Cart 0 items: $0.00

Black Hills Estate




Ross Wise
July 15, 2024 | Ross Wise

What's Changing in the Vineyard Pt.1: New Grape Varieties

The history of winegrowing on the Black Sage Bench helps to explain the grape varieties that are planted today. The paradigm shift to Bordeaux red varieties in the early 1990s dramatically increased the acreage of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc over the next decade. By the early 2000s, Merlot was the most widely planted grape variety in the Okanagan – and it still is today.

Merlot’s dominance makes sense in the context of that era. The question remained whether Bordeaux reds could reliably ripen every year. So, the focus was not just on maximizing fruit ripeness in the vineyard but also planting earlier ripening Bordeaux varieties like Merlot.

Now, over 30 years later, we are re-evaluating the grape varieties that we think are ideally suited to the Black Sage Bench. We know that changing climatic conditions in the South Okanagan mean we need to adapt and evolve our winegrowing practices. Planting the right grape varieties is both the easiest – and most challenging – solution.

Grape varieties that are well-suited to their climate require less intervention both in the vineyard and cellar. Our aim is for the fruit to be naturally balanced coming into the winery. Replanting comes with a big cost, though. It takes three years before new plants yield their first small crop. It’s a decision that you only make after much consideration. You also have to look at both the present and future – what will thrive today as well as 30 years from now. 

In the Okanagan, our growing seasons are getting warmer, with more frequent extreme heat events. The advantage of Merlot in the past has now become one of its challenges. In warm vintages, it quickly accumulates sugar while also struggling to retain acidity. This can translate to wines with high potential alcohol levels that lack freshness and don’t have the longevity that we expect for our wines.

Nota Bene will continue to be centred around the three principal Bordeaux red varieties. However, in the vineyard, we are shifting towards a greater emphasis on Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. We now have the heat units to reliably ripen Cabernet Sauvignon, especially when combined with meticulous winegrowing practices. It’s slower to ripen and has excellent acidity, which means it thrives even in our warmest growing seasons.

Cabernet Franc falls somewhere in between. It’s been an important component of Nota Bene since the start, and we’re increasingly impressed by its versatility and adaptability. It adds beautiful aromatics to our blends, both in warm and moderate vintages, with a combination of lavender-like florals and peppery spice. It can also be the star of the show. Per Se has been built around Cabernet Franc since the inaugural vintage in 2013. Nota Bene has also been led by Cabernet Franc in recent vintages like 2020.

In addition, we are increasing our acreage of Syrah, Carménère, and Tempranillo. Syrah is one of the top performing grape varieties in the South Okanagan, but it has the most question marks, too. It is particularly cold sensitive, and was one of the hardest hit varieties over the past two winters. It’s been a core part of our portfolio since 2009 and we intend to keep it that way – it’s too good not to.

We’re prioritizing our warmest hillside blocks for Syrah moving forward. It not only thrives in the heat of summer, but needs protection from extreme cold temperatures in the winter. Our steepest vineyards maximize sun exposure while preventing cold air from pooling. It’s not risk-free, but our experience suggests it’s the most sustainable solution.

Since 2005, we’ve never been able to keep up with the demand for our Carménère. So, we’re excited to add to the 16 acres planted in British Columbia. Carménère is similar to Cabernet Sauvignon in many ways. It’s late ripening and does well in the heat – there’s a reason it’s the signature grape variety of Chile. Black Sage Bench Carménère maintains freshness and its trademark high aromatic intensity in our warm desert climate, ripening with moderate levels of potential alcohol. These characteristics make it well-suited to our current and changing climate.

We’ve been farming Tempranillo since the 2015 vintage. And, each year, we are more convinced of its potential in the Okanagan Valley. We’re a long way from its ancestral home in Spain, where it is the most widely planted grape variety. There are only 21 acres of Tempranillo throughout British Columbia, accounting for just 0.17% of all vineyard plantings.

It may be rare here, but it’s far from a novelty. Tempranillo has proven to be well-suited to the South Okanagan thanks to climatic similarities to benchmark regions like Ribera del Duero. It thrives in our dry, desert-like growing conditions, with an ability to retain freshness even in the warmest vintages. Its climate resistance is just one reason why it is a crucial part of our vineyard redevelopment plan.

In the next blog post, we’ll discuss what else is changing in the vineyard as we adapt our viticultural practices to climate change.

Ross Wise MW, General Manager & Director of Winemaking

Time Posted: Jul 15, 2024 at 7:41 AM Permalink to What's Changing in the Vineyard Pt.1: New Grape Varieties Permalink
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
Ross Wise
March 25, 2024 | Ross Wise

Reimagining viticulture on the Black Sage bench

Our original estate vineyards, Sharp Rock and Double Black Vineyards, date to the mid-1990s, shortly after the first significant plantings of Bordeaux red varieties on the Black Sage Bench. This represented a dramatic paradigm shift for the South Okanagan, as winegrowers transitioned from cool-climate white grapes to late-ripening varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. While today we know these varieties thrive on the Black Sage Bench, that wasn’t the case 25+ years ago. 

Many of the pioneering vineyards, including our own, were planted to maximize fruit ripeness. That was for good reason. Winegrowers wanted to ensure they could reliably ripen fruit year after year. After all, Cabernet Sauvignon can be unforgiving when it is green and underripe.

A lot has changed in a relatively short period of time. The industry has matured; technology has evolved; and, perhaps most critically, our climate has changed. My Master of Wine research paper showed that the average temperature in Osoyoos has increased every decade since 1979. Not only is the growing season warmer, but we now experience more days over 35°C than ever before. We have gone from the margins to the extremes. 

To adapt to these changes, we started planning the redevelopment of our vineyards over three years ago. You do not decide to replant a vineyard overnight, especially when it is the calibre of Sharp Rock or Double Black Vineyard. Today, if you drive by the estate, you can see we’ve started the next phase of this project: removing the original plantings. What you do not see is the years of work that went into reaching this point. But you’ll be able to taste it in the near future. 

The goal is evolution, not revolution, as we continue to build the Black Hills legacy. Increasingly, our concern is over-ripeness, not under-ripeness. We are looking to retain freshness as growing seasons get warmer and extreme heat events become more frequent. It is more than just ensuring our wines continue to be elegant and finessed. It is essential to producing wines that are long-lived and age worthy. 

To that end, we are putting a renewed emphasis on Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Compared to Merlot, both varieties accumulate sugar more slowly (translating to lower potential alcohol levels) and better retain acidity. We are also expanding our plantings of Syrah, Carménère, and Tempranillo, which have shown a lot of promise in the South Okanagan. As we look to the future, we are also learning from abroad. For example, Tempranillo has shown exceptional resiliency in Spain’s Ribera del Duero. I will talk more about that in a future blog post.

The redevelopment is not only focused on what we are planting but how we are planting. We are shifting our vineyards’ row orientation to reduce sun exposure, planting 15° east of north to provide shade during the hottest parts of the day. At the same time, we are transitioning to higher-density plantings, increasing the number of vines per acre to 2,074. This allows for lower yields per vine, producing fruit with more power and concentration. 

Originally, we planned to replant our estate vineyards block by block over several years. That was until the cold snap of December 2022 when temperatures dropped to -27° on the Black Sage Bench. Based on the resulting damage, we decided to accelerate our timeline. It looks drastic now. But we know, based on the plan we have in place, that it is the right thing to do. We cannot wait to share the results.  

Ross Wise MW, General Manager & Director of Winemaking

Time Posted: Mar 25, 2024 at 1:08 PM Permalink to Reimagining viticulture on the Black Sage bench Permalink