I can’t express how irritated I have been with many producers in the valley who continue to use commercial yeasts to ferment their wines – it’s tearing the terroir right out of them, not to mention the use of other common additives. This new generation of wine makers is giving their all to eschewing those sorts of practices.
So one and two are starting to come into place. The largest problem is number 3, community.
Not to say there is no community in the Valley, especially among this younger set. The majority of the Okanagan’s top new set of producers are very much desirous of forming community and learning. In my view this is essential to make great wine and turn a region struggling with making interesting, terroir driven wines, into one consistently striving for them. Instead, there are too many in the valley who see themselves to be in competition with each other, trying to make their wines ‘better’ than their peers. This is a poor approach for those who wish to excel. Knowledge should not be siloed and achievements compared. The goal should be to push ever further toward the ultimate goal of site-expressive wines that are delicious and taste like nowhere else. That does not mean the wines are expensive or brutishly powerful (and awkward) reds. It does not mean bandying about nonsensical awards and playing sycophant to foreign critics. It does not mean the wines are ‘crowd pleasing’ white bubble gum bullshit made in steel with fermented yeast (you know, that kind pulled out at nearly every tasting room in the valley in a sexist gesture for ‘the girls’).
Let’s get honest, let’s talk to our neighbours, and let’s be humble to our skills and knowledge. That’s the motto I want to hear.
Passion for the Imperfect
So on to Bella. Bella Wines is the first all sparkling winery in the Okanagan – that’s what most writers will focus on. That’s all well and good but it misses the point. Bella Wines is one of the very few wineries in the Okanagan dedicated to the three principles I’ve articulated above. Their goal is to find the Okanagan’s terroir. It is to do so while building community. And it is done with humility. You know, that quality that allows one to acknowledge they are constantly learning and to forever-tweak in the pursuit of something greater? That’s Bella.
What you get are a huge range of fascinating sparkling pet nat wines all made with indigenous (not cultured) yeast and picked very early for the Okanagan with the goal of finding that crucial intersection between fruit purity and site expression. It’s a brilliant gamble because while the grapes are often picked at searingly high acidity levels, the results are extremely transparent and the single vineyard wines are all completely distinct, though made with the same methodology. This has allowed Jay Drysdale, proprietor and wine maker, to see through wine making technique toward something deeper and more important about location. I suspect that as Jay learns more, he may tweak his approach somewhat in each vineyard and increasingly find better balance. For now, some of the wines strike a beautiful balance between accessibility, fruit and site expression while others veer perhaps too far into acidic aggression or unusual and perhaps undesirable ester formation from the fermentation. That is not to say there are any bad wines – there are not. Rather, I simply feel that some have been more successful and closer to Jay’s goal than others.
The Bella Terroirs
For such a small winery (a few hundred cases), Bella has an astonishing assortment of terroirs with which it works. I suspect this keeps things interesting and the experiments flowing. I hope that Jay and Wendy’s exploration leads to a greater understanding of these regions for all.
Thadd Springs (Kamloops)
Planted near the South Thompson River, the Thadd Springs Vineyard soils are predominantly clay with small amounts of limestone and gravel. Given the northerly siting of this vineyard near Kamloops, it is close to liminal for ripening. The vineyard’s sloping allows run off and the accumulation of heat sufficient to ripen the Chardonnay picked here and used in a couple Bella wines.
Orchard House (Naramata Bench)
For me, this vineyard produces the fruit for Bella’s most interesting wines. A small vineyard at the base of Munson Mountain, which is an extinct volcano. As such the soils are volcanic combined with glacial sediments. Bella also describes this vineyard as having greater precipitation than is the norm around Naramata. Bella sources both Chardonnay and Gamay Noir from here.
Estate Vineyard (Naramata)
If you haven’t been to the upper part of the Naramata Bench, I highly recommend it. It is one of the most beautiful parts of the Valley and boasts extremely unique geology and topography. Bella’s Estate vineyard is next to its tasting room and is the most northerly winery on the Bench, just north of Nichol Vineyards. Here you will find steep clay slopes tumbling down to Lake Okanagan, across which rolling hills arise in a mediterranean silhouette.
The climate here is moderated by the Monashee Mountains which rise up behind the vineyard, keeping things even and grapes ripening. Summers are length and hot and winters short. There is not very much precipitation in this part of the bench. Bella lies below the Naramata road and so bears more of a lakeside influence and has unique geology with lake and stream bed sedimentary soils rather than the glacial rocky soils of the vineyards planted above the Naramata Road.
The estate vineyard is beautiful and relaxing, filled with a variety of orchard fruit along with grapes, it is a biodiverse place, unlike the majority of the Okanagan. It is farmed using organic and biodynamic principles. It exemplifies the principles by which Bella operates and, for me, is a beacon for a healthier view of wine making in the Valley.
Cavada provides the contrast to the estate vineyard, planted as it is above the Naramata Road in those rocky soils I mentioned. It is planted with Gamay and Bella is converting the farming to organic.
Robin Ridge (Keremeos)
Not the Okanagan but rather the Similkameen, in the southern interior of B.C. Rocky alluvial loam from a vineyard with plenty of heat and drying wind, leading to powerful fruit.
An organic vineyard located in West Kelowna, across the lake. Glacial soils. Kelowna is a land of contrasts with very hot summers and cold winters by grape growing standards.
Bella also works with two vineyards from the southern Okanagan near Oliver: Secrest Mountain and Cerqueira. The former is a higher elevation vineyard with sandy, silty soils. The latter is composed of loam and granite soils with significant drainage and thus deep rooted vines.
Bella’s wines are quite diverse and it is not difficult to taste the vineyard distinctions between them. This transparency can sometimes come at the cost of ease of drinkability given the extremely low Ph’s for a couple wines. However, the majority of wines in my view attain pleasurable acidity, fresh, transparent fruit and joyful drinkability.
All the wines are extremely affordable at between $25-$35. The Blanc de Blancs are all made with Chardonnay and the rosé wines with Gamay Noir. My thoughts on the wines I tasted are below.
“B2” Blanc de Blancs 2015: A blend of Kamloops fruit and Oliver fruit from Cerqueira. Though Bella does not normally blend, but the oliver fruit was too ripe with too high a Ph for them. As such, they blended with northerly fruit to achieve the freshness they sought. It’s a flavourful, enjoyable wine. Very Good to Very Good+.
“Keremeos” Blanc de Blancs 2015: An intense single vineyard that was a little rough around the edges with a few strange aromatic notes for me. It did display the fruit intensity Bella speaks of for this site. Very Good.
“Orchard House” Blanc de Blancs 2015: A beautiful, elegant sparkling wine that is softer than the other blanc de blancs and harbours greater complexity. Excellent.
“Westbank” Rosé Brut Natural 2015: Fruity, pretty rose. Elegant and extremely suitable for many foods with great freshness and delicacy. Very Good+.
“Cavada” Rosé Brut Natural 2015: Extremely high acidity, borderline aggressive for me. This is basically rhubarb juice. Some will love the purity of fruit. Do beware the acid. Good+.