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Phantom Creek Estates

by Katarina Polonsky

Looming from atop the hills of Oliver lies the region’s most majestic and ambitious vision. An architectural piece of art and enclave of Egyptian marble (preserved fossils intact), Phantom Creek Estates is a pioneering winery composed of multiple single-vineyard sites with a mission to bring richness to the Okanagan.

Owned now by Richter Bai, Phantom Creek Vineyard has been consistently recognized for producing some of the best wines in Canada. A former miner in China, the Bai family emigrated to Vancouver, British Columbia after falling in love with the region and its bounties. But it wasn’t all Bai’s touch that has brought Phantom Creek Estates to the forefront of North America’s wine trade. A viticulturist from Germany, Helmut Becker seeded the first vineyard in 1977 with over 30 European grape varietals over eight years, before Harry McWatters identified the vineyards potential for Cabernet varietals. Replanting the vines in 1993, this trend of discovery continued into 1996 with respected viticulturist pioneer Richard Cleave who added Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah to the mix, and the Jentsch family in 2005 who brought Viognier.

Evidently a place of potential and exploration, Phantom Creek Vineyard became branded as one of the “Top 10 Single Vineyards Around the World” by Wine Access Magazine as early as 2009, before Richter Bai, the current owner of Phantom Creek Estates as we know it landed to make his mark in 2015.  Now a 45,000-square foot winery, it was Bai who took the esteemed land built by his predecessors to new heights.  John Taft of Backen & Gillam Architects in California led the design behind Phantom Creek Estates Estates Winery, nestled on the Black Sage Bench overlooking panoramic views of the one time glacial age valley. The building is grand though a closer view shows the soft Egyptian limestone blending well with the desert landscape. As guests pass two towering angel sculptures, ‘Terra Natura’ (complemented by another, ‘Helios’ to signify the sun), they enter the tasting room which marks the front and center of the expanse. Natural materials of marble, bronze accents, rich leather and golden wood tones accent the clean lined and spacious room. The essence is that one can sip away at their wine whilst free to see the vineyards and feel mother nature’s elements beckoning outside on the overlooking patio.

But in all of his building, Bai has consistently maintained a meticulous focus on the wine he makes. To create Phantom Creek Estates Estates, Bai tracked down and recruited Anne Vawter as the Founding and Consulting Winemaker, a protege of Paradigm Winery, and consultant for wineries throughout California and British Columbia. A year later, Cameron Vawter joined as another Consulting Winemaker and Viticulturist, brought for his experience in cult wineries in Napa. In 2017, Olivier Humbrecht MW, proprietor of Domaine Zind-Humbrecht and France’s first Master of Wine, joined too, as Consulting Winemaker. One of the most critical additions to the winemaking team was Philippe Melka, a native of Bordeaux with experience across fine wineries like Chateau Petrus. Amidst the expansion of wine-making expertise, Bai continued to acquire more vineyards, adding terroir and talent to the portfolio. Oh, and the wines have been farmed organically and biodynamically since 2017.

With such a story, one would be forgiven for thinking the hype cannot possibly match the taste – but it does. We entered the winery through its spectacular tasting room to find privacy in the grand History room, where our tasting commenced one cloudy Saturday in September. Our host showed us first the Viognier. Carefully selected from a small 2.9 acre block on the Golden Mile bench, the wine was elegantly fresh with hints of peach on the nose and a crisp mineral finish. A zesty rendition of a viognier, this wine will clearly stand up well to food and makes a delicious mouth feel. The second wine, a Pinot Gris, showed well-balanced fruit with a healthy ripeness and freshness. The reduced yields and low precipitation resulted in small, concentrated berries that have produced wines of pronounced depth and intensity.

The Riesling, perhaps my favorite of the whites, comes from 10-year old vines and a four-month fermentation period with native yeats. Pouring a glorious deep bright yellow, the nose is generous and complex with notes of pear, honey, flowers and some salty flintiness. Medium bodied, it’s firm, dry and tart with a pleasant sourness on the finish and exceptional length.

We then moved to the reds, trying the 2016 Phantom Creek Estates Estate red. Complex, rich and full bodied, the tannins were present with a lingering layers of blackberry, plum, cocoa, and dried herbs. As we sipped this red it was hard not to imagine a perfect food pairing for this seven blend but merlot dominant red.

Our fifth wine was the 2017 Estate Petite Cuvee, in which select barrels of six different varieties were chosen from across the Estate vineyards to create a distinct and full-bodied red wine. Deemed a ‘true expression of the South Okanagan’s unique terroir’ this wine showed vibrant plum and red fruits, with a musky note of sage. Smooth tannins offered a long and warming finish, making this red perhaps my favourite.

Lastly, we had the 2017 Kobau Vinyard Merlot from one of the newer vineyards. This merlot offered a lovely expression of ripe red and black fruits. Notes of black cherry, famous in Oliver, shone through with decent minerality. The toasty notes from the French oak married everything together and softened the already very approachable tannins even further. A delicious, elegant Merlot well worth the media-attention.

After our tasting, we descended to the patio area (next to an amphitheatre no less) where our host graced us with a charcuterie platter that they now serve, courtesy of Canadian-born chefs Sarah Fiore and Alexandra Sandoval, hailing from Michelin-starred Estela in New York City. A divine platter of evidently the highest-quality produce (three local meats and cheeses, preserves, pickled seasonal vegetables and fresh Okanagan fruit, to be precise), this came as a welcome finish to the wine-tasting. With the sun setting majestically over the hills ahead of us, and the Okanagan crickets making themselves heard, we relaxedly sipped one final glass of wine. The visit finished with us purchasing some wines from the tasting-room store – how could we not – before descending down the hill to the valley and to our hotel. As we meandered down the twisting vine-filled lanes, I looked back up at the towering expanse of Phantom Creek Estates and thought to myself how grandeur and magnificence really are reflected throughout every drop.

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