We recently had the pleasure of discovering an innovative new wine project that is producing a delicious port style dessert wine. This wine is called Rara Avis, a Latin term meaning “rare bird”. This project was developed right in our own backyard: British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley.
Igor and Margarita Valou settled in British Columbia over 30 years ago. They are lovers of nature and things of beauty and in 2016 acquired 165 acres in the Creighton Valley, a secluded region just east of the northern reaches of the Okanagan. One year later, they began planting 40 of those acres and committed to organic agriculture. They are custom crush clients of Kalala Organic Estate Winery, in nearby Kelowna for the production of their wine.
Our friends at Town Hall Brands introduced us to Margarita and Igor. Town Hall has done the packaging for Rara Avis and what a job they have done! To our eyes they’ve captured the soul of this wine in the look that is presented. The deep blue label with gold accent features a hummingbird and represents those that are found throughout Echo Haskap farm.
The 2020 Rara Avis is the first vintage they have released and with only 250 cases made, this truly is a limited find.
It’s a rich and luxurious tasting dessert wine that comes across as quite similar to a ruby or vintage port wine: deep black and red fruit flavours, hints of fig and a slight warming effect from the higher alcohol. Similar to Port, this wine is fortified with distilled spirits that bring the alcohol content up to 18.5%.
What is remarkable about this wine is not only that it isn’t made in Portugal, but in fact it’s not made with grapes at all. This is a fruit wine made from the Haskap berry. To be completely honest, we’ve never encountered a fruit wine before that merited much of our attention. This was a total surprise to us as this is a high-quality dessert wine that comes across as very port-like.
Margarita told us a bit about this super berry and why BC is a good fit with respect to growing conditions: “Haskap [berries] have been cultivated and celebrated over the centuries in Japan, in the Hokkaido area and far eastern Russia. This is a berry that loves and thrives in cold weather…our farm location in the Okanagan (Creighton Valley), we have cold nights, cold winters and hot summers, and it seems like all these differences in temperature is very beneficial for the Haskap berry. Haskap is considered a super berry because it’s a very hearty plant, so it protects itself and has the strengths which it passes through its roots and stem.”
The Creighton Valley is about 25 kms east of the northern tip of Lake Okanagan so it doesn’t get the moderating influences on temperature that the properties along the Lake’s shore get. This is a continental climate area with cold Canadian winters and hot summers and the Haskap berry has no difficulty dealing with these climatic extremes.
“Not only did it survive the spring frost [last year], it’s actually the first berry of the season and has bud break before any other fruit. We have fields covered in snow and as soon as the snow melts, all of a sudden the whole field is blooming in yellow and golden colours; bloom comes right away, it happens really fast.”
This early budding fruit is also early ripening and harvest typically takes place in late June or early July. Brix is regularly measured in the vineyard so that harvest can take place at optimal ripeness. Their farm is fully certified organic and they employ practices that are FVOPA approved (Fraser Valley Organic Producers Association).
The Haskap berry has the same colour as a blueberry but is more elongated in shape. When you break open a blueberry, its juice is yellow in colour, whereas Haskap juice is red in colour. The Haskap berry also has terrific health properties as it’s high in antioxidants and anthocyanins, vitamins and minerals. They contain more vitamin C than an orange and almost as much potassium as a banana.
Margarita went on to explain some of the process behind the decision to make a fortified dessert wine as their first wine offering, “If you taste Haskap berries, you will experience the richness and complexity in taste that is very similar if you were to compare it to fortified port style wine. It’s a different intensity, richness of colour, [with a] complex taste. Together in collaboration with Kalala winery, we developed several blends first to see what kind of wine we would like to produce…once we tried this version, we all agreed that this is very representative of what Haskap is.”
As for the hummingbird as the chosen symbol for their wine, Margarita told us they are particularly present when the Haskap plants are in bloom. That and the fact that they represent “good luck, signify intelligence, beauty and devotion,” makes it a fitting image for such a special wine.
Deep red/purple in colour, not quite opaque. Intense blackberry and blueberry fruit with secondary notes of caramel and fig. This is like drinking a ruby or late-bottle vintage port. The texture is soft and round with an almost velvety plushness to the mouthfeel. There is a tangy zippiness that comes from the Haskap berry’s higher acidity which is a very attractive feature and keeps this sweet wine from being cloying. There are pepper notes on the long finish. Delicious and high class.
Very Good+/Excellent ($45 for the 375 ml bottle)