Okanagan (3) Mission Hill with Ben Bryant

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Okanagan (3) Mission Hill with Ben Bryant

Mission Hill is possibly the most famous winery in Canada’s Okanagan Valley. It’s owned by Anthony von Mandl who made his money from the Mark Anthony Group. He purchased the property in 1981, and has gone on to transform it into one of the most impressive destination wineries in North America. Over this period, the Okanagan has grown considerably as a wine region. (See here for a fuller history of Mission Hill.)

I visited for the first time in 2014, and this visit, with chief winemaker Ben Bryant was my third. Over that time, I’ve seen quite a progression with the wines. Bryant arrived in 2018, having previously been chief winemaker with Pernod Ricard Australia, looking after brands such as Jacobs Creek and St Hugo. Back in 2017 Ben got a phone call from Mission Hill who were scouting. ‘I had zero knowledge of this region,’ he says. After a bit of discussion, they persuaded him and his wife to get on a plane and see for themselves, in the first week in December. It didn’t take them long to make up their minds, and they brought their young family over to the Okanagan to take up this fresh challenge.

Ben Bryant, chief winemaker, Mission Hill

‘What attracted me to this region is that I think there is a phenomenal opportunity here,’ says Bryant. The key to the opportunity in the valley is understanding the vineyards, and then expressing the fruit well in the winery, he says.

The Mission Hill museum of ancient vessels

So when he arrived in July 2018, he spent the first two months before harvest was to begin in the vineyards, getting to know the different blocks. He was impressed with the clonal selection. ‘A lot of good work had gone into that,’ he says. ‘For me it was about understanding the diversity of the sites we have.’

Of the Okanagan generally, Ben says, ‘There’s amazing opportunity and it’s largely untapped.’

Kurt Simcic, vineyard manager

The Mission Hill group includes Mission Hill, Martins Lane, Cedar Creek and Checkmate. The vineyards for the group come under the banner of Sebastian Farms. They therefore control all their own vineyards, which is important in the Okanagan. ‘There’s a lot of competition for fruit here,’ he says. ‘If we said no to fruit, they’d sell the fruit somewhere else, so the growers dictate what happens, such as yield, and you have to pay for it whether you like it or not.’

Importantly, they are also in the process of converting all their vineyards to organics. They hired New Zealand viticulturist Kurt Simcic to oversee this transition, and within two years they will be certified.

One of the issues Bryant sees in the Okanagan is the over-use of consultants. ‘Everyone uses consultants here. They are great, but in this region the personality is so diverse in such a small space, and consultants don’t see that.’ He adds, ‘If you can’t be a part of this place and be agile, the decisions you make might not always align with what the region is like.’

The tasting focused on the terroir collection wines, which aim to identify the best vineyards and do something really interesting with them. We also looked at the top range, the Legacy series. ‘We have a license to make single site wines that we sell out of here and to our members,’ says Bryant. ‘This is where the fun really begins.’

So what has Bryant changed? ‘We are working the reds at the right time when the alcohol isn’t there,’ he says, ‘and we are looking to get lower alcohols. We have shifted the way the ferments are managed, stepping away and being patient, allowing the wines to sit. Some leave them 50 days on the skins: you have some ugly phases on the way but eventually the tannins move into a seamless place.’ He says he’s also backing off new oak use, allowing the wines to be much more precise.

Mission Hill Terroir Series Simes Vineyard Riesling 2018 Okanagan, Canada
East Kelowna, steep block, clone 49 planted in 2008. Two picks in the vineyard. Very linear, bright and dry with lovely precision. No skin contact here, cool slow fermentation. Very linear with lovely purity. Has an amazing chalky texture with some saltiness, and very pure lime fruit. So transparent and laser sharp, with lovely detail and texture. So precise. 94/100

Mission Hill Terroir Series Bluebird Passage Viognier 2018 Okanagan, Canada
642 and FPS1 clones. Western side of the bench in Osoyoos: cold site because the sun disappears, even though it should be a warm site. Hand picked and then took multiple press fractions. Light solids, but split up those parcels into new and old French oak, concrete egg and stainless steel barrels. This is very stylish with nice detail and freshness, showing some apricot and lemon notes, a bit of honey, some stoniness and nice texture. Has a bright finish. 91/100

Mission Hill Terroir Series Jagged Rock Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2018 Okanagan, Canada
Black Sage bench. Second vintage of this wine, mainly from a high site with morning sun. But Ben Bryant found a lovely block of Semillon which was allowed to ripen a bit more and it had pink skins, and this has transformed the wine. This is 40% Semillon, 60% Sauvignon Blanc. Sauvignon in stainless and small French oak; Semillon stainless. Lovely complexity and depth here. Has freshness with some grapefruit and fine herbal notes, as well the mandarin richness. This has some richness, but also some delicacy. Has a beautiful delicacy and complexity, in large part derived from the Semillomn. 93/100

Mission Hill Terroir Series Jagged Rock Vineyard Chardonnay 2017 Okanagan, Canada
Clone 76. Hand selection of a stony block, fermented in 1800 litre foudres (first and second use) then blended. This is fresh but shows a bit of cedary, resinous oak, as well as bright, full pear and peach fruit kept fresh with some brisk citrussy notes. Has a nice savouriness and lovely fruit. Apparently the 2018 will be even better, a different vineyard, picked a little earlier, with more wild ferment, and slightly less overt oak character. 91/100

Mission Hill Perpetua Chardonnay 2017 Okanagan, Canada
This is in the legacy collection, and is Mission Hill’s hero Chardonnay. This is from Osoyoos and Naramata (20%). Fermented in a combination of French oak barrels. Quite focused and crystalline with nice lemon and grapefruit notes, as well as a bit of pear and white peach. Classy, linear and refined with nice texture and tightness. This is very sophisticated, and has moved away from the richer styles of the past. Has some crystalline fruit on the finish with a faint hint of toast. 94/100

Mission Hill Terroir Series Brigadier’s Bluff Rosé 2018 Okanagan, Canada
The most southern vineyard in Osoyoos. Blend of three varieties: Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah. Grown to be rosé so no leaf stripping. Picked, pressed and no pressure: allow the crusher rollers to dejuice. Lively and bright and delicate with nice precision to the subtle cherry and citrus fruit. Has lovely precision and focus with nice delicacy and a long, fine finish, with some salty, savoury hints and a tiny bit of crunch. Very stylish. 91/100

Mission Hill Terroir Series Fritzi’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017 Okanagan, Canada
From west Kelowna. Has an aromatic, slightly chocolatey nose, leading to a palate that’s dense and rich with nice spicy tannins, and a crunchy edge and some expressive chocolate and spice notes. Lush and sweet, but with structure. A very rich Pinot Noir, but it has lots of appeal. Could develop in interesting ways. 91/100

Mission Hill Prospectus Pinot Noir 2016 Okanagan, Canada
Part of the legacy collection. Blend of multiple vineyards, but most comes from East Kelowna. This is rich but also very fine with layers of different flavour. There’s some depth here with rich, sweet strawberry and cherry fruit, as well as a twist of blackberry, but also some nervy freshness and fine hint of green, as well as some oak character. There’s lovely balance and concentration. It’s sweetly fruited and generous, but quite serious with it. 94/100

Mission Hill Terroir Series Reed Creek Organic Merlot 2017 Okanagan, Canada
A unique vineyard just north of the golden mile, nestled between orchards like a dome. Lots of riverstones on alluvial clays. 181, 347 clones. French oak, 20% new, 16-18 months. Sweet and dense with lush yet fresh red and black fruits. Great concentration with resolved tannins and a little bit of spicy crunch. There’s a harmony to the fruit, but critically there is also freshness. Lovely balanced wine. 92/100

Mission Hill Terroir Series Border Vista Syrah 2017 Okanagan, Canada
In Osoyoos. Some whole bunch (about 30%), with destemmed fruit on top. Lush and sweet with nice cherry, plum and blackberry fruit. Has richness and there’s quite a seamless texture, with some creamy hints under the fleshy, generous black fruits. Ripe but still in balance. 91/100

Mission Hill Terroir Series Vista’s Edge Cabernet Franc 2017 Okanagan, Canada
On Black Sage road. One ferment had 49% whole bunch, and the other was destemmed, so the final wine is 20% whole bunch, 25% new French oak. ‘Cabernet Franc has an exciting future in the region,’ says Ben Bryant. This has lush blackberry and blackcurrant fruit with the rich, sweet fruit countered by some dry, crunchy tannins and a nice spicy, herby bite. Ripe but expressive. 92/100

Mission Hill Terroir Series Border Vista Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 Okanagan, Canada
Just four barrels made, from the south of Osoyoos. This is quite beautiful with sweet, supple, expressive blackcurrant fruit. There’s richness, but overall it is really fresh and delicious with nice weight but also balance. Good structure and concentration here: really satisfying stuff. 95/100

Bryant is redefining where the three Legacy red wines are going. ‘They are all red blends but they all need a unique personality,’ he says. ‘Compendium is Cabernet based, Quatrain is Syrah based and Oculus is Merlot based: I want to peel these wines apart through the varietal mix.’ In time, he wants to do something over the top of Oculus, probably more Cabernet led.

Mission Hill Compendium 2016 Okanagan, Canada
Cabernet driven. 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Cabernet Franc, 38% Merlot. 90% Osoyoos, 10% Oliver. This is really refined and harmonious with ripe, sweet cherry, blackberry and blackcurrant fruit, with smooth but present tannins and a very luxurious mouthfeel. It’s sweetly fruited and accessible, but there’s lovely layers of structures. Has real complexity and texture. Approachable now but with a bright future to it. This wine is all about precision in the vineyard and attention to detail. Natural fruit sweetness and a dancing texture; has width and also length. A step up for this wine. 95/100

Mission Hill Quatrain 2016 Okanagan, Canada
34% Syrah, 28% Franc, 31% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon. All from Osoyoos. This has great concentration and focus with sweet blackcurrant and blackberry fruit, with a slight saltiness. Lovely density with some nice tannins and a sense of freshness. A ripe wine, but one that’s balanced, with intense black fruits. Hints of pepper, too, and a bit of supporting oak. 94/100

Mission Hill Oculus 2016 Okanagan, Canada
Merlot 56%, 27% Cab S, 17% Cab F. Osoyoos (78%) and Oliver (22%). Fresh, supple, concentrated and layered with nice fine herbal characters sitting alongside lush blackberry and black cherry fruit. Fresh and refined with a slightly saltiness and some fine green hints, with a wall of lovely dense fruit. Such an exquisite, fresh wine with a bright future ahead of it. 95/100

Mission Hill Oculus 2017 Okanagan, Canada
49 Merlot, 26 Cab S, 25 Cab Franc. This is really focused and expressive with lovely blackcurrant and black cherry fruit, with nice focus and freshness. Currently showing a lot of fruit, with some nice structure. Has refined tannin with nice brightness and depth of fruit. This is still so primary now but will grow into a beautiful place. Give this time and it will be lovely. 95/100

Mission Hill Terroir Series Fritzi’s Vineyard Riesling Icewine 2017 Okanagan, Canada
Fermented in 100% new American oak. Beautiful aromatics here with melon, pear, peach and some lanolin notes. Great concentration and purity with some apricot detail on the palate, notes of spice and honey and vanilla, and lovely melon and pear. So beautiful. This has absorbed the oak completely. Not a typical ice wine, but with lovely complexity and extra dimensions. 95/100

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