By Rick VanSickle

SUMMERLAND, B.C. — It is simply breathtaking, a stunning swath of wind-swept land as we look down the throat of the Garnet Valley from the highest point of the property on a perfect spring day. Wild flowers — from purple lupines to a riot of colours from daisies, fireweed and wild mustard— swing in the breeze, a breeze that never stands still. Horses with riders trundle on by, and everywhere, evidence of deer, coyotes, rabbits, rattlesnakes and marmots add to the natural cycle of life.

Garnet Valley Ranch

It is a self-contained environment, teeming with the flora and fauna, insects, birds and wildlife that are all part of the important symbiotic relationship for a healthy ecosystem.

It is here at the Garnet Valley Ranch, a sprawling and undulating 312 acres of beauteous and pristine ranchland in the heart of the Okanagan Valley, that the arduous task of planting up to 70 acres of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling has just begun. The rest of the property will be left as farmland and a nature preserve.

It is a bold move, an unproven piece of Summerland vineyard expanse, that Okanagan Crush Pad owners Christine Coletta and Steve Lornie hope will yield the kind of grapes they want to fulfil their dream as an organic winery making a portfolio of natural wines with grapes sourced from their own vineyards and farmed the way they want to farm it.

“We want to make our wine in the vineyard,” says Coletta.

“Our goal is to only have Summerland fruit, all organic, all made naturally without chemicals and additives. It’s about the flavour profile. We’re working hard to grow this fruit, so why hide it?”

That philosophy begins in the vineyard and ends in the bottle.

Switchback vineyard

It has taken four years to convert the home estate’s Switchback Vineyard (all Pinot Gris) to organic fruit and now, with the winery brimming with concrete fermenters — six 4,400-litre concrete tanks from Italy (weighing a total of 39 tons), six 2,000-litre black egg-shaped concrete tanks from Sonoma, and two 800-litre clay amphoras) — OCP is close to their to goal of eliminating stainless steel in their winemaking process. In fact, Coletta has put a moratorium on purchasing any more stainless steel and wants only concrete and neutral French oak 4,500-litre foudres for processing her wines.

“I’m more interested in natural winemaking. Everything is natural in the vineyard and I want to take that philosophy to the winery,” she says.

The idea of using concrete for fermentation comes from the winery’s consulting winemaker, Alberto Antonini, who uses the same tanks at his Poggiotondo winery in Tuscany, and is very impressed with the results.

OCP winemakers Michael Bartier and Matt Dumayne concur with the concept. Concrete had been used for centuries in winemaking, but was more or less abandoned with the arrival of stainless steel. These modern day concrete tanks take a forward-thinking approach to the Old World practice.

The team at Okanagan Cruch Pad Winery

“Okanagan Crush Pad is my first experience using concrete tanks, and I am very impressed with the results,” says Dumayne. “We now have just over 38,000 litres in concrete tank capacity. They have excellent fermentation kinetics such as temperature retention. The conical shape of the tank moves the fermenting juice around in a vortex, which produces wines with enhanced depth, complexity and roundness of tannins. We have found that the resulting wines have a complexity and an enhanced creamy mineral character.”

The Okanagan Crush Pad began life as a home for their flagship wines, Haywire and Bartier Scholefield, with a steady stream of custom crush clients designed to facilitate production of multiple small lots of wine from many different sources. Both parts of the business have been successful for Coletta and her husband, with 225 tonnes of grapes processed in 2011 and now at capacity with 450 tonnes processed in 2013 for OCP wines and six clients.

But, plans change as you grow and see beyond the vineyard growing in your own front yard. With the purchase and planting of the Garnet Valley Ranch, a short drive from the home winery, Coletta can clearly see a new day dawning for a winery that has a yearning to only process Summerland fruit, all organically farmed and all made naturally.

Haywire Pinot Noir

“Right now we are the tenants in the basement suite. We’re (eventually) going to move upstairs and take over the whole house,” she says.

The new biodynamic-organic Garnet Valley Vineyard, mapped out with an elaborate electro conductivity survey by “terroir” expert Pedro Parra of Chile, along with the 10 acres of Pinot Gris at the home Switchback Vineyard, will provide the fruit needed to be a self-contained 30,000 to 35,000 case production winery. There are already plans to expand the winery to accommodate the new estate fruit, which will come on stream in three or four years.

High-quality, organically-grown fruit is the core of the operation; it begins there, in the vineyard. Pinot Gris is currently the focus of the OCP (with sourced grapes for other wines) with expansion plans to include estate Pinot Noir, Pinot/Chardonnay bubbly, Riesling, rose and Chardonnay from the Garnet Valley Ranch.

Beginning with the 2011 vintage, all Haywire wines were  “raised in concrete,” as the label proudly displays, and all the wines use wild yeast and minimal sulphur.

Sampling a few wines at the vineyard

The 2012 Switchback Vineyard Wild Ferment “Raised in Concrete” is one of the best expressions of Pinot Gris I have tasted from Canada. It has a wild, feral nose of apple pie and ripe fruit with complexity and creaminess on the palate to go with weight and texture that fills the mouth.

That texture is a feature that runs through entire portfolio that Dumayne shows me. It’s all fruit-driven with little oak cluttering the profile, even for the red wines, like Pinot Noir.

“We like oak as a vessel,” he says. “But not for aging. Oak dries it out and it loses its fruit. That’s the opposite of what we are trying to achieve here. We want Okanagan fruit, purity of fruit, roundness and delicacy.”