Black Hills Estate: Mastering Wine in the Okanagan Valley

Posted on Sep 23, 2020


Winery sign Okanagan BC

Black Hills Estate

Black Hills Estate is one of British Columbia’s most famous wineries having set the bar in terms of quality and consistency in the Okanagan Valley for the past two decades. Their new winemaker is currently harvesting his second vintage with them and already proving that the winery is in extremely capable hands.

Ross Wise grew up on a 700-acre sheep farm in the south of New Zealand. He realized early that sheep farming wasn’t what he wanted to do for the rest of his life and started off training to become a Chef.

Okanagan BC wine

Winemaker Ross Wise

In the last year of his Chef program, his class went on a tour to Central Otago which included visiting several wineries. One of those wineries was the great Pinot Noir producer Felton Road, and it was at that winery he realized he was training for the wrong vocation. “I instantly fell in love with the idea of working with vines. Having grown up on a farm I was used to the outdoors, but sheep are a different story. Vines do what they’re told to a certain extent…and don’t run away!”

After completing his Chef training, Ross saved up money working in Australia (as young New Zealanders tend to do), then returned to his homeland to study Viticulture in Hawke’s Bay.

His first job upon graduating was at Felton Road, the very place that inspired him to pursue wine in the first place. That serendipitous opportunity remains one of the biggest influences on his career, “The way they manage their vines—the attention to detail and precision they use in the vineyards, the organic and biodynamic approaches—all of it really resonated with me.”

Okanagan Wine

The 396th MW in the world.

Ross’ humility and soft-spoken manner seems to almost contradict his level of intellectual curiosity. Even for a winemaker, his passion for everything related to wine is discernible. Earlier this year his earned his Master of Wine (MW) designation, one of the most difficult and prestigious titles in the wine world to achieve. To put this accomplishment in context, he is only the 7th person in Canada, and 396th person in the world, to be able to put the MW letters beside his name.

But Ross didn’t undertake intense study for 4 years for the sake of the title, it is genuinely a part of his journey in honing his craft. “Through the MW program, travelling to all these regions, and talking to all these winemakers, you pick up a little from everybody. Felton Road and Zind Humbrecht may be my two biggest influences, but everyone you talk to, whether it’s in Barolo or Margaret River or Marlborough…you learn something from everyone. To me that’s the key.”

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Grapes almost ready for Harvest.

For close to two hours we peppered Ross with questions and our interview quickly turned into one of the most educational vineyard/winery tours we’ve done to date. Ross’ knowledge of vineyard practices and winemaking is truly extraordinary and his dry Kiwi humour makes listening to him particularly enjoyable. A walk between the original plantings of the Black Hills estate vineyards offers our first glimpse into his subtle wit, “These grapes have just finished veraison and are a long way from being ready. They’re still a good 6 weeks away from harvest and still have plenty of acidity in them. I tasted one yesterday and immediately regretted it.”

But mostly his explanations are both clear and fascinating, satisfying our inner wine geeks to no end.

Okanagan BC wine

Ross patiently answering all of our questions…

On the topic of sun exposure, he tells us about their west-facing slope and how the hot sun in the afternoon is a strength, “We’re a really warm site. If you pick up a scoop of soil on a summer afternoon, the soil is hot. We’ve got a shorter growing season than the likes of Napa and regions further south, but we are hotter than them in the heat of the day and get such good daylight. We make up for our short growing season with heat and daylight.”

As for planting on rootstock, he describes how it’s a little riskier given there are nematodes (tiny molecular sized insects—we had to look that one up!) in certain spots around the region that can inhibit the vine’s growth, however, “planting on rootstock gives you more control over when the vine ripens and how vigorous it is.

Okanagan winery dog

Gratuitous shot of winery dog Penny the Vizla.

It does have other advantages than just being phylloxera-resistant. We don’t have too many problems with Phylloxera here as it doesn’t tend to like the sandy soils. A lot of the original plantings in this area are on a rootstock called SO4 which loves vegetative growth. As a result, it has a much bigger canopy and wants to keep growing so it ripens later in the year because it’s focused on getting bigger not ripening a crop. Whereas other rootstocks, Riparia Gloire for example, needs a lot of water but it doesn’t really grow a lot and isn’t very vigorous. Therefore, it puts more energy into ripening its fruit. It’s earlier ripening and normally smaller crop.”

Okanagan BC wine

Ross explaining what happens in the cellar.

The winery has long believed in clonal diversity thanks in large part to the foresight by the people who originally planted the vineyard who chose a few different clones to see how each developed. The estate vineyard features 5 clones of Cabernet Sauvignon, 4 clones of Merlot, and 2 clones of Cabernet Franc. Each are picked separately and vinified separately which is a lot more work in the cellar but worth it for Ross, “they do give you different characters. Rootstock also plays a role, but the clonal diversity just brings more complexity to the final wine.”

As for the wine itself, the winery just bottled its 20th vintage of their flagship wine, Nota Bene.

Okanagan BC wine

Part of the excellent wine lineup we tasted at Black Hills.

The Nota Bene has always been Cabernet Sauvignon dominant (45-50%) and is one of the best known wines to come out of British Columbia, if not Canada. Black Hills’ wine club members are so passionate about this wine that the most common question Ross received when he first started was ‘What are you going to do to Nota Bene?!’. “The good thing is it’s made by the vineyard here; you can’t screw it up. It’s our best vines, the same vines every year. We just treat it gently in the winery and it tastes like the vineyard.”

Up until Ross arrived, Black Hills had never had a Merlot-dominant wine. “We’ve spent so much time talking about Cabernet Sauvignon because it’s the base of our flagship wine, but the Merlot here is just phenomenal – powerful, and low crop.” Addendum is framed to showcase their Merlot as the Right Bank answer to the Left Bank Nota Bene. It’s 86% Merlot and 14% Cabernet Franc, all from the vineyard surrounding the winery.

Chardonnay is another variety that Ross believes can be done exceptionally well in the region, “It’s a very different expression as you go up and down the valley but it’s always a great expression.

Okanagan BC wine

The 2018 Black Hills Chardonnay.

I think the intensity of fruit we get in the Okanagan, to me, is a level above most regions in the world. I think that’s what makes us different from Burgundy or California, it’s such precise, clear, and intense fruit. For Chardonnay, that’s rare as it’s quite a neutral variety. I think that’s our UV light influence—the skins just get so much flavour into them from the sun.”

The key of course is the fruit. The winery was getting Black Sage Chardonnay which lends itself to a softer, riper style but he made the conscious decision to find a higher altitude vineyard [Hidden Terrace Vineyard just north of Oliver]. “I think it just gives us more freshness and gets that flavour ripeness at a lower sugar level so we can really keep the alcohol restrained and in check. The acidity to me is what makes it.”

Ross believes he’s experienced enough now that he’s developed his own style and philosophies with wine making which is to be very hands off, gentle, and patient, letting the wine show itself.

“If you get the growing season right, if you get the fruit crop right and everything’s done well in the vineyard, then it’s just down to processing and letting the wine follow its own path.”

Okanagan BC winemaker

Ross Wise

He says his current inspiration comes from people pushing it out in the vineyard which is tough in Canada being in such a marginal environment. But he believes there are a lot of people doing great things in the region. After our visit to Black Hills Estate and tasting through the terrific lineup of wines across the board, we have no doubt that one of those people is Ross Wise.

Tasting Notes

Okanagan BC wine

The 2018 Black Hills Chardonnay.

2018 Black Hills Chardonnay

This Chardonnay shows great balance as it juxtaposes its texture with just the right amount of acidity. The style is fuller than many we have encountered in the Okanagan and it is a style we think works. Not doubt the estate’s southern location plays a role here. We get apple fruit with barrel notes and hints of marzipan. The body is medium+ and the texture is rich but the acidity keeps everything precise. Delicious!

Excellent ($29 at the winery)

2017 Black Hills Roussanne

We do not encounter much Roussanne outside of France, but this wine shows just how well this grape can do in the right hands in the Okanagan Valley. Apple, melon and guava come across in a powerful, intense way. The acidity is very well judged which keeps a lovely sense of freshness about the wine. There is plenty of finesse to go alongside that power resulting in terrific balance. Not much made but well worth seeking out.

Excellent+

Okanagan BC wine

2018 Black Hills Addendum

2018 Black Hills Addendum

Addendum is their Merlot-dominant Bordeaux blend. In 2018 it was 86% Merlot and 14% Cabernet Franc. The wine’s very dark colour is a harbinger of things to come. Black cherry, coffee cake, baking spices and plum compote all swirl around in your glass, taking turns at leading and then following as the wine evolves. This is a powerful wine and a wine of beautiful, seductive texture. Merlot is the signature red grape of the Okanagan Valley and this is up there with the best examples of this variety grown here.

Excellent+ ($50 at the winery)

2018 Black Hills Nota Bene

Nota Bene is the flagship wine of the estate. Always a Bordeaux blend it is usually Cabernet-dominant.

Okanagan BC wine

2018 Black Hills Nota Bene

This vintage the blend was 49% Cabernet Sauvignon, 41% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot. From many tastings we have done of Cabernet Sauvignon based blends and wines originating in the Okanagan, we have generally concluded this was not the best suited grape to the region. Nota Bene proves itself the exception to the rule! Though 2018 was a cool vintage, we detected none of the herbaceous qualities nor the hollow mid-palate that can be a marker of Cabernet Sauvignon grown in a marginal climate. Instead we found deep black fruit that gained added complexity from the supporting notes of spice and forest notes. The tannins are fine and ripe and provide structure but no bitterness. Very well made.

Excellent ($60 at the winery-now sold out)

2018 Black Hills Per Se

In this wine, Cabernet Franc takes the leading role making up 85% of the blend with a helping hand from 15% Merlot (almost the mirror image of addendum).

Okanagan BC wine

2018 Black Hills Per Se

Soft and delicious, this is very charming and drinking on point right now. The fruit is ripe and dark offering up notes of black cherry and plum. There is a lovely spice component on the back end. Just a hint of leafiness lets you know this is Cabernet Franc. While Cabernet Franc is often thought of as the “other Cabernet” it deserves its spot at centre stage in this terrific wine.

Excellent ($50 at the winery)

2017 Syrah

Both red and black cherry are found on the palate of this medium body wine.

Okanagan BC wine

2018 Black Hills Syrah

Hints of savoury and black pepper evoke Crozes Hermitage in style. Leaning more toward elegance than power, this is a food-friendly wine that will compliment almost any meat dish. Another charmer that is ready to go right now.

Excellent ($40 at the winery)

2019 Black Hills Viognier

When we got home we found a bottle of Black Hills Viognier at the Gull Liquor Store, one of our favourite local wine shops.

Okanagan BC wine

2019 Black Hills Viognier

We thought we should give it a try and are we glad we did! This is an awesome wine. Viognier wants to make a richly textured, viscous wine. The challenge is to keep enough acidity in the wine to maintain precision. And Black Hills has done that perfectly in this delicious Viognier. Notes of apricot and melon pick up hints of spice and orange peel. This is not just a delicious Viognier, it is a rocking good value at just $23!

Excellent ($23 at The Gull Liquor Store)

 

Wine corks Black Hills

A definite must-stop in the Okanagan.

Black Hills Estate Winery

4190 Black Sage Road

Oliver, BC

GPS: GPS: 49.11007,-119.549184

Tel: (250) 498-0666

4 Comments

  1. robin@42aspens.com'

    What an amazing background, Sheep farmer to chef, to winemaker and MW. I love that he has absorbed so much from meeting winemakers around the world.
    The wines sound delicious. All of the vineyards you have visited recently sound wonderful, but this one just went to the top of my list.

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    • We wouldn’t hesitate to recommend his wines and he was a terrific interview. Exploring our own backyard over the past few months has afforded a really good look at how things have really improved. More gems to come!

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  2. lwg.mne@gmail.com'

    What an interesting guy Ross is! Your time with him sounds off the charts. Nice to see Black Hills wines at such a reasonable price. You got me with the Syrah and Viognier ;-D

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    • You would love him — an absolute must for wine geeks (and also just a lovely guy). We learned a ton, not the least of which was how good the wines are!

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