Column by Lorne Eckersley
We tend to think of Kelowna as hot country. It and the surrounding area is BC’s playground, after all, isn’t it? Take a look on a map, though, and it is considerably further north than most of the Kootenays and Boundary country. I mention this because I still recall my surprise when I visited a winery near the Kelowna airport last year and learned that the vineyard plantings were dominated by what we consider to be cool climate varieties: Baco Noir, Pinot Noir, Lemberger, Zweigelt, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris.
Ancient Hill Estate Winery has an interesting history. In the 1930s the owners of the land, the Rittich brothers, imported a selection of vine varieties from Europe to test what would grow on the property. A vineyard was the result and it carried on into the 1950s, when it was wiped out by a severe winter. The brothers then replanted it to fruit trees and it was an orchard when Dutch immigrants Richard and Jitske Kamphuys arrived on the scene, looking for a business opportunity. They were city folk and didn’t have an agricultural background. After some years as orchardists, they decided there was little future in the tree fruit industry and decided to move into the wine business.
In 2005 the vineyard was planted and in 2008 the owners contracted well-known Okanagan winery architect Robert Mackenzie to design the winery. Mackenzie is very good at designing for a site and in creating a design that works with the owners’ vision. Respected winemaker Christine Leroux made the first vintage wines.
Before we entered the winery to meet Richard we wandered around the property, surprised at how high we had climbed on our drive from Kelowna. This was not the desert country we expect to find after driving only a short while to the south. But the westward slope captures the full value of later afternoon sun and the breeze ensures the grapes stay dry as they develop.
Kamphuys is a genial host, but very serious about his business. We spent a half hour in a room with a huge table and a dozen chairs, perfect for a formal dinner or extended tasting. Just outside the door was a large tasting room and wine shop, built to accommodate large groups for informal events.
He explained his choice for the winery’s name. The area was covered by glaciers 25,000 years ago and, as they melted, left behind were large deposits of sand and gravel—the stuff of dreams for grape growers. As recently as 10,000 years ago the Ancient Hill site was still under water.
When we moved over to the tasting bar, Angela and I agreed that we were surprised at how much we enjoyed the lineup of wines, both reds and whites. Our tastes typically run to Bordeaux varieties and we didn’t expect to be so impressed with Baco Noir, Lemberger and Zweigelt. We were less surprised at how good the Pinot Noir, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris were—these are varieties we like and know to thrive in all but the hottest parts of the province.
In the last few weeks our memories were stirred when I brought a couple of Ancient Hill wines up from the cellar. One, a Zweigelt, made our way to Calgary, where we enjoyed it with dinner. The adults at the table all thoroughly enjoyed it. Then last week I chose the Gewurz to accompany a Thai dinner. I used a green curry base for rice noodles, chicken, onions, celery and zucchini. The wine had only the slightest hint of sweetness (I am not a fan of sweet wines, except for dessert) and it was extremely floral, with typical Gewurz notes of rose petals, lychee, melon and tropical fruits, including a hint of pineapple. The spiciness helped make it a perfect match with the food on our plates.
The bottles’ labels feature a Celtic-like symbol, with intertwining shapes representing Earth, Air and Fire. The symbol can also be relied on to indicate quality, which is Job #1 for Richard and Jitske Kamphuys.
Photo: Ancient Hill Winery owner Richard Kamphuys chats on the winery's patio, high on a hill near the Kelowna airport.
Lorne Eckersley photo