Little Engine Wines takes its name from the renowned children’s story about working hard to achieve something despite the odds being against you. Proprietors Steven and Nicole French not only felt it was something they could relate to in establishing their winery, but that all of us can relate to on a personal level. The logo depicts a ladder and a moon—the moon representing a dream and the ladder signifying overcoming whatever it takes to reach it. The French’s personal motto “Dreams don’t come true, they are made true”, is proudly stamped on their corks as a further reminder to follow your own path.
Winemaker Scott Robinson is the perfect embodiment of the winery’s doctrine pursuing winemaking relatively late as a second career. After feeling a bit of burnout with his first career in sports medicine, he and his wife quit their respective jobs, sold their house and went travelling for a few months. It was while visiting Australia’s Margaret River region, that he made the decision to get into the wine industry. “The ability to work outdoors, creating a tangible product, feeding both the science geek in me as well as the artistic side, everything about it appealed to me and when we came back [to Canada], I started down this road.” It’s clear by his journey so far that he has determination in spades. But what seems to separate him is the dedication to his craft and his meticulousness with the process.
Scott and his wife made the move to the Okanagan Valley where he started his new career, after having just started a new family. He began working at Township 7 and in 2007 he headed to New Zealand to spend the BC winter working harvest at Kim Crawford Wines. While comfortable with his science background he felt he needed further practical experience and headed to Australia with his wife and two young kids in tow to get his Masters in Oenology from the University of Adelaide. Those 18 months in Adelaide included a harvest at d’Arenberg in McLaren Vale. Working there opened his eyes from a blending perspective as well as the winery’s focus on small batch winemaking. While very labour intensive, it confirmed the way he envisioned wanting to make wine.
Upon his return to the Okanagan Scott was hired as the winemaker at La Frenz Winery. After 4 years at La Frenz, he left to do his own work which included consulting for others. It was around that time that Steve and Nicole reached out to him. When they moved from Calgary, they were only planning to build a house and plant a vineyard, they hadn’t planned on building a winery. As they got involved in the industry they decided they also wanted to make some wine of their own. The French’s were good friends with Jak and Janice Meyer of Meyer Family Vineyards, and had some wine made at Meyer’s facility before Scott came on board.
The property where Little Engine now sits is a former apple orchard that came up for sale. Steve and Nicole purchased it with the intention of planting vines and building a winery. “At the beginning of 2015 I initially came on as a consultant, looked at the wines that were already made, and talked to them about what the brand was going to be. It’s pretty daunting to start a winery label in a place with a lot of other wineries…how do you differentiate? From day one we wanted to keep it tight and focused and varietal specific.”
When Scott first consulted with Steve and Nicole, he was involved early enough to take over the wines that were made a few months prior. Scott also made his own wine that year so the first vintage (2014) was him largely creating through blending and process. After a few months Scott decided to join Little Engine as their full-time winemaker because he wanted to do the project with them from the ground up. “I had a great time at La Frenz but after 4yrs, it was just time to move on and do things a bit more the way I specifically wanted to do wines and that’s where this project really just fell into place. Steve and Nicole respect my winemaking, the production decisions are all mine, and we have a tight vision of what the brand is supposed to be.”
In 2015 Scott made Little Engine wine at the Meyer Family Vineyard facility, managed to get some contracts for fruit, and it was the first year they were able to use estate fruit from Steve and Nicole’s property. In February of that same year, they broke ground on the winery, and by June the tasting room was open. 2016 marked the first harvest at their own winery.
Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Merlot have been the focus from the beginning and the three estate properties are planted to those 3 varieties. Pinot Noir was originally going to be a lesser focus but has since become their prime focus given its popularity. “Our Pinot Noir really took off. I make a bolder style (think Russian River Valley style) and it sells out immediately. That’s why I jokingly say we should have planted the whole thing to Pinot Noir!”. They also produce Sauvignon Blanc and have recently added a Semillon/Sauvignon blend named “Unity” to the portfolio.
Always the scientist ready to experiment, he also makes a Fortified wine, but not a dessert wine as most of us are used to drinking. When it was released in 2018, it was the first of its kind in Canada if not North America. “The Fortified wine is unique in that is made from Pinot Gris grapes. It is produced in a Tawny Port style. The reason for using Pinot Gris is that it has colour, is quite an aromatic variety and has thick skins which contributes phenolics to balance the residual sugar. I use locally produced Brandy Spirit to stop ferment and fortify the wine.”
For each of the varietal wines (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc), Scott produces 3 different tiers: Silver, Gold and Platinum. Every wine is 100% varietal but the style, textures and ageability change depending on the tier. For example, the Silver Chardonnay is more fruit forward, meant for drinking now, fermented approximately 50% in stainless steel and barrel with just a small percentage of new oak, and are in barrel for 6 months prior to bottling. It’s a wine he describes as the one to lure ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) drinkers back who were put off by a singular perceived style that are associated with the grape: big, buttery oak bombs from California.
As you move into the next two tiers, the Gold and Platinum are 100% barrel fermented, use only estate fruit, and are in barrel for up to 16 months. The result is riper fruit characteristics, greater texture that comes from the lees contact, and more new oak while still maintaining acidity, fruit and ageability.
The Platinum tier represents Scott’s ultimate expression of the specific varietal in a particular vintage. As a result, he only makes 50-100 cases a year and won’t make it at all if it can’t meet the winery’s goal. “The Gold tier is really the driving force for the brand as a whole which is to represent varietal characteristics, fruit intensity, and balance.”
While balance is fundamental as an objective for his wines, acidity is his focus. “That’s what the Okanagan is known for so I’ll always really want to showcase that in both my whites and reds. The key, particularly with barrel fermented and aged wines, is to maintain that acidity level so that it’s still there.”
A few years ago, the winery acquired land to the south in order to plant more Pinot Noir.
They planted those 4 acres with 5 different clones. This summer they’re planting 2 leased vineyards to Pinot Noir and another property with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Once all these vineyards are producing fruit, Little Engine will have 13 different clones of Pinot Noir, far more than anyone else in the Okanagan.
Why plant so many different clones? Complexity. “The more clones I have, the more characteristics I have when it’s time to blend. My basic philosophy when making wine is to create as many components as I can at harvest so when it comes time to blend, I have more components to play with and that’s where the art comes in. Even if it’s just a varietal wine, I’ve blended from different vineyard sites, different fermentations with different yeasts, different cooperages, different techniques. My harvest is very complex because it makes my job easier come blending time and that’s what I see as the key to making these types of wines.”
In the vineyard, Scott is aiming for fruit concentration above all else. “We’re cropping the yields quite low. For Chardonnay you can easily grow 6 to 7 tons per acre, we’re doing 3 to 3 and a half. Merlot is the same. Pinot Noir we do 2 tons per acre which fits with our fruit concentration objective. The more concentrated fruit, particularly in the Chardonnay, the more balance with oak. I can use more new oak to get more spices and complexities with more concentrated fruit.”
In the winery, he doesn’t use a crusher, and doesn’t pump must. After de-stemming, the reds go straight into 1-ton fermenters so he’s working with lots of small batches. Fermentation is 100% natural with no commercial yeast added. All that hard work despite knowing he’ll never be completely satisfied: “What I love about winemaking is that you’ve never made your best wine. I haven’t made it yet, and I never will.”
Little Engine Wines is still relatively young, but it is already making its mark with Scott at the winemaking helm. Fifteen years into his second career, he feels like he’s just getting started. For anyone doubting the future success of Little Engine…we definitely think it can.
2017 Little Engine Silver Chardonnay
Intense flavours of citrus fruits are delivered on a lean frame with juicy acidity that puts emphasis on the mineral notes. Grapes are picked on a variety of dates from mid-September to early-October. The acid from the early pick dates brings tension while the later dates give the wine its body and the net result is a fine balance.
Very Good/Excellent ($30 at the winery)
2017 Little Engine Gold Chardonnay
Estate fruit cropped to a measly 3 tons per acre generate impressive concentration. Apple and melon notes are layered over a rich texture and medium acidity that reminds us of some of the Chardonnay from the better regions of Sonoma. The finish is long and nicely punctuated with green apple and mineral notes.
Excellent ($57 at the winery)
2018 Little Engine Unity
Semillon dominates with 35% Sauvignon Blanc blended in. Notes of honeycomb combine with a subtle waxy texture that evokes richness. 100% barrel fermented in used puncheons, this gives the wine a precise balance.
We love the complexity of this wine with its notes grapefruit and pear and even hints of lemongrass coming through on the finish.
Excellent ($37 at the winery)
2018 Little Engine Silver Pinot Noir
Ripe morello cherry gets plenty of added complexity from the earth and mineral notes. Medium body with medium+ acidity, this is a Pinot with presence that commands your attention. Fermented with native yeasts and de-stemmed before vinification, this wine has good structure for short term cellaring. It takes a talented hand to make good Pinot in the Okanagan, and this Pinot is a testament to that talent.
Very Good/Excellent ($40 at the winery)
2018 Little Engine Gold Merlot
Black cherry notes get added support from hints of spice cake. There is great concentration of fruit here which can handle the firm tannic structure. With a bit of swirling some earthy notes come out. There is a lavishness to the texture, almost plush. We can imagine this would go great with any grilled meat. A Cabernet-lovers Merlot!
Excellent ($57 at the winery)
851 Naramata Road
Penticton, BC Canada
June 14, 2020
I was just learning so much about the Finger Lakes and how they plant near the lakes as this helps to temper the cold in the winter. I see a lake in the background here. Does this region work in the same way, with vineyards gathered near the lakes?
June 15, 2020
The Okanagan Valley covers quite a large area but yes, there are lots of examples of vineyards planted near the lakes in this part of the region. Also makes for a stunning backdrop (more to come with future posts)!
June 11, 2020
What an invigorating story. I enjoy reading about people who make the decision to change things up! Intrigued by the fortified wine and also the number of PN clones. I get what he says about having more to work with come blending time. Betting fantastic PN is in store!
June 11, 2020
When you come back to the region, we’ll meet you there and do a proper tasting. We think you’d love their wines!