All about the Naramata Bench Terroir: Part 1 of 3

Part 1 of 3: My Love of the Naramata Bench Terroir

When I was considering the move to Hillside from Mission Hill, I thought these people were insane, planting Malbec this far north in the valley. I knew how hard it was to ripen Bordeaux varieties, even as far south as Osoyoos. But I tasted the wines and was impressed… confused, but impressed. Spending the summer of 2009 on the bench, I got a sense of how we were able to achieve this level of ripeness. The Naramata bench, having a west-facing aspect, enjoys the latest sunlight possible in the evening, before the sun dips down below the mountain.

During these late afternoon hours, the sun reflects across the lake bathing the vineyards in sunlight from below. This gives an enhanced effect of photosynthesis and warms the soil. While their tannin structure is more elegant and refined than those of some “hot-pocket” reds, the flavour profiles of these wines exhibit complete ripeness, with well-balanced alcohols and acidity.

My love of the Naramata bench grew as I began to recognize the unique contribution of its soils to the wine. In 2010, I hosted a number of barrel tastings of Merlot, trying to tease out the flavour contribution from the soil. At that time we sourced our grapes from our own Hidden Valley vineyard, located in a heat-trapping bowl shaped valley behind the winery, three vineyards along the Naramata bench, and from a block in a prime Oliver location.

What we found was that all the wines were true to variety, having the soft jammy plum profile typical of merlot, yet each was different in some way. One of the older vineyard blocks had a savoury, soy note, with an intense umami aspect to the palate. Even the two blocks that face each other across Hidden Valley were different.

However, the Naramata Bench wines had a similarity that the Oliver wine did not share. Amidst the complex aromas in these four wines was an aroma strand that reflected the soil—a whiff of wet potter’s clay that leant a sophistication and finish to the wine. As I learned more about the geography of the bench—easy as our President Duncan McGowan is a geologist—these differences began to make sense.

During the last ice age, some 12000 years ago, an “ice dam” was formed between McIntyre Bluff and McIntyre canyon, at the north end of Oliver. This caused the lake levels of 3 lakes-Vaseaux, Skaha, and Okanagan-to rise, forming one large lake called
“Glacial Lake Okanagan”. What is now Naramata Road marked the shoreline of this lake.

Eventually the “ice dam” let go, somewhat cataclysmically, sending layers and layers of sand south from Oliver to the border in Osoyoos, forming the bluffs of the Naramata Bench and leaving a legacy in the soils.

“Above the road” soils are primarily sandy gravel, with some silt and clay due to seasonal flooding of the ancient lake, while “below the road” soils have greater clay and silt content, having constituted lake bottom. These terms have become part of the local winemaker/grower vernacular.

From this “fun barrel tasting” the Hillside Single Vineyard series was born, including small bottlings (less than 200 cases each) of single vineyard blocks. We are dedicated to expanding this program, letting the fruit dictate its direction and showcasing the distinct soil profiles of the region.

Our region and vines being so young, we are recognizing terroir differences and flavor complexity in the wines only as the vines come “of age”. Showcasing small lots of single vineyards which display unique and compelling characteristics affords the wine drinker the chance to share in the discovery and development of the Okanagan valley as a collection of serious terroirs.

In future newsletters we will explore the significance of appellations and geographic indicators and the journey to achieving the “Naramata Bench” sub-GI.

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Kathy Malone, Winemaker

Kathy Malone