La Dolce Vita: The Naramata Bench goes to Calgary

Web Lead

We always love our visits to Naramata, where more than two dozen wineries now keep us busy for days. It seems like we can never keep up. We visit two new wineries and another three open before our return.

It felt like another happy visit to the area north of Penticton on a visit to Calgary last week, where we attended a couple of fundraising events as guests of the Naramata Bench Wineries Association, the invitation coming from the association’s tireless co-ordinator, Tina Baird.

I got a particular kick while standing in line as we waited for a VIP tasting. Sal D’Angelo, one of my favourite winemakers and owner of one of my favourite wineries, wandered by and stopped to chat. He’s excited about the pending release of two port-like dessert wines, both made with icewine and fortified with brandy made from his own grapes. La Dolce Rosso (red) and La Dolce Bianco (white) are ready for bottling and will be available in small quantities this spring. We barrel tasted these port-like wines last fall and they were wonderful.

We took our seats along with about 50 other guests (the events, fundraisers for Alberta Theatre Projects, were hosted by Willow Park Wines and Spirits), carrying glasses of bubbly rose-coloured wines. Another nine glasses were ready at each place setting. As we sat I noticed another Naramata friend, Judy Kingston, owner of the amazing gem, Serendipity Winery. Two of her wines were featured in front of us.

Surprises are always the best part of any tasting and they started early in this one. The bubbly we were handed as we entered the mezzanine turned out to be from Elephant Island Orchard Wines, whose makers prove each year that great wines can be made without grapes. It turns out the bubbly, called Unconventional Wisdom, was made from apples, with a dosage of cassis added to the fermented juice later. I doubt there were many in the room who would have guessed this was a fruit wine. Elephant Island was also the maker of the last sample we tasted, a dessert wine they call Stellaport, made from Stella cherries. It was very nice, and paired spectacularly with a cheese from Nova Scotia selected by Calgary restaurant and cheese shop owner Janice Beaton. Dragon’s Breath is a luscious white, creamy cheese, blue in every way except in colour. Apparently it isn’t exposed to air, which keeps the mold from colouring.

Kingston introduced her two offerings, 2009 Merlot and 2009 Cabernet Franc, the latter of which was the best wine of the bunch, in my opinion.

Therapy Vineyards brought along a rare treat, barrel samples of 2012 Artist Series Riesling and 2012 Pinot Noir. It’s nice when wineries trust their audience to share barrel samples, because they are definitely not the finished product. But  they do give an indication of how the wines will eventually turn out. The Riesling paired very well with a delicious ceviche.

One of Naramata’s best kept secrets is Van Westen Vineyards, which is quietly making a name for itself with exceptionally good and very highly rated wines. Owner Robert Van Westen was on hand to talk about his 2011 Viognier, a creamy and aromatic gem and 2009 Vulture, a very nice Cab Franc.

Hillside Estate Winery winemaker Kathy Malone also had a turn at the microphone, talking about her 2012 rosé and a 2009 Reserve Merlot, a peppery and rich effort that is an indication, she said, of what an exceptional year 2009 was for red wines in Narmata.

As we made our way through each wine, half of them paired with food, it felt very satisfying to see these Naramata wineries demonstrating to a Calgary audience just how good a terroir the Naramata Bench is, and the quality of winemaking that has put the region on the map in such a big way.

Next week: From the VIP tasting we made our way downstairs, where the large reception room featured more wineries, more food, a silent auction and live music.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.