Salmon Arm, British Columbia.
This is the northernmost tip of the Okanagan wine region. I selected Larch Hills Winery as we were leaving the region for Alberta through that route, and after I read the short profile of the owners in John Schreiner's "Okanagan Wine Tour Guide".
Just imagine you are somewhere in Austria or Switzerland and you'll get the right picture of the landcapes, meadows and trees of this lush alpine valley. Now when in this scenic setting you meet Jack Manser and listen to him speaking about his vineyards and his wines, you really think you are in Switzerland, because he is swiss and has all the features of the hard-working swiss mountain man, including a frank handshake, a german accent, and the weathered face with blue eyes of a man used to work in the nature in mountain conditions...
The winery was started by former owners Hans and Hazel Nevrkla in 1997. Hans Nevrkla, who is austrian, was then an award-winning amateur winemaker. He planted the varieties in the property and through successive tries, determined which varieties could fit best in this northern location : Mostly european varieties that thrive in cool climate regions, like Ortega, Siegerrebe, Madeleine Angevine and Agria (the only red grown on the estate's vineyards, they have 1 acre of it). The winery, which had already won several awards for its wines, was then sold in 2005 to Jack and Hazel Manser. Jack was a forester in Switzerland and came in Canada when he bought a small farm in Alberta. As he was looking for better deals, he found the Larch Hills winery and learned the winemaking skills with the Nevrklas (who still live nearby). The common german language was a plus for the expertise transmission. Jack's forester experience helps for the work in the vineyard. They keep the range of varieties grown on the property, and also make other wines with grapes from contracted vineyards from the southern Okanagan Valley, like Merlot and Pinot Noir.
When we arrived in the property and first stopped to look at the vineyard, we soon heard Jack as he was walking back to his quad from a tour of his plots. We chatted a few minutes, warding off the mosquitoes with our hands. He told us how he first came from Switzeland to Alberta in 1992. He says that the land is so much regulated in Switzerland and unaffordable. Here, he found something very close to his native country, except that back there in Europe, it would be filled with houses.
The property surface is 72 acres, of which about 8 acres of vineyards. They will plant some 4 more acres in the near future, but want to stay small. They both work on the winery, but he is more on the vineyard side even though his wife Hazel also helps in the vineyard tasks. They also hire an employee from march to october.
The wines at Larch Hills are made partly from the cool climate white varieties they grow themselves, but even when they purchase red grapes elsewhere, they are 100% British Columbia grapes, which is important to say, because some wines in the region are sometimes made "from canadian and imported grapes" as the fine print reads.
This was until recently the northernmost vineyard in North America, but another winemaker, noting the success of Larch Hills wines, created a winery near here in Salmon Arms, a bit more north: the Recline Ridge Vineyards. Larch Hills winery still has the highest altitude vineyards, at 700 meters or 2300 feet.
We now go to the tasting room where we meet Hazel Manser. She tells us about the chance they had to find this winery, how they immediately fit into the place and this new life. They had visited other places more in the south in the Okanagan region, but when they saw this Salmon Arm winery, they immediately thought : That's it... She also noted this strange coincidence : the former owner was austrian, which allowed the smooth transition, and his wife's first name was Hazel, like her own first name. And as Hazel Nevrkla was originally from England, Hazel Manser was from Holland, helping for a whole european touch in their friendship...
The total production is about 3000 cases, and several of the wines are sold out before the next millesime, especialy the Ortega, the signature wine of the estate . The Siegerrebe and Gewurztraminert also sell briskly, the customers like the light, aromatic style of the estate. Two thirds of the production is sold at the winery and the rest to reps, for restaurants. This is a long way from the first plantings in the mid 90's, when people kept telling the founder of the winery that it was unlikely that the valley was suited for grape growing...
We taste now :
__1 Mad Angie 2005. Short for Madeleine Angevine, a white variety originated from the Loire and which transited through Germany. A female, non-self-pollinating variety, it needs to be planted along rows of other varieties blossoming at the same time. very light and fresh.
__2 Siegerrebe Dry 2005. Very nice nose. Blended with a little bit of Madeleine Angevine. Rich. Intense fruit. 14,9 Dollars.
__3 Gewurztraminer 2005. 85% organic, but not from the property. Crisp. Spicy. Sugary mouth.
__4 Northern Lights 2004. a blend of Pinot Gris and other white varieties. Named by the previous owner. Clear, crisp wine, more on the neutral side. I like this wine. Only 10,9° in alcohol. Jack says he wants the wines to relate the variety and the terroir, not the alcohol.
__5 Riesling 2005. Balanced. Grape fruit aromas.
__6 Pinot Noir 2004 . Grapes from contracted vineyards in the Kelowna region, but vinified at Larch Hills. Nice light colour [picture on left]. Medium bodied. Some cherry and blackcurrant .
__7 Merlot 2003. Also purchased grapes, from Westbank near Kelowna. Nose : Leather.
__8 Grandview Bench 2004. Marechal Foch and Pinot Noir. Marechal Foch is a dark, early-ripening hybrid developed in Alsace that you can find in several North American wine region. Peppery finish.
If you come to Kelowna, take time to visit the winery...