Original article posted by Co-Head Judge Anthony Gismondi available here.
In 2022, CedarCreek Estate Winery, an East Kelowna winery located in the northern Okanagan Valley, topped all 251 producers at the WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada. Making it to the top of the list may sound easy, but it is a journey. You don’t become Canada’s Winery of the Year out of the blue, especially in the highly competitive market of premium wine production.
CedarCreek’s journey began long before the Okanagan was on the wine map. The winery first opened in 1980 under the unlikely name of Uniacke Wines. In 1986 it was purchased by the Fitzpatrick family, who changed the name to CedarCreek, pulled out the hybrids and planted some of the earliest pinot noir vines in the valley.
Some 42 years later, the Lakeshore Road winery on the east side of Okanagan Lake is thriving under its current owner Anthony von Mandl and winemaker, Taylor Whelan. You may be surprised to learn this year’s win comes on the shoulders of two previous wins in 2001 and 2005 under winemaker Tom DiBello. If Dibello set the tone for pinot and chardonnay to be the future at CedarCreek, winemaker Darryl Brooker implemented a structure to get to the finish line before winemaker Taylor Whelan grabbed the reins and withstood the rigours of yearly on-site renovations to release a bevy of supercharged, vibrant wines full of electricity.
Winemaker Taylor Whelan
It’s been more than five years since CedarCreek embarked on a massive refit. Owner – Anthony von Mandl, O.C., O.B.C. says it first began in the vineyard where the goal was “to convert 100% of our family-owned Estate vineyards to organic farming, a bold first step in the historical transformation of CedarCreek, one that encompasses every aspect of the winery, from regenerative farming and sustainable viticulture, to farm-to-bottle craftsmanship in our wine cellar.” It also included a “multi-year renovation of the winery itself with luxury guest experiences in our stunning new Tasting Salon, member-exclusive Aspect House, and at our award-winning Home Block Restaurant.”
CedarCreek’s wines honour the extremely rare terroir of its Home Block vineyard, a tiny parcel of land with soil diversities so unique they can be found only here and nowhere else in the world, says von Mandl. “Tens of thousands of years ago, the vineyard blocks were formed by not one, but two separate glacial ages combined with volcanic activity. Planted over 30 years ago and farmed with a single-vine philosophy, Home Block vineyard has proven to be a Grand Cru of the Okanagan. The resulting quality of the wines produced here embody the soul of our valley and our pioneering efforts to place the Okanagan Valley on the world wine map.”
When asked about the ‘Winery of the Year’ accolade, von Mandl said, “It is a testament to the legacy we continue to build at CedarCreek, shattering the world’s perception of this still young and emerging wine region by crafting wines of exceptional quality in the Okanagan that can rival the best in the world. A thrilling endeavour from a winemaking perspective and a compelling experience for visitors that travel from around the globe to experience the Okanagan Valley for themselves.”
For his part, Taylor Whelan quietly makes wines that increasingly explore the diversity of the North Okanagan. As of 2021, all vineyards are Ecocert certified, which everyone at the winery is aligned with achieving. They have also established a 400 m2 garden to provide organically farmed key ingredients for Home Block restaurant.
From certified organic yeast to wild ferments, wild malolactic fermentation, and wines bottled unfined and unfiltered, Whelan pursues the most natural paths possible. Food waste from the restaurant is composted along with grape pomace. Cow manure from the herd and wood chips from on-site fallen trees produce 100-200T of compost, spread back on the vineyards yearly, helping to build life into the vineyard soils.
Whelan also treats winery wastewater in-situ through a series of settling tanks before it is pumped to a settling pond and wetland system. The water is then allowed to permeate the soil, providing a water source for wildflowers and plants. In perhaps a first and indeed an ingenious Canadian trick, all waste glass is crushed on site and spread on the roads with sand in the winter. In the following spring, all the sand/glass is swept up by a machine to be used next year.
At any new vineyards, CedarCreek has partnered with local environmentalists to collect native plant seeds from the property – the seeds are used for fundraising, for native plant re-establishment on other sites, and at the boundaries of new vineyards to support biodiversity.
Speaking of biodiversity, the estate is teeming with life. Five Scottish Highland Cows, a flock of chickens, beehives, worm farms and cover crops work with the local Kestrels and native plants to build a thriving ecosystem. The approach has come to a genuine belief that everything required is present. All that is needed is caring and attention to create a healthy and sustainable environment.
So when I said it was a journey, I meant it. In 2022 Taylor Whelan’s wines scored big, and topping the National Wine Awards will only fuel the ambition to be one of the most important wineries operating on the edge of the northern hemisphere grape production zone. We discovered throughout the competition that the wines are born with natural energy and electricity that is difficult to ignore. Ultimately, CedarCreek was awarded two Platinum Medals for the Platinum 2020 Jagged Rock Syrah and the 2019 Aspect Collection Block 5 Chardonnay. In addition, they received four gold medals, of which three figured in the Winery of the Year calculation 2020 Aspect Collection Block 3 Riesling, the Platinum 2020 Jagged Rock Chardonnay and the 2021 Pinot Noir Rosé. They also took home eight silver medals and five bronze medals.
As the winery sets its sights on land north of 50 degrees in Lake Country and beyond, there is sure to be plenty more energy involved in the years to come.
Here are a few of CedarCreek’s top scoring wines.