Burrowing Owl, the 140-acre property that sits at the crown of the Okanagan’s Black Sage Bench’s Road 22, has a new winemaker. His name is Bertus Albertyn.
Bertus is a South African native married to a Canadian physician who took his post at the South Okanagan property, owned and run by Chris Wyse, in January earlier this year. There he will make the wine from the 125 acres of vineyards under cultivation that produce approximately 30,000 cases each year. Mind you, even at this volume of production, relatively large for the Okanagan, you’re likely only to be able to find a bottle of Burrowing Owl, nearly any variety, any vintage, at the winery’s wineshop itself or at select restaurants in B.C. There’s just too much demand for it to be able to keep the VQA liquor stores continually stocked.
“It’s a breath of fresh air to come here to Canada,” says Bertus. “Here in B.C. we can’t produce enough grapes to fulfill B.C. Consumption.”
It’s a good insight into British Columbia’s young wine industry, if a relatively modest one. Recently we asked Bertus what the secret is to making great wines:
“Winemaking itself is generally a simple process. If you have good quality grapes you are going to make a good wine. The key is to take yourself out of the equation as much as possible.”
Since we’re thinking there might be just a little bit more to winemaking than that, we cajoled Bertus into talking to us a bit longer to see what gives.
“It’s important to know when to take the grapes off the vine. And temperature control,” he conceded. He hastened to add that the practices he’s following at Burrowing Owl Winery since coming on board in January have been in place there from the beginning. “With a cellar producing such a great product for so long, the systems that have produced the wines are to be treated as such. These practices are not something new for the cellar.”
South African Roots
Bertus Albertyn looks – and is – still young but has a lifetime of grape growing under his belt. He has a degree in Viticulture and Oenology. He worked at two vineyards in South Africa, the Wellington Cellars, a large operation that bears the same name to the Wellington Wine Growing Region in South Africa and which “produces as much grapes there as in all of Canada;” and the Avondale where he learned organic winemaking and vineyard management “approved by Mother Nature” at this small family-owned winery.
While working in South Africa he did a vintage in Sonoma, a vintage in Italy outside of Venice, and two in France, one in Crozes-Hermitage at Alain Graillot, and the other in the South of France, Domaine Des Anges. “I did the harvest in France, Italy and America while I was working South Africa. I would do a crush every 2 years in a different part of the world to broaden my knowledge of winemaking. This also helped me to broaden my vision and taste,” Bertus told us. So the fact that the seasons in Canada are inverted to the seasonal changes in South Africa doesn’t phase him; it’s something he’s learned to work to his advantage.
The Winemaking Touch
Bertus’s approach to wine is a tactile one: “I’m fond of smelling wine. But at the end of the day you have to drink the wine. It’s about the enjoyment of the palate, the fullness and softness of the wine.”
He said it’s the post-fermentation maceration that yields a softer, rounder wine and this can also help with the age-ability of the wine. He’ll also tell you that the sooner you can interject oak into the wine, the better. Then he “ages it at least 18 months.”
Of course, it really all begins during the harvesting and then the crush. “We’re lucky here because of the cold nights. The grapes go into the cellar cold. When you can start at a low enough temperature then they can’t peak very high. It’s important not to let the temperature go up to 35 c. – that can kill your yeast. If you can increase your temperature during fermentation, you double your ability to extract,” he explained.
Not everyone in the Okanagan uses a sorting table. In fact, it’s a very distinctive choice that a winemaker makes. Bertus uses a sorting table. When asked if this goes counter to his philosophy of “taking yourself out of the equation,” he responded:
“We’re not changing anything. We’re just taking out the debris. We’re just doing a better job. Leaves are a very bad thing because they’re green. We’re destemming. But we’re not totally crushing. And of course we use only ripe grapes. No green grapes,” he said with a laugh.
For his white wines he’s also fond of a more “old-world” style of wine making. He’s quick to point out that South Africa has a long heritage of grape growing. One of the wineries where he worked dates itself back to 1693 when it was established.
“Our whites are whole-bunch wines. We do no de-stemming,” explained Bertus. “The stems are actually used as a filtration system to yield cleaner wine. Our pinot gris and chardonnay are all more old-world, lightly settled and have a ‘darker ferment.’ With a dirtier juice you have more flexibility in fermentation. More glycerines give more body in the wine. New world wines, for example, are all de-stemmed. That creates up-front fruit flavors.” Bertus went on to explain that the whole bunch press delivers a juice with a lower solid content; cleaner juice, in fact, than destemming.
Burrowing Owl Vineyards is also known as a green winery. Named after the regionally endangered species of Burrowing Owl, when Midge and Jim Wyse purchased the vineyards in ’93, they created a custom of donating $2 for each tasting at the winery. That $2 goes towards South Okanagan Rehabilitation Center For Owls and to the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of B.C. They’ve donated more than $250,000 to date.
Re-use: All wine bottles used in the wine shop and in the restaurant operations are cleaned out and re-used at the winery. They use an alternative pest control system. And The Sonora Room, the on-site restaurant, adheres to a less than 100-km local food supply philosophy, a philosophy and a tradition at the Sonora Room that their new Executive Chef team will continue on beginning May 1st when they re-open for full time summer season hours.
Black Sage Road, Oliver, B.C., Canada www.burrowingowlwine.ca
Okanagan Winemaker’s Cup 2010 Mt. Baldy
If there’s an Okanagan wine or winery you’ve fallen for you have perhaps, at some point during the sipping and the savoring, wondered what magical creature, besides Mother Nature, is responsible for crafting such an elixir?
Well, we’re here to tell you that when it comes to the Okanagan winemakers, you’re much better off letting your imagination run wild. Because if you ever end up actually meeting this crew of culinary outlaws, this wild bunch of winos ( i.e. winemakers) all your grand illusions of the finesse, elegance and cultured expertise that you thought went into the making of your favorite Okanagan wine, will be dashed once you put the face to the label. At least, that is, before you’ve finished off your first bottle. Perceptions can change…
What you will find if, say, you get so lucky as to hang out with the valley’s vintners at next year’s Winemaker’s Cup, is a rowdy group of fun-loving, hard working, big appetite and wine appreciating people…people who come from all walks and all backgrounds and now find themselves growing, harvesting, crushing and sorting grapes on vineyard outposts somewhere, anywhere, between Black Sage Rd. and Vernon.
Held this year, the 3rd Annual, under the springtime sunshine up on the snow-covered slopes of Mt. Baldy, the Winemaker’s Cup is the brainstorm of Glenn from Black Hills Estate Winery, Mohammed, formerly of Spirit Ridge and now of Enotecca, Katrina of Bellstar Resorts and anyone else who cares to claim credit.
Really what it is is an excuse for the winemakers to pit themselves against one another on the treacherous bunny slopes of Mt. Baldy, braving the harrowing blue- and red-marked racecourse as they jettison downhill at Olympic speeds. Or not. It depends on who’s telling the story…and how much beer and wine they’ve had before, during and after the telling.
Conditions this past weekend were so perilous up on the mountain that Jesse, chief bottle washer and cork capper at Black Hills Estate, turned up wearing his pajama pants…and skied all day in them. Later that evening, an undisclosed source assured us that he, in fact, had not slept in them the night before. We strongly suspect that Jesse is traveling incognito, in furlough from the That 70′s Show, we just can’t think of which episode…?
View the Paul Cotton WineMaker’s Cup Video HERE >>>
Bbq lunch out on the Mt. Baldy patio was limited to (succulent) prawns (perfectly herbed and spiced) and a few ribs (smothered in tangy bbq sauce and falling off the bone) with beer served in (recyclable!) plastic cups. The dark beer proved so popular among these grapegrowers that it was drunk up within the first round of pours.
Which only left a few kegs of the pale ale to work through for the rest of the balmy, sunny afternoon. What a departure from last year, when, tells Kathy from Hillside, the wind blew and the mountain shook. She admitted at the After Party later that she wished she hadn’t gone golfing that day, where the wind had blown and the golf tees had shook, and had joined her kindred up on the sunny ski slopes.
Yay to Jay! Who took home the most prestigious of Winner’s Cups – the Trophy for the Best Crash. Now that Mohammed will be overseeing that ranch, we’ll expect no less of Jay next year! Dinner at Spirit Ridge kept everyone busy and Jay and Mohammed earned additional stripes by pouring for their comrades. Pat, fully relaxed from a Hot Tub soak just prior to the mega chow down, let his Passo Tempo staff do the honors of hard work and slave-cooking for the culinary crowd that evening.
After-Party rules of entry are bring – at least – one bottle. You grab a glass as you walk in, then you just start pouring for yourself and you don’t stop until you tell yourself to. Best wine tasting party rules I’ve heard of! Among the seen and heard at the After Party were Mark Anthony’s Lori, Nk’Mip’s Sam, Church and State’s Jeff, Summerhill staff, Road 13 was there to represent…and so many more that the room began to take on the feel of a Hollywood and Vines episode…best to check All She Wrote’s real time Tweets from Saturday night for the full roster of the valley’s Society names and the people who make them [the wines, yes, the wines].
Funny thing too is that these winemakers did – almost – start to take on a magical patina as the evening marched on and bottles of Okanagan’s finest were emptied…
Then again, we wouldn’t want to get carried away. We’ll just say…Until next year’s Winemaker’s Cup!
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Every winemaker has their own methods…