Winemakers follow ancient natural techniques

Stemming back to the Roman Empire, the oak barrel is the most iconic image closely associated with wine. Staves of wood toasted over fires and then bound tight with hoops of iron, bronze or copper create a sturdy vessel to both store and transport a most precious cargo: wine.

While historical, these vessels are not nearly as ancient as clay and ceramic and concrete. 

In the Okanagan, the once ancient has become a modern signature for one winery that has embraced concrete vessels to create a new tradition of wines made without the interference of wood of flavours and aromas: Haywire Winery

Originally started as a shared space for incubating B.C. winery start-ups, Okanagan Crush Pad in Summerland moves into a new decade by saying goodbye to its original business model of custom crushing with a rebrand to Haywire Winery. Their chief winemaker, Matt Dumayne, using concrete wine vessels, natural yeast and a gentle hand, has made bright, lively, textured wine the hallmarks of Haywire.

The first six concrete tanks arrived in 2011 with the construction of the winery. Today, their 40-tank collection includes shapes and sizes ranging from small 300-litre eggs (reminiscent of the spacecraft from which Robin Williams emerged as Mork from Ork in the 1978 TV show) to large vessels capable of fermenting up to 5,000 litres.

Farther north in the Valley at Quails’ Gate, assistant winemaker Rowan Stewart shows off their concrete eggs. He’s the fourth generation of the family stewarding the Kelowna estate winery and delving into unique winemaking styles with the Distinction Collection. 

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Concrete is similar to a wooden barrel in that it is porous and allows oxygen to move naturally through the walls and soften the wine, but the real magic happens in the stirring. During fermentation, as the yeast converts the sugars in the juice into ethanol and carbon dioxide, bubbles rise and pop on the surface of the wine. The unique shape of the concrete egg allows the wine to tumble back down, essentially stirring itself. This constant motion increases the contact with the lees, the spent yeast cells. The result is a wine with increased fullness and texture.

Both wineries have released their distinctive wines under new labels. Haywire Winery marks the bold winemaking style with a vibrant label that pulls elements from the new mural artwork on the winery by Vancouver artist Scott Sueme. Join them in their 1,500-sq. ft. modern tasting lounge opening this Spring. 

Quails’ Gate honours the uniqueness of the Distinction Collection with labels showing a motif of speckled eggshell patterns. Like the pattern of a quail’s egg of which no two are alike, each batch of wine is unique and bottled in small lots.

Lionel Trudel presents a rendering of the new wall mural at Haywire Winery.

For an unoaked Chardonnay that offers all the fullness that barrelling aging generally brings, try the 2021 Haywire Chardonnay ($29.99.) This textured Chardonnay delivers great mouthfeel and a bit of zing. Flavours emerge on the botanical side, offering more of a herb than a fruity note. Spend some time with this in your glass and truly get to know the complexity that shines through from the natural winemaking. 

For an elevated white wine, 2021 Haywire Pinot Gris Switchback Vineyard ($29.99) will satisfy. You’ll find smokiness on the nose and a creamy full mouthfeel—it rested 11 months on the less in the concrete egg. The finish has excellent minerality and watch for the sage note that is so exemplary of the Summerland terroir. Here’s a Pinot Gris you can cellar. 

I’m quite in love with the Quails’ Gate Clone 220 Chenin Blanc. I first met this wine a few years back, and what a lovely lady she is, all full of curves. The fullness and complexity result from the extensive contact with the lees as it ferments within the concrete egg. Just over a third of the wine was barrel-aged in neutral oak for eight months and blended back together before final bottling.

With bright lemon-lime notes, this wine also hints at warmer tropical fun and natural freshness. And don’t be afraid to put this lovely lady in the dark; the time in the cellar will just make her even more luscious. 

Watch for the limited release of the 2022 Quails’ Gate Clone 220 Chenin Blanc in late April. 

Quails Gate photo by Yvonne Turgeon
Assistant winemaker Rowan Stewart by Quails’ Gate concrete eggs. [photo Yvonne Turgeon]

Nico Velo Tanks at Haywire Winery in Summerland [photo contributed]