The mountains in this part of British Columbia seem carved from the rocky valley floor, as if heaven had scourged the land with chisels and wire-brush; the jagged edges slowly crumbling into the dusty sand that covers everything. Here at the tip of a desert that stretches across borders, through cultural divides from Canada to Mexico, lies the furnace known as the Okanagan Valley: “Napa of the North” some say. And in this crucible, where the depth of sun-soaked sand can reach 20 to 25 feet, lies a winery that has earned my respect: Black Hills Estate Winery.

A view from Black Hills Estate Winery. Photo: ©2015 Kristof Gillese

A view from Black Hills Estate Winery. Photo: ©2015 Kristof Gillese

I was a non-believer when celebrity ownership helped bestow a cult-status on Nota Bene: their Bordeaux blend that became the darling of the Pacific NorthWest. I had my attention turned elsewhere. In my mind I thought, as many people still do, “greatness comes from other places; other, better established places. Places with lineage, places with ancestry. How good can Canadian Cab-Sauv really be?”

I had no idea how powerful the answer would be.

If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

— John Q. Adams

When Black Hills Estate was established in 1995 there were only about 40-odd wineries in all of BC and the Black Sage Bench where Black Hills is located was unproven; a place where people had once grown some grapes, but better suited to apricots or sheep grazing the locals said. Nobody was making wine out there… no one serious anyways.

Photo: ©2015 Kristof Gillese

Photo: ©2015 Kristof Gillese

But along comes a couple of dreamers from Vancouver – sold everything they had to come out here and take the longshot. They backed up their fanciful notions with world-class oenology; multiple clones of each varietal to give dimension to the wines, environmentally sound practices like cover-crops to create bio-diversity and allow the full and unique expression of terroir through the grapes.

And then came the next evolution: new ownership in 2007, new practices, new growth. Drip irrigation to make those beautiful vines want to dig deeper and deeper, allowing for the precise expression of minerality. Planting new vines, grafting old vines; strengthening what was already good into something great. And the building of a 3,000 square-foot tasting area and wine shop known as “The Wine Experience Centre”; recipient of the 2008 Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Architectural Excellence.

This is a small portion of the litany of reasons one should respect the work going on here. The fact that previous vintages of Nota Bene have sold out 3,500 cases in less than 50 minutes to me doesn’t factor into the equation. It is the quiet work that inspires me most of all… that all of the work here is done by hand; hand-pruned, hand-picked. The staunch efforts to contribute to a cleaner, healthier environment as they work with the best practices of the Environmental Farm Plan.

“The role of a great leader is not to give greatness to human beings, but to help them extract the greatness they already have within them.”

— J. Buchan

I think now that John (Buchan) must have been a farmer at heart, for all that he was once Governor-General of Canada. This quote could easily have come from any farmer in any place and, more particularly, from a farmer of grapes in a place like the Black Sage Bench… perhaps what I see in the wines of Black Hills is best expressed by saying:

“The role of a great winemaker is not to give greatness to the wine, but to help extract the greatness they already have within them.”

I hope you enjoy their wines as much as I do and encourage you to make the time to try them if you haven’t already.

Black Hills 2012 Viognier

90+ points, $25 CAD, Great Value

  • visual: clear; pale straw core to watery rim, silver highlights
  • nose: clean; medium+ intense and youthful characteristics of ripening stone-fruit and orchard-fruit (apricots, Anjou pears, golden apples and young peaches), warm hay, clean minerals, white tea finish
  • palate: clean; dry, medium+ papaya acid, medium+ body, medium+ alcohol (13.3% ABV), medium+ concentration of youthful flavors much in-line with the aromas; the explosion of ripe exotic fruit flavors came through on the nose (to me) much more like white tea, and was washed away by a graceful minerality with bits of pink peppercorn and ripe pear. Very good balance, excellent structure, medium length
  • conclusion: a bright young wine, enjoy it in its youth. Will not develop appreciably. Enjoy 2015-2019
  • FOOD PAIRING: the consistency of the pear on both the nose and the palate made me want to accentuate those tones with baked pear and brie tartlettes with sweet onion relish, smoked duck rilette … an ambitious little plate but full of nuances that play off the wines many facets

Black Hills 2011 Chardonnay

91+ points, $30 CAD, EXCELLENT Value

  • visual: clear; medium intense golden core to watery rim, silver/gold highlights
  • nose: clean; medium intense youthful characteristics of crisp minerals, young exotic fruit, wild flowers, slight peppery edge
  • palate: clean; dry, medium+ intense yellow grapefruit acid, medium body, medium alcohol (12.9% ABV), medium+ intense very youthful flavors much in-line with the aromas; dynamic mineral tones start a palate filled with young exotic fruit and tight citrus, wild flowers give a soft finish. Very good balance, great structure and medium+ length
  • conclusion: quite young in its life, this wine has many many years of development ahead of it and the stuffing to help it last the journey. Enjoy 2015-2020 and possibly beyond
  • FOOD PAIRING: as this is from the Okanagan Valley, I would serve this with fire-grilled trout, creamery fresh butter, Brussels sprouts sauteed with bacon, sweet onions and hazelnuts, toasted quinoa pilaf

Black Hills 2012 Chardonnay

91+ points, $30 CAD, EXCELLENT Value

  • visual: clear; light golden core to very watery rim, silver highlights
  • nose: clean; fully intense and youthful complexion of rich slate-like mineral layers followed by a synergy of little summer flowers, orchard-fruit and warm straw
  • palate: clean; dry, fully intense lemony acid, medium- body, medium- alcohol (very well integrated 13.8% ABV), medium+ intense and youthful flavors that are perfectly in-line with the aromas: this wine speaks (to me) of a Premier Cru Chablis ; vivacious minerality drives a palate containing a rich array of apple/pear and soft flower tones. Very good balance, very good structure, medium+ length
  • conclusion: quite a few years of life in this wine, but I believe it to be best when enjoyed young. Enjoy 2015-2019+
  • FOOD PAIRING: since it tastes like Chablis, I would use it like Chablis! baked oysters Rockefeller with garden-fresh spinach and Gruyere cheese

Black Hills 2012 Alibi (white-blend)

75% Sauvignon Blanc, 25% Semillon
89 points, $25 CAD, Good Value

  • visual: clear; medium straw core to watery rim, bright silver highlights
  • nose: clean; medium+ intense youthful aromas of warm minerality, musky perfumed flowers, ripening orchard-fruit (golden apples and Anjou pears), slightly peppery finish
  • palate: clean; dry, full yellow grapefruit acid, medium- body, full alcohol (14.5% ABV), medium concentration of youthful flavors much in-line with the aromas; the minerality really is the star of the show when it comes to the palate… bright expressions of grapefruit/citrus are rounded out somewhat by a backdrop of small floral and savory tones. Good balance and structure, medium length
  • conclusion: drink now and drink well-chilled. Will not develop with aging. Enjoy 2015-2017
  • FOOD PAIRING: beware! The hot alcohol in this wine will explode if paired with spicy food, as such consider pairing with rich Alsatian/Swiss/German foods such as raclette or fondue.

Black Hills 2011 Nota Bene (Bordeaux-styled blend)

50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc
92+ points, $53 CAD, EXCELLENT Value

  • visual: clear; fully intense garnet core with slightest brick rim/light signs of aging
  • nose: clean; medium+ intense and youthful bouquet of tight graphite layers, warm black floral tones, stewed plums and blackberries, anise, black tea
  • palate: clean; dry, fully intense red currant acid, medium+ to full fine/well-integrated tannin, medium+ body, medium+ to full alcohol (14% ABV), medium+ to fully intense and incredibly youthful characteristics that are beautifully in-line with the aromas; the palate is awash in layers of dark fruit, minerals and savory earth tones… truly an exemplary model of cool-climate Bordeaux-style blending. Excellent balance and structure, long length/the palate continues to evolve for 20 seconds+
  • conclusion: absolutely an infant at present, this wine has decades of life left in it, and decades of evolution. Enjoy 2015-2026 and (most likely) best 2017-2022+
  • FOOD PAIRING: this style of blending is so professional that it calls to mind a classic of Bordelais-cuisine: côtes-de-boeuf using ultra-premium *Hopcott’s farm-raised beef, hardwood grilled, fresh thyme and chevre infused compound butter, steamed baby Yukon Gold potato, Chiliwack-corn succotash with local Shiitake mushrooms …the wine has layers that necessitate bold and decisive layers in the food that is paired with it. My second food choice, and a cheeky one at that, would be *Hopcott’s farm-raised/natural peppercorn beef jerky~!

Black Hills Estate Winery 2011 Carmenere. Photo: @2015 Kristof Gillese

Black Hills Estate Winery 2011 Carmenere. Photo: ©2015 Kristof Gillese

Black Hills 2011 Carmenere

94+/95 points, $50 CAD, STUNNING VALUE **BUY THIS NOW**
*My TOP RED WINE 2014*

  • visual: clear; full garnet core with slightest/bright cherry rim, no signs of aging
  • nose: clean; medium+ to fully intense and developing bouquet of ripe red currants/raspberries, drying blackberries, warm musky spice like sandalwood (yet delightfully nuanced and not overpowering), black and red pepper tones, warm earth, old leather, old books, dark tea, dark flowers like irises and roses…
  • palate: clean; dry, full red raspberry acid, medium+ well integrated/chewy tannin, medium+ body, medium alcohol (12.2% ABV), medium+ to fully intense and youthful flavors that are perfectly matched to the bouquet: this wine sings with precision and layers… nuance upon nuance. Truly must be experienced to be believed in a BC Carménère~! World-class balance and structure with long length (develops for 30+ seconds on the palate and flavors stay for 5-10 minutes)
  • conclusion: Just a babe. This wine has many years of development left and will reward those with the will-power to cellar it. Enjoy 2015-2025 and possibly beyond.
  • FOOD PAIRING: as the wine is so developed with layers that I would have to go with simple food; hardwood grilled *Hopcott’s ribeye steak with Kosher sea-salt, porcini mushroom polenta, steamed gai-lan (like an Asian cross of asparagus and broccoli) and roasted corn relish … full acids in the wine will love the fat of a ribeye, hardwood grill will emphasize the slight smokey/musky tones, the freshness of gai-lan keeps the palate from being fatigued. Corn salsa? I just love it! And, the sweetness balances a sense of spice in the wine.

Graham Pierce, Winemaker, Black Hills Estate Winery. Photo: Courtesy of Black Hills Winery Estate

Graham Pierce, Winemaker, Black Hills Estate Winery. Photo: Courtesy of Black Hills Winery Estate

Many thanks to Glenn Fawcett (President), Graham Pierce (Winemaker) and the entire team at Black Hills Estate Winery for the very generous sample bottles.

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About Author


Kristof Gillese: trained chef, certified wine steward, journalist and proud father. In these articles it is the human story that takes priority: to tell the tale of common people accomplishing uncommon goals. In the world of wine these tales are prolific. It has been Chef Kristofs privilege to have worked with luminaries such as Pierre-Henry Gagey of Maison Jadot, Nik Weis of St Urbans-Hof, Ray Signorello of Signorello Estates and Ezra Cipes of Summerhill Pyramid Winery; leaders in the industry. With almost 3 decades of experience working with the synergy between food and wine, Chef Kristof is proud to share the stories of these amazing stewards of the land. These articles are written with a profound reverence for the family aspect to winery culture as, to this writers understanding, nothing has ever had a more far-reaching effect than the love and devotion for a parent to a child. All great wineries are built by parents for their children and it is because of this that Chef Kristof writes.
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