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Ross Wise
 
June 19, 2024 | Ross Wise

History of Black Hills on the Black Sage Bench

The Okanagan Valley is a young wine region in many ways. It was only 10,000 years ago that the valley was carved by a receding glacier. Some regions lay claim to some of the oldest soils on earth. Ours are some of the youngest, a result of an endless number of glacial streams depositing sand throughout the South Okanagan. But the earliest wine pioneers saw the potential here, with well-draining sandy soils; a dry, semi-arid climate; and long, warm summer days.

Initial plantings in the South Okanagan, starting in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, favoured aromatic white grape varieties. However, a deepening commitment to understanding our unique South Okanagan terroir sparked a transformation. In 1993, 115 acres of Bordeaux varieties were planted near where Black Hills is now situated, marking the first significant acreage of late-ripening varieties like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon on the Black Sage Bench. 

Three years later, in 1996, Bob and Senka Tennant and Peter and Susan McCarrell founded Black Hills Estate Winery and planted Sharp Rock and Double Black Vineyards on the Black Sage Bench. These two vineyards became – and continue to be – the cornerstone of Nota Bene, led by Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. The first vintage was made in 1999 with the support of consulting winemaker Rusty Figgins from Walla Walla, Washington. It wasn’t long before Senka Tennant took the reins, establishing herself as one of the leading winemakers in the Okanagan. 

Like many vineyards from that era, Sharp Rock and Double Black were planted to ensure ample fruit ripeness. Senka described how the vineyards were “ideally situated to capture maximum sun from morning to dusk, sloping slightly to the south and to the west.” Plus, crop levels were kept to a meagre 1.2 tonnes per hectare.  

Nota Bene quickly gained a cult following, and each new vintage sold out within months of release. The sign on the winery – a Quonset hut – simply said, “Sorry, sold out.” By the 2006 vintage, the story goes, it took only 47 minutes for the wine to sell out.

Bordeaux varieties were still far from a sure thing in the early 2000s. Anthony Gismondi wrote around that time, “You can never count on the climate to be perfect for any vintage” in British Columbia, so “adding a dash of cabernet franc or a smidgeon of merlot to cabernet sauvignon appears to be the direction our best wineries are headed.”

The Okanagan Valley has changed a lot since then – in more ways than one. Sharp Rock and Double Black continue to represent some of the most exciting terroir in the South Okanagan and the Black Sage Bench. But changing climatic conditions means our approach in the vineyard must evolve from where it started 25+ years ago. In the next blog post, we’ll dive into what is changing in the vineyard, starting with a renewed emphasis on different – but familiar – grape varieties.

Ross Wise MW, General Manager & Director of Winemaking

Time Posted: Jun 19, 2024 at 11:00 AM Permalink to History of Black Hills on the Black Sage Bench Permalink