Our first visit to Poplar Grove was back in 2002, when we went up to the Okanagan Valley for a weekend of winetasting with another couple. Our friends knew then proprietors, Ian and Gita Sutherland, and knew they had a guest house on the back of the property that they rented out. We arrived early and went to a local wine store to buy a bunch of bottles of Okanagan wines to try, as at that time we didn’t know a lot about the region and their wines. It was a beautiful afternoon, so we took about 6 bottles out on to the deck of the guest house along with a couple of glasses and opened them all up and started tasting.
Ian was working in the vineyard and looked over and saw these two visitors at his guest house with 6 bottles of wine open in the middle of the afternoon. We can only imagine what he thought! He gave us a look and then went back about working in the vineyard. We hadn’t yet met, but we figured that must be Ian. A little bit later when he walked past, we stopped him and asked if he was Ian. We introduced ourselves and started chatting. The conversation quickly turned to wine and he pointed to the ridiculous amount of open wine in front of us and asked what we were doing. “We want to get to know a little bit more about the wines of the Okanagan and we figured the best way was to open a few bottles. Care to taste with us?” He said sure, hopped the fence and joined us for an afternoon of tasting and wine education!
Our discovery back in 2002 was that the Okanagan was only making great wine in a few very select spots.
In general, our findings were that too much of the wine we tasted lacked depth in the mid-palate, lacked intensity, and particularly with the reds, showed under-ripe, “stemmy” characteristics. We shared our observation with Ian, and he agreed. He invited us down to his home to taste some of his Poplar Grove wine. He opened a bottle of his 1998 Cabernet Franc and a revelation was given to us. The wine was delicious! Rich and full, with good backbone, fully ripe and a pleasure to drink. We learned that afternoon that the Okanagan had the potential to make great wine. It just needed more Ians to do it!
Fast forward to 2020. Regular readers of this blog will now know that we have discovered some real gems in the Okanagan. (We look for the good ones. If we visit a winery and we’re not impressed with their wines, we just won’t write about them.) While there continues to be too many hollow wines that lack character produced in the Okanagan and sold at high prices, there are some great wines being produced here too, and Poplar Grove is certainly in that group.
In 2007, Ian sold Poplar Grove to Tony Holler. Tony (a friend and business associate of Chris’s) is an entrepreneur of boundless energy and enormous charisma. His first career was as a medical doctor, which is how he met his wife Barb, a nurse at UBC Hospital. Tony and Barb had built a summer home next to the Poplar Grove winery which is how they got to know Ian. Tony bought the winery with no real knowledge of making wine or running a winery. But he was a passionate wine consumer and collector.
He kept Ian on to show him the ropes and then Tony let his considerable natural entrepreneurial instincts take over from there. (Tony has founded and developed several medicine-related companies and taken them to great success.) Today, Poplar Grove produces about 36,000 case of wine per year and has 130 acres of estate vineyards to supply his winery. This makes Poplar Grove among the biggest of the artisanal wineries.
We spent two very enjoyable hours tasting with Tony and hearing the Poplar Grove story right from the man who made it what it is today. Our tasting was at the stunning winery and tasting room and restaurant that sits on a perch overlooking beautiful Okanagan Lake in the southern half of the Valley. The tasting room has soft, curved lines that present a modern, clean look. The wall facing the lake is floor to ceiling glass giving tasters a spectacular view of the lake and the valley. Adjacent to the tasting room is the restaurant, a beautiful indoor/outdoor affair with gorgeous views of their Pinot Gris vineyard that slopes down toward the lake. We had lunch there the day before and loved the Mediterranean style food that was both delicious and very fairly priced.
Tony is quick to credit those who have helped make Poplar Grove a success, rather than basking in the limelight himself. Regarding Ian Sutherland Tony told us, “You’ve got to hand it to Ian, he had no technology and he made fantastic reds from ’95 on. He had no heating or cooling on tanks so he would literally move tanks in or out of the winery depending on the temperature. There were no alarms on your iPhone back then that would tell you the temperature on your tank. We have a huge advantage now in that technology has come so far. Our winemaking team all have iPhone which are hooked up to the whole winery so they can set up notifications for whatever they want.”
Winemaking happens under the watchful eye of Stefan Arnason. “One of the best moves I made as a neophyte buying his first winery was to keep Stefan on. It was an easy choice. Stefan trained under Ian and together they produced some amazing wine. He has been with us through every vintage, and each year his knowledge of the vineyards and what they are capable of producing gets deeper and deeper. I am so proud of how he has taken the quality of our wines up. And I know Stefan has not made his best wine yet!” Stefan originally hails from Provence in France – no wonder his rosé is so good!
Alain Sutre, the famous Bordeaux wine consultant who counts Mouton-Rothschild as one of his clients, is another person Tony credits.
“We’ve hired high priced help both for the vineyard and for the winery. Alain was originally brought to BC by the Larose family to oversee the Osoyoos Larose project for Constellation Brands. He helps us in the vineyard and in the winery. I’ve been in wine tastings with him when we were doing our blending of the wines and he’ll say ‘that tastes fantastic, but the mid-palate lacks a bit. Right now it’s good, but it should be great 5 to 10 years from now. We’re just so lucky the Larose family hired him, if they hadn’t, he would have never been a consultant for some of the wineries here in the Okanagan and he’s a consultant for at least 5 wineries right now. He’s just brilliant!” (Alain Sutre also consults for Painted Rock, which we wrote about here).
Poplar Grove is truly a family affair with all four of their children now involved as well. “When we started this project, one of my sons was living in Amsterdam working for an NGO in Africa, another son was going to University in New Zealand, another son was going to University in Northern BC, another son was doing a marketing degree and none of them showed any interest except my youngest. Over the years, all of them have moved to the Okanagan and are involved in the business so every member of our family plays an integral part of the winery – Chris is the GM, Eric is with the Production Team under Stephan, Andrew and Matthew manage all the farms.”
Tony knows exactly the style of wine that he wants this family project to pursue. “I have a style of wine I love, and Poplar Grove matches it. We aim for that beautiful mouthfeel. We don’t want it thin, but we don’t want it thick either. That balance is so important. Whether it’s a Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon, I want that same element to come through: nice acidic backbone, fruit forward, whole palate, and…refreshing. Some people say red wines aren’t ‘refreshing’. Yes they are! Go to Bordeaux or Italy and taste their wines, they’re beautiful and they absolutely refresh your palate.”
2019 Poplar Grove Pinot Gris
The medium+ body provides good texture for this Pinot Gris and separates it from many wines in the Okanagan Valley, invoking thoughts of Alsace. We pick up notes of grapefruit, mineral, and hints of stone fruits. There is good back end acidity that keeps this wine fresh and well defined.
Very Good+ ($19 at the winery)
2019 Poplar Grove Viognier
Very true to the varietal, this Viognier shows plenty of apricot and peach notes. There is medium acid and medium+ body. The challenge when making a good Viognier is to be able to showcase the natural unctuousness that Viognier wants to show while preserving enough acid to keep it from being flabby. Poplar Grove achieves that task very well with this wine.
Very Good+ ($21.65 at the winery)
2019 Poplar Grove Rosé
This, to us, is just what a Rosé should be: fun to drink but serious enough to be more than just a cocktail wine. Malbec, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Franc are all blended together and each contributes something to the whole. We get fruit, strawberry and watermelon, minerals, good body and crisp acidity. Delicious.
Very Good/Excellent ($21.65 at the winery-this is particularly good value for this quality level)
2016 Poplar Grove Syrah
We have been hearing for years how Syrah might very well be the red grape of the Okanagan. We have seen few examples to convince of the merits of that thesis. This Syrah is an exception to the rule. Co-fermented with the skins from the Viognier batch, this wine presents a lovely mélange of dark red and black fruit flavours. There is a nice black pepper note on the back end that adds complexity and helps delineate. Subtle barrel notes produce hints of smoke and vanilla. There is a nice earthy component which adds complexity.
Excellent ($30.35 at the winery)
2016 Poplar Grove CSM
This is a blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot. Plum and black cherry dominate the profile. The texture is smooth and full. There is a hint of leafiness that provides a nice counterpoint to the fruit driven profile. The palate has really good texture and makes this wine very seductive.
Excellent ($30.35 at the winery)
2016 Poplar Grove Cabernet Franc
This wine was a show stopper! Super intense with notes of blueberry, red cherry, currant and spice. The palate is smooth and long and strikes just the right balance with structure and fruit in perfect proportion resulting in a gorgeous mouthfeel! Mineral notes pop through on the finish to add an extra point of interest.
2015 Poplar Grove Legacy
This is the wine that establishes Poplar Grove as one of the leading lights in the Okanagan Valley. We get waves of morello cherry, blackberry, and plum. The tannins are ripe and polished and the fruit is intense. The finish goes on and on. In combination these elements create a seductive mouthfeel and a delicious flavour profile.
Excellent+ (Wine club exclusive. Magnums available at the winery for $121.57)
425 Middle Bench Road
Penticton, BC Canada
Tel: (250) 493-9463
Tastings by Appointment