Phantom Creek Estates is the latest name to be added to the growing list of ultra-premium wine purveyors in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. We spent an afternoon touring the amazing facility with their CEO and then tasting with their winemaker. It was a great opportunity to get an inside look at this year’s most talked about winery in the Okanagan.
Phantom Creek Estates is the creation of Richter Bai, a Chinese entrepreneur who immigrated to Canada when his children chose to attend university here.
“Mr. Bai” as he was constantly referred to during our visit clearly had an objective in mind: to make the best with best. Mr. Bai has amassed some of the top vineyards in the south Okanagan and assembled a dream team to manage the operation, grow the grapes and make the wine. Finally, he has built a 78,000 square foot campus of buildings to make the wine and host his guests that takes opulence to a new level. Not only does this facility rival anything else in the Okanagan, it will impress regular visitors to the top tasting rooms along Napa Valley’s Highway 29.
Our tour and tasting of this extremely impressive facility was lead by Santiago Cilley, Phantom Creek’s CEO. Santiago is clearly up for the job.
He comes to Phantom after executive roles at Jackson Family Wines in California and Via Wines in Chile. He has a quiet confidence, the sort of sure-footedness that only comes through deep experience and knowledge. As we walk through the property Santiago tells us about Mr. Bai. “This is a project started by Richter Bai, a businessman originally from China and immigrated to Vancouver in 2011. He doesn’t come from wine but he had travelled to many top wine growing regions worldwide such as Burgundy, Bordeaux and Napa. He had an understanding as both a consumer and as a guest of what it feels like to experience a top Chateau.”
We see elements of many other top wineries we have visited in place at Phantom Creek; architecture that combines form and function: beautiful spaces that are comfortable and fulfill their purpose. “He brought in James Cluer, MW as a consultant. James recommended the Black Sage region of the Okanagan Valley. Eventually, Mr Bai purchased Phantom Creek Vineyard, which is across the road from the winery. It is the closest thing to a Grand Cru in Canada despite its short history.”
After that initial purchase, Mr. Bai assembled a total of close to 200 acres total over 5 South Okanagan vineyards. The vineyards are: Becker with 45 acres; Similkameen (Evernden Springs) with 60 acres; Kobau with 44 acres on Golden Mile bench; Phantom Creek Vineyard South and Phantom Creek Vineyard North with 15 acres each. All of the red wines come from estate fruit and only some of the white grapes are purchased from others. When the 60 acre vineyard in Similkameen Valley bears fruit it will become the home for white wine program and then all wines will be made from estate fruit.
It is quite remarkable to contemplate the scale of what he has accomplished in a short period of time. 200 acres is a lot of vineyard land to acquire, especially in the high-priced, highly sought-after South Okanagan. Designing and building an uber-impressive 78,000 square foot winery and tasting areas is also quite a feat. What is most remarkable is to contemplate that all of this was accomplished from a standing start in 2016.
In keeping with Phantom Creek’s pursuit of the very best, Santiago tells us about the winemaking team. “Around that same time during his trips Mr. Bai had met with Olivier Humbrecht of Alsace. With Pinot Gris being the most planted white variety in BC and Olivier’s reputation for Pinot Gris in Alsace, they struck a great relationship and with his help decided with the white wine to focus on Pinot Gris and Riesling. Today that’s our emphasis, Bordeaux reds from single vineyard expression and Alsatian whites. We also, just to showcase the place specifically, do Syrah and Viognier which both do really well here in the south Okanagan.”
Santiago has a warm personal style and is not given to boastfulness; this became apparent in his rather brief description of hiring Olivier Humbrecht.
Humbrecht of course, heads the ultra-premium Alsatian winery Zind-Humbrecht, known for making richly textured, very intensely flavoured white wines that are the darlings of collectors. It is hard to imagine a better hand with white wine than Olivier Humbrecht. He is also one of the world’s leading practitioners of Biodynamic farming, the sometimes-controversial practice of that goes beyond organic and treats the farm as a unified and integrated whole, where nothing from outside needs to be brought into the farm. (For more on Biodynamics, see our article here.) Phantom Creek has been practicing biodynamics since 2017 and hopes to become certified this year. Also on the consulting list, working with the reds, is Phillipe Melka. Melka is the uber-consultant from Napa Valley who in addition to his own wines under the Metisse label, consults for numerous cult wineries such as Hundred Acre, Cliff Lede, Lail, Moon Tai, and our personal favourite, Seavey.
The building at Phantom Creek is stunning.
There are two buildings, a semi-circular hospitality building that houses the main tasting room and several other smaller meeting rooms. Across the tree-lined walkway is the rectangular administration and production building. Next spring a restaurant is planned to open in this building. The buildings have a sand-coloured exterior that blends in with the unplanted hills running up behind the buildings. In front, on a downward slope are their vineyards. All of the interior spaces exude luxury and beauty, but at the same time are very functional. The rooms are spacious and calming and all face out on to the vineyard. It is an ideal environment in which to taste wine: comfortable, relaxing and devoid of distractions.
To say the buildings are impressive is to be guilty of gross understatement. To be honest, we get a little bit concerned when we see that much effort and expense go into a winery building. To us, the wine always has to come first. A beautiful tasting area is always a significant plus, but it had better not be a distraction from the quality of the wine.
Santiago brought in Phantom’s winemaker, Francis Hutt to taste through the line up with us. Francis hails originally from New Zealand and has made wines there as well as Australia, Oregon and Burgundy. We asked Francis what it was that attracted him to come all the way to British Columbia, “Part of the allure of coming to BC is being an avid traveller. I like the pioneering sort of spirit in the industry which is very similar to New Zealand. People here want to do the best that they can and are exploring things, the rules haven’t been defined as much as most other wine regions in the world. The intent to do what you can to make the best wine that you can is evident too. It was also a chance to move away from Pinot Noir, and on a deeper more personal level, my wife was born in Canada so it was a chance to let our young family know a little bit about their heritage.”
Francis has now developed a good understanding of the Okanagan terroir, “I was with Michael Bartier recently and we were talking about sub regions and he showed me a Pinot Noir and right away I knew it was young vines from a specific area…you’re starting to see this teasing out of the areas. John our vineyard manager has been farming on this bench here for 20 odd years and he knows this spot inherently. He knows that Syrah does well in this little pocket and if we replant, we should probably put this variety here. Those conversations are more deep and more factual amongst the other growers as well. I don’t worry about what’s going around us too much, just keep going and I think everyone’s headed in the right direction here. “
Francis went on to tell us: “The length of the season is here is really unique and that creates certain nuances in itself which is great. Syrah undoubtedly has a place in the Okanagan. But then when you come into these little microclimates here, the Petit Verdot and Cab is like, oh ok, this is fun, this is delicious stuff. And in the Northern Okanagan definitely not but they’ve learnt that lesson and people are replanting. The Rieslings coming out of the north are pretty cool but then we had an Albarino the other day out of Okanagan Falls that was probably one of the most solid white wines I’ve had. And there are these other little pockets showing up and starting to filter out and can’t wait for the next round of replanting to see what comes out.”
“It’s all about balance. We farm for balance and I think that’s where the biggest potential is with that middle bracket of wines, especially wines like our Petit Cuvee, making balanced wines.” Clearly Mr.Bai has made an investment (and a very large one at that) into the best of the best: his winery complex, his vineyards and his people. This is an important investment that will help to further put the Okanagan Valley on the world wine map.
2018 Phantom Creek Riesling
This beautifully detailed Riesling is likely to change the way many people think about Riesling from the Okanagan. Fermented fully dry with indigenous yeasts, we get notes of apple and pear that are delivered with intensity. Crisp and fresh, the acidity is very well-judged. The wine has a beautiful texture which gives it an Alsatian leaning in terms of style. The finish is long and juicy and shows a delicious minerality
Excellent ($30 at the winery – *this is particularly good value for this quality level)
2018 Phantom Creek Pinot Gris
Rich and sensuous, this wine gives up notes of honeydew, peaches and hints of guava in a very complex blend. Again, the texture is viscous which evokes Alsace and comes across as quite luxurious. Hints of spice can be found on the long finish.
Excellent ($30 at the winery)
2017 Phantom Creek Petit Cuvée
This is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon from various blocks across all of their estate fruits in the Southern Okanagan. Dark cherry with plum, this wine has quite a full body to go with its still tannic frame. Leafy notes add complexity and evoke Bordeaux in style. Coming across a bit youthful at this tasting, it is likely to really show what it has got in 3 to 5 years. We recommend decanting for an hour if serving now. Would be terrific with steak!
Very Good/Excellent ($40 at the winery)
2017 Phantom Creek Kobau Vineyard Merlot
Rich and dark, we get morello cherries, plum and black cherries that come across with intensity. Hints of dried herbs mix with spicebox notes create additional interest. The body and the tannins are both medium+. Masculine in style, this has a long finish and likely a long future in the cellar as well.
Excellent ($65 at the winery)
2016 Phantom Creek Cuvée Becker Vineyard
This is a Merlot-dominant blend that also has Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. This wine strives for elegance over power and delivers its dark cherry and plum flavours with polish and class. The body is medium/full and the tannins are smooth and ripe. Here the balance is very precise which adds to the considerable sense of class this wine possesses. Mineral and gravel notes come with some exposure to air. Delicious now, it is likely to improve for up to a decade in a cold cellar.
Excellent+ ($60 at the winery)
4315 Black Sage Road
Oliver, BC Canada
Tours & Tastings: 250-498-8367 ext. 1