Discovering Ancient Hill Winery

A business trip took me recently to the city of Kelowna, BC, and with a couple hours to spare before my evening flight I wondered how to pass the time before takeoff. The Okanagan always tempts me to seek out new wines, and I was not to be disappointed in my quest. Just minutes away from Kelowna Airport was a new discovery for me, Ancient Hill Estate Winery.

As a BC wine enthusiast who looks for new wines and wineries, I wondered why I had never heard of Ancient Hill before. They are definitely a new winery, as this “Class of 2011” post by writer John Schreiner points out. Richard Kamphuys and his wife Jitske, who both hail from The Netherlands, own Ancient Hill Estate Winery. It is an impressive property that looks out over the valley where flights come and go from the Kelowna Airport. The old world-style wine shop is well-appointed and welcoming, and the tasting bar is wide enough to accommodate several visitors at once.

The Ancient Hill property has some interesting history described on the winery website:

We are a family owned, estate winery in the beautiful, rural, Ellison area of North Kelowna. Located directly across from the Kelowna Airport, on land originally planted to grapes more than 60 years ago.

The same property had been a vineyard in the 1940′s and early 1950′s, but had been converted to an orchard after a severe winter killed off most of the vines. When it became clear that the returns from orcharding were too volatile, the decision was made to replant a vineyard on the property and eventually build a winery.

The Rittich brothers, after whom a local road is named, were one of the viticulture pioneers of the Okanagan. In the 1930′s they imported various vinifera varieties from Europe, with the goal of seeing which ones would grow well in the Okanagan. Based on their trials, various vineyards were planted in the 1940′s. The hillside across from the Kelowna Airport, the current location of Ancient Hill Estate Winery, was one of their test areas. Several abandoned vines, part of the vineyard planted in the 1940′s, still survive on the property to this day.

In 2005, the vineyard at Ancient Hill was planted. The varieties planted were: Baco Noir, Pinot Noir, Lemberger, Zweigelt, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris. All varieties were selected because they would grow and ripen well at Ancient Hill. In fact, Lemberger was the number one choice of the Rittich brothers. An excellent red grape variety, currently neglected in the Okanagan due to its unfortunate name.

We specialize in small lots of tasty wines. The wines are made entirely from grapes grown in our own vineyard and processed on-site in our European style winery.

When I stopped by the winery was in the final days of harvest. Young workers – many from Quebec – who had been picking grape bunches since dawn were all winding down after a pizza meal and a glass of wine (see the image gallery below). Richard Kamphuys eventually made his way up to the wine bar, apologizing for his grape-stained hands and rugged outdoors appearance.

I tasted a flight of their wines (all estate grown grapes), and was pleased by the selections. The Pinot Gris had lovely structure and acidity. The Gewürztraminer‎ was nicely balanced, avoiding the bouquet of rose petals I frequently encounter. Their Rosé‎ (Baco Noir 72%, Gewürztraminer 28%) would have been a welcome patio sipper at our house – it is a nice wine.

Their cool climate reds were also inviting. The Lazerus (Zweigelt 45%, Lemberger 39%, Pinot Noir 15%, Baco Noir 3%) was served cool and therefore I could not really grasp what this light bodied wine would be like when it opens up. The Pinot Noir was also light, but flavorful enough that I’d like to try it again. The Baco Noir, however, was a full-bodied red (their flagship wine) that I plan to get my hands on soon. This wine has black cherry and plum notes, and will pair well with meat, sharp cheeses and chocolate.

All the wines in my view are well-priced as well, and worth trying to find. The Swirl Wine Store in Vancouver’s Yaletown has some of their white wines in stock.

Another takeaway from my discussion with Richard, is how the weather and insects ravaged much of their crop. He says their Lemberger harvest was wiped out, as well as 80 per cent of their Pinot Noir grapes by wasps and sour rot. Tragically, too many wineries in the Okanagan were hit hard by the late September cool, wet weather. After a warm, dry summer that everyone thought would create the biggest grape harvest yet, to see so much fruit go to waste is a heartbreaker.

I recommend that if you’re in Kelowna (or happen to be catching a flight I did) to make a stop at Ancient Hill Estate Winery. I think you’ll also be delighted by this new BC wine discovery.