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April 30, 2024

Naramata Bench: Okanagan Valley’s sweet spot?

Rod Phillips on a special part of a special Canadian place.

By Rod Phillips

There’s something very special about the Naramata Bench sub-region on the southeastern side of British Columbia’s Lake Okanagan, says Rod Phillips.

British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, Canada’s second largest wine region in terms of production, is being divided into sub-appellations—a process that is likely to go on for some time. In contrast to Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula—Canada’s most productive region, where years of research into its climate and geography led to the creation of ten sub-appellations in one fell swoop in 2012—BC’s wine authorities have adopted the bottom-up approach: Groups of wineries can apply to have their region designated a sub-appellation based on its being geographically distinct, having clearly defined boundaries, and having reached a commercially viable level of production. 

To date (December 2023), 11 sub-appellations have been created within the Okanagan Valley appellation. In the north, sub-appellations lie in cool growing conditions, where varieties such as Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Riesling flourish. In the south, where the climate is warmer and drier—there is even a desert—the dominant varieties include Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, and Chardonnay.

Naramata Bench sub-appellation, created in 2019, lies about midway along the Okanagan Valley appellation, at the southern end of Okanagan Lake. It has been called “the sweet spot,” and there really is something special about Naramata Bench, which stretches 15 miles (25km) along the eastern side of the lake. Some 620 acres (260ha) of vines are distributed among a little more than 50 wineries, giving Naramata Bench greater winery-density than anywhere else in British Columbia. Overall, these wineries produce a broad range of wines at an impressive level of quality. While wineries from some sub-appellations will need to include “Okanagan Valley” on their labels for quite some time, so that consumers know where the wine is from, Naramata Bench is quickly becoming a standalone brand.

Some wineries not physically located on Naramata Bench also source grapes grown in the sub-appellation, and the Mark Anthony Group, which owns six wineries in Okanagan Valley, has a 90-acre (37ha) vineyard called Naramata Ranch, planted mainly to Pinot Noir. Here, we will largely focus on wineries located in the Naramata Bench sub-appellation and the wines they make from Naramata Bench grapes. But it is worth noting that some of the finest wines made by wineries elsewhere in Okanagan Valley use grapes grown on Naramata Bench—the Mark Anthony Group, for example, uses Naramata Bench fruit only for its upper-tier wines.

Naramata Bench climate and the effects thereof 

As it is everywhere, skilled winemaking is key to success, but vineyard location and climate are the essential starting points. Naramata Bench occupies a clearly distinctive area when viewed from the lake, a series of promontories ending in bluffs that fall between 50 and 100ft (15–30m) to the water. A bird’s-eye view shows a series of short headlands and coves, as if molten land had flowed into the lake—this was, in fact, the bed of what was once a broader lake. It is a classic bench in geographical terms: a long, narrow, flat or gently inclined strip of land, with steeper slopes above and below it. As the land runs back from the lake, it rises gently in irregular contours, then more dramatically for a mile or so. Winemaker Ross Baker at La Frenz Winery describes his Desperation Hill Vineyard, which has a 35-degree slope, as “a calf-burner.”

Okanagan Lake is one of the main influences on the climate here. Some 84 miles (135km) long and 2.5–3 miles (4–5km) wide, it is a deep body of water created by repeated glaciations. Its maximum depth is about 750ft (230m), but even close to land the water is often 330ft (100m) deep. Almost predictably, there are long-standing stories of a monster, known as Ogopogo, dwelling in the lake’s murky depths. But although Ogopogo surfaces in some tourist literature, he or she is not taken seriously enough to warrant the kind of perpetual investigation that the putative inhabitant of Loch Ness has inspired.

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Okanagan Lake remains relatively warm even in winter, and it is a moderating influence on vineyards throughout its length, especially those close to the shore. That includes those on Naramata Bench, some of which are planted as close as a few feet from the edge of the bluff. Throughout the year, breezes from the lake provide good airflow through the vineyards and help minimize vine diseases. Stand in a vineyard and look toward the lake, and you can feel on your face the steady breeze that inspired the name of one Naramata Bench winery: Lake Breeze Vineyards.

The lake effects are less pronounced in districts farther away from the water, of course, and there is a general distinction between the “lower” and “upper” bench, with the dividing line being Naramata Road, which cuts through the sub-appellation in a general north–south direction. Wilbert Borren—who, with his wife Joka, runs Four Shadows Vineyard and Winery on Upper Bench Road—is skeptical about the influence of the lake on his vines. “We all say we get the lake effect,” he says, “but you’ve got to wonder about it.”

“Upper” in Naramata Bench is relative; we are not talking altitudes of Andean proportions but rather a matter of a few hundred feet. Even so, the lower districts closer to the lake are somewhat cooler, and the vineyards are planted on soils that were once the bed of the broader lake. The higher vineyards are planted on rocky soils and tend to be a little warmer. But it’s important to remember that Okanagan Lake is 1,120ft (342m) above sea level, making the “elevated” vineyards at 1,800ft (550m) above sea level not so much higher than the lake itself.

That said, being on the east side of the lake, Naramata Bench as a whole benefits from exposure to the late afternoon sun. That’s especially true of the west-facing vineyards, but the topography is so broken that some vines face north and others face south. Shane Munn—winemaker at Martin’s Lane, a highly regarded winery outside Naramata Bench and part of the Mark Anthony Group—says the Naramata Ranch vineyard “is easily our most diverse site, in terms of a vast range of elevation, aspect and soils in particular.”

Naramata Bench is also sheltered by the granite mountains that lie on its eastern border. The region has 1,350 growing degree days (GDD)—more than the vineyards at higher elevations in Lake Country sub-appellation at the northern end of Okanagan Lake (1,245 GDD) but considerably fewer than Osoyoos sub-appellation in the south, which has 1,641 GDD.

The advantages of Naramata Bench’s location were clear in the 2023 harvest. In much of Okanagan Valley, there was vine damage from very cold temperatures during the preceding winter, and yields were generally down by a third to a half. But “Naramata Bench, with its proximity to the lake, elevation that allows air drainage, and soils, was largely spared,” says Colin Ross, who handled media relations for Tightrope Winery and the Naramata Bench Wineries Association. “For example, at Tightrope Winery our volumes are good—on par with an average year—and the quality of the fruit has been outstanding. This seems to be the same for most vineyards on the Bench.”

His point is echoed by Shane Munn at Martin’s Lane: “To my mind, one of the very positive things about our Naramata Ranch site, given the variable quality of recent vintages, is how consistent it is as a site, even in tough vintages. Two of the last three were severely affected by extreme cold in winter that severely affected yields, which were very low in the two seasons. But our Naramata Bench site, while admittedly seeing reduced yields, has not been as affected as other sites—something I attribute to the sheltered nature of the site.”

A notable feature of Naramata Bench is the range of grape varieties planted. The most common are Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Merlot, but there are dozens of others, and the wines tasted for this article included Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Barbera, Syrah, Pinotage, Semillon, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, and Roussanne.

The grapes of choice on Naramata Bench

A wide range of varieties is not uncommon in Canadian wine regions, especially new regions where varieties and sites have yet to be matched, and it’s a matter of debate whether Naramata Bench should focus on a few key varieties. Some winemakers think they should, while others are prepared to embrace any variety that performs well in the area. Elise Martin, operations manager at La Frenz Winery, says their five Naramata Bench vineyards comprise many microclimates and that their experience enables them to do all their nine varieties “very, very well.” She adds, “If we weren’t able to, we wouldn’t.”

In contrast, Nathan Todd of Foxtrot winery votes for a narrower range: “Just because we can grow all these varieties, it doesn’t mean we should.” As for the varieties Naramata Bench should focus on, he says, “I don’t know if it’s one variety or two. But it’s not 20.” And then there’s varietal politics. Rebecca Mikulic, one of the owners of Three Sisters Winery, notes that “having a focus would be great, but you’ll never get 50 wineries to agree.”

In other cases, nature is dictating the choice of varieties. At Three Sisters Winery, for example, Malbec and Zinfandel vines died. But within the range of varieties that perform well, most wineries have selected those with which they want to be identified. One of the wineries that was established earliest in the region is Nichol Vineyard & Estate Winery, which has long—“long” meaning for three decades—been known for its fine Syrah wines. Their original vines, dating from between 1989 and 1991, included the first Syrah known to have been planted in Canada. Ungrafted, they are still in production.

Nichol Vineyard, now in the hands of owner-winemaker Ross Hackworth, produces a wider range of impressive wines, all sourced from vineyards no farther than about 985 yards (900m) from the winery. The non-Syrah wines include a racy Pinot Noir/Pinot Meunier traditional-method sparkling wine that spends five years on lees, herbal Pinot Noirs (including an Old Vines Pinot Noir from vines planted in 1991), quite austere Pinot Gris, elegant Cabernet Francs, and an attractive, slightly gamey St Laurent (from 1989 vines).

If Nichol has opted for Syrah as its signature variety, Foxtrot Vineyards started with 4 acres (1.6ha) of Pinot Noir, planted in 1997 and 1998. Three changes of ownership later, Pinot Noir is still the focus, now along with Chardonnay. Nathan Todd, a co-owner and president of Foxtrot, says he “didn’t just want to own a winery but wanted a place to showcase Pinot Noir,” which he “has a hunch” is the variety that Naramata Bench should be focusing on. Todd’s passion for Burgundy is shared by his partner in Foxtrot, Douglas Barzelay, who, with Allen Meadows, wrote Burgundy Vintages: A History from 1845 (2018). 

Also inspired by Burgundy, Todd is looking for the expressions the variety develops in the varied conditions of Foxtrot’s vineyards—which comprise, he says, “a dog’s breakfast of soils.” Reflecting this, in 2020 Foxtrot produced five different Pinot Noirs, each in small lots. It’s echoed at Martin’s Lane, whose Naramata Ranch, mainly planted in Pinot Noir, has 42 individual blocks and where winemaker Shane Munn has bottled a single-vineyard and two single-block Pinot Noirs from the “near perfect” 2022 harvest. In the same vein, Scott Robinson, winemaker at Little Engine Wines, draws on 13 clones of Pinot Noir and vinifies them in small lots, because “I like to have as many pieces as possible to work with.”

Pinot Noir is a key variety in Naramata Bench. It’s made in a number of styles—from light and restrained, to more generous and flavorful—but they have in common bright acidity and good balance. An emphasis on Pinot Noir is not peculiar, however, to Naramata Bench: Pinot Noir is a close second to Merlot as the most planted grape variety in British Columbia as a whole.

Meanwhile, Terra Vista Vineyards, in the southern end of Naramata Bench, has carved out an Iberian niche for itself by planting Albariño and Verdejo in 2008, followed by Garnacha and Mencía (Canada’s first plantings), as well as Viognier, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. Albariño and Verdejo make up one third of production, and blends carry the names Fandango and Figaro. Winemaker Nadine Kinvig makes a range of white wines characterized by focused fruit, balance, and vibrant acidity.

The multiplicity of orientations and soil conditions in Naramata Bench encourages the production of small-lot wines from selected sites—a tendency that has led to the successful cultivation of such a wide range of grape varieties. Counterintuitively, this could become a distinguishing feature of the region, with the variety of wines reflecting the great variety of growing conditions. 

Ben Bryant and Katie Truscott of 1 Mill Road. Photography courtesy of 1 Mill Road.

Naramata Bench: A maturing region

The idea of making wine on Naramata Bench has attracted both longtime residents and newcomers. The name of Deep Roots winery, where the estate Hardman Vineyard runs down to the edge of the bluff above Okanagan Lake, refers not only to the vines planted in the clay and loam soils but also to the fact that the Hardman family, which owns the winery, has farmed there for more than a century. Winemaker Will Hardman is the fourth generation on the land.

Originally growers who sold grapes to wineries, the Hardmans took the plunge and opened their own winery, with their first vintage in 2012. They now farm 20 acres (8ha) on Naramata Bench: the 9-acre (3.6ha) Hardman Vineyard planted to Muscat, Gamay, Merlot, and Malbec, and the Rayner Vineyard (which they have farmed for 40 years) to Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Malbec, and Syrah.

In contrast, Domaine Roche declares that it has “deep roots in French tradition.” One owner/winemaker is Dylan Roche, a native of Vancouver who was a bicycle mechanic in Beaune before studying viticulture and winemaking there and working in Burgundy, New Zealand, and Bordeaux. The other is his partner, Pénélope Roche, who is from the family that owned Château Les Carmes Haut-Brion in Pessac-Léognan for six generations. She studied in Bordeaux and worked in New Zealand, Spain, and Australia before coming to Naramata Bench.

Domaine Roche has two organically farmed vineyards, purchased in 2014 and 2016, which are planted to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Pinot Gris, Viognier, Gewürztraminer, Schönberger, and Zweigelt. All their wines, except for their Bordeaux red blend, are single-vineyard, and they aim for a style that Dylan Roche describes as “not too bold but in the middle zone of power.” They make several different bottlings of Pinot Noir, all in a style that highlights complexity, balance, and texture.

Another outsider is Ben Bryant, an Australian who was chief winemaker with Pernod Ricard there before moving in 2018 to Okanagan Valley to be vice president of winemaking for the Mark Anthony Group, based at Mission Hill Family Estate Winery. Two years later, he established 1 Mill Road Winery with his partner Katie Truscott. The cellar is located in the Naramata Wine Vault, a facility opened in 2018 to provide smaller wineries a place to store barrels of wine in temperature-controlled conditions so as to free up space in their own cellars. 1 Mill Road sources some grapes from outside Naramata Bench, but its impressive Pinot Noirs are mostly from its own Home Block and from the 4-acre (1.6ha) Black Pine Vineyard at the northern end of the Naramata Bench.

As for the style of wines produced on Naramata Bench, they vary immensely. In general, there’s a good line of natural acidity in all, making them refreshing, but occasional hot vintages—such as 2021, when a “heat dome” in late June and early July brought temperatures of 110–120°F (mid- to high 40s C)—are challenging. But overall, Naramata Bench producers aim to exploit the natural acidity the area promotes. At Tightrope Winery, winemaker Lindsay O’Rourke points to the 36°F (20°) diurnal range during the growing season and says she aims for a “restrained style” in her wines. Matt Mikulic at Three Sisters winery also highlights the acidity in his wines but says, “We can’t make just acid-bombs.” Little fear of that, it seems, as the acidity in these Naramata Bench wines is consistently well calibrated to the fruit.

Some producers do set out to make more robust wines. At Little Engine Winery, co-owner Steve French says he goes after a robust style in his upper-tier Pinot Noirs; while his Silver-tier Pinot Noirs see no new oak, the Gold and Platinum tiers do. “People come to the winery and want a big red,” he says. “And we export to Alberta [the neighboring province], where they know one thing: beef and red wine.” Even so, Little Engine’s flavorful Pinot Noirs retain balance and good structure along with their generosity of fruit. A bigger-bodied effort is Little Engine Union 2020, a blend of Merlot, Malbec, and Cabernet Franc, with some of the Cabernet Franc sourced from vineyards off Naramata Bench.

Naramata Bench wineries are so young that almost all have opened since 2000. It’s early, then, to test the ageability of the wines. Tastings for this article included a number of wines that reached back several years. Little Engine Platinum Pinot Noir 2017 was in perfect condition, with no hint of tertiary flavors, as was Little Engine Gold Merlot 2017. Foxtrot Henricsson Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, brick orange in color, showed only a hint of age and remained very elegant, with gorgeous fruit; Hillside Winery Dickinson Vineyard Merlot 2016 is fresh and lively, while Nichol Vineyard Cabernet Franc 2015 is drinking beautifully, with the slightest trace of age.

The wines can evolve nicely, then, but what about the sub-appellation itself: How will it evolve? Undoubtedly there will continue to be changes of ownership, as there have been in the past few years, but it’s hard to see new wineries opening in the foreseeable future. Climate change, with extremes of heat and cold, has introduced a volatility to harvests that might well curb enthusiasm for new ventures here, as elsewhere. The range of varieties might narrow, but it seems more likely that a few will continue to dominate production and that many more—those that perform well in specific sites—will be high-quality outliers. As the initial excitement of becoming a new sub-appellation ebbs, Naramata Bench is settling confidently into its already solid reputation as a maturing region known for excellent wines. 

The welcome at Tightrope Winery. Photography courtesy of Tightrope Winery.

Notable wines from the Naramata Bench

Domaine Roche Vig Len’s Cuvée Pinot Noir 2020

A small lot of clone 828 aged 14 months in Burgundy barrels. It shows finely nuanced and well-focused fruit and top notes of spice, with perfectly calibrated acidity. | 95

Nichol Vineyard Old Vines Syrah 2021

From vines planted in 1991, aged 24 months in puncheons, this is unfined and unfiltered. Richly aromatic, with dark berry and herb flavors supported by finely tailored acidity. | 95

Foxtrot Estate Pinot Noir 2020

Made from clone 115, with 14 months in barrel (25% new), this delivers impressive structure, fruit complexity (red and black cherry to the fore), with fine tannins. | 95

Moraine Estate Winery Pinot Noir Reserve 2020

From 17-year-old vines and matured 11 months in French oak, this is a lovely Pinot Noir in a lighter style, with solid flavors of red fruit and herbs, and bright acidity. | 94

1 Mill Road Winery Black Pine Pinot Noir 2022

An elegant wine aged 9 months in used oak, this is replete with luscious flavors of cherries and ripe red berries, with top notes of spice, all supported by fresh, clean acidity. | 94

Little Engine Wines Platinum Pinot Noir 2020

This is a Pinot Noir in a more generous style that surrenders nothing in the way of structure and balance. It has well-defined fruit, balanced acidity, and very good tannic structure. | 94

La Frenz Winery Reserve Vivant 2021

A blend of Viognier, Roussanne, and Chardonnay, and reminiscent of a Rhône white, this is quite rich and opulent, with good palate weight and bright acidity. | 93

Tightrope Winery Fleet Road Vineyard Barbera 2021

From 2007 vines and aged 12 months in French oak, this delivers across the board: lovely layered fruit, with balanced, bright acidity. | 93

Hillside Winery Mosaic 2016

A blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec, this is richly flavored, well layered and structured, still with some grip in the tannins. | 93

Joie Farm En Famille Pinot Noir 2020

A single-vineyard Pinot Noir aged ten months in oak, this shows an aromatic nose and generous fruit led by red and dark cherries with herbal top notes, paired with fresh acidity. | 93

Lock & Worth Winery Apricot Hill Vineyard Merlot Rosé 2022

A richly expressive, single-vineyard (planted 2005), whole-cluster rosé, unfined and unfiltered, aged six months in puncheons. | 93

Upper Bench Estate Winery Altitude 2019

A blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Merlot, this delivers layered fruit, with crushed berries and red fruit to the fore. Well-pitched acidity for a slightly juicy texture. | 92

Deep Roots Winery Syrah 2020

With 5% Viognier, this delivers dark fruit and berry, along with herbal and spicy notes. Good palate weight and an attractive texture, with some juiciness. | 92

Laughing Stock Vineyards Blind Trust White 2022

Two thirds Sauvignon Blanc and one third Semillon, made in oak and stainless steel, this lovely wine is taut, almost austere, with well-defined fruit paired with vibrant acidity. | 92

Lake Breeze Vineyards Riesling 2018

Dry without crossing the line to austere, this shows delicious, layered fruit, with an attractive diesel note, nice palate weight, and bright acidity. It’s aging quite elegantly. | 91

Three Sisters Winery Rebecca Sparkling Wine 2019

Made from Chardonnay (90%) and Pinot Noir (10%) by the traditional method, this shows lovely fruit (citrus, apples), a delicate mousse, and fine, streaming bubbles. | 91

Four Shadows Vineyard & Winery Merlot Reserve 2019

A lovely cool-climate Merlot, with a rich, nuanced texture and well-defined flavors of red fruit and crushed berries; all backed by well-tailored acidity. | 91

Elephant Island Winery Cabernet Franc Reserve 2017

Made from the best barrels of the vintage, this is a fairly austere Cabernet Franc, with well-focused fruit, notes of tobacco leaf, good acidity, and a light tannic grip. | 91

Black Widow Winery Hourglass Reserve 2020

A blend of 75% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon grown at a higher elevation, this shows well-layered flavors (dark fruit, crushed berries, spice) with well-balanced acidity. | 91

Terra Vista Vineyards Albariño 2021

A single-vineyard, stainless-steel-matured, 100 percent Albariño that shows defined peach and nectarine fruit, with good palate weight and bright, vibrant acidity. | 91

Poplar Grove Winery Three Roses Pinot Noir Rosé 2022

Salmon/copper in color from three hours’ skin contact, this attractive dry rosé delivers layered sweet and sour cherry flavors backed by bright acidity. | 91

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