“The connection between the land we farm and wines we make has strengthened.” – Taylor Whelan
Head Winemaker for CedarCreek Estate Winery since 2016 (and before that as Assistant Winemaker since 2012), Taylor Whelan is a proud native of British Columbia, born and raised in Campbell River on Vancouver Island.
After completing a post-graduate diploma in Oenology and Viticulture from Brock University in Ontario, Whelan worked in Niagara, Ontario, as well as for world-class premium wineries in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, McLaren Vale, Australia, and in Piper’s River, Tasmania. His passion for cool-climate grape-growing and winemaking brought him to CedarCreek for harvest in 2011 and he’s been with the winery ever since.
If you take one thing away from your experience with the wine Whelan makes, he wants it to be a link to the land, noting that “wine can be an unbroken connection from agriculture to your dinner table.” Taking a gentle approach, Whelan lets the fruit’s characteristics guide the process, paying close attention to the course the wine takes, all with a particular end goal in mind. His methods speak to his appreciation for authenticity; his products are a true, unmanipulated expression of the vineyard, terroir, and growing season.
Having released its first wines in 1987, CedarCreek is one of the eight original BC wineries and is known for producing exceptional, quality-driven wines with each vintage. Their penchant for high-end consistency is traced back to how they interpret the land that provides the fruit of their labours – a philosophy that stretches beyond the practice of organics and other sustainable methods.
Recently, Whelan helped oversee the winery’s complete transition to organic and regenerative farming. The goal being to farm and manage the property in an ecologically sound and responsible manner. And the spinoff effects continue to accumulate. As Whelan says: “When we are thinking of how to farm or manage the property, we try to take a holistic approach, one that uses minimal inputs and reduces outputs, so that our processes are becoming more cyclical and sustainable.”
“Regenerative Agriculture is a hot topic at the moment,” Whelan continues. “I can attest to the fact that over the last five years, we have seen dramatic increases in soil quality and health and corresponding improvements in vine health and fruit quality. It’s more work for the teams in the vineyard, but the results in the bottle are hard to argue with.” And it’s those results that are making headlines.
Just this past summer, CedarCreek was bestowed the honour of being named Canadian Winery of the Year by WineAlign’s National Wine Awards of Canada – the country’s largest and most prestigious wine competition. They collected an unprecedented 19 medals in the competition, including two Platinum Medals, four Gold Medals, eight Silver Medals and five Bronze Medals for its portfolio of luxury wines. Aside from the obvious being that they earned the distinction by way of their excellent wines, it was an affirmation of achievement for the hard work that’s been put into the winemaking process from vine to bottle – a re-building program that Whelan has fully arrived at since joining the winery.
Learn more about Taylor Whelan and CedarCreek Estate Winery through the below Q&A, followed with complete tasting notes of the wines I was afforded the opportunity to taste for review.
VineRoutes: For those who are not familiar with CedarCreek and its portfolio of wines, can you briefly explain the story behind these wines and why they are considered to be among some of the very best made in Canada?
Taylor Whelan: At CedarCreek, we are focused on quality at all levels. I take pride in the Estate tier wines which are great expressions of what the Okanagan as a region is producing. The Platinum and especially Aspect wines are our best wines, made from small parcels and all are either single vineyard or single block. With Platinum we are exploring the north Okanagan’s variety and diversity by producing single vineyard wines from several of our best vineyards. As an example, CedarCreek will soon be releasing a series of single vineyard Pinot Noirs sourced from our Naramata, Home Block, Simes, and DeHart vineyards, showcasing the amazing diversity and quality found in the North Okanagan.
Aspect is the pinnacle of what we do at CedarCreek – these are our oldest blocks and they produce our best fruit. Every day we are working to make the Aspect wines the deepest, most intense and expressive wines we can, both in the vineyard and in the winery. These wines – a riesling, a chardonnay, and two pinots – all come from our Home Block vineyard, which has a very special combination of unique soils, a northern and very cool aspect, and the old vines required to make great wines.
VineRoutes: How has CedarCreek improved or evolved as a winery over the years since you’ve taken over as winemaker?
Taylor Whelan: Our focus has shifted dramatically in the last six years, with an ever-growing priority on quality and sustainability. Our vineyards and our winery facility are now both certified organic, and all wines as of 2021 onwards. The transition to organics, especially in the vineyards, has resulted in lower crops but much higher quality. We have grown our premium tiers dramatically and are offering better quality than ever at the same time. The increased quality of fruit has also allowed us to create the Aspect tier, and our wines now compete with the best Canada has to offer. The connection between the land we farm and wines we make has also strengthened and we are tailoring our viticultural approaches to best fit each individual block of fruit and maximize its true potential.
VineRoutes: How would you describe CedarCreek and its portfolio without describing the wines themselves?
Taylor Whelan: CedarCreek is focused on low intervention winemaking and on wines which represent their terroir faithfully. I believe that natural acidity and purity of fruit are two of the most distinctive characteristics of the North Okanagan, so our winemaking is focused on preserving those characters – natural fermentation, bottling the wines unfined and unfiltered, managing oak to support the wine without overshadowing its nuances; these are the practices we use that help to create the style of wines we think best represent the Okanagan. For this reason, the wines are fresh, bright, pure, and have a uniqueness due to their focus on terroir and single vineyard and block wines. This applies to each quality level – Even our $23 Chardonnay is fermented 100 percent with wild yeasts and aged for ten months in French oak before bottling, and the average vine age in that bottle is just over twenty years. That is something people often overlook – as an established winery, we have access to established vineyards and old vines which make superior wines.
VR: Terroir is at the forefront of all discussion when it comes to wine. Which of your wines best express or convey the true essence of terroir? Conversely, which wine(s) best express your style as a winemaker?
TW: Our Aspect Block 2 and Block 4 pinots best express the terroir we are working with. Both pinots are made predominantly from clone 115, but are grown on two different soils. Block 2 soils are heavier and the parent material is closer to the surface, so the vines have more access to water – this leads to a more elegant and red-fruited profile. The Block 4 wines are grown on free-draining and deeper soils leading to smaller vines, smaller berries, and more concentration of fruit and colour.
Our Block 5 Chardonnay is the one that most represents my winemaking. Chardonnay is a winemaker’s wine, and we do push the style deliberately here. We are fermenting very reductively with wild yeast looking for mineral, seashell, crushed stone characters, and harvesting early, hoping for plenty of acidity. I spent time making wine in Tasmania and people describe a lot of their wines as having a seaspray character and I have found that in Block 5 as well. I love the complexity and elegance of the wine, and the fact that it is so easily identifiable.
VR: What about the entire process (from nurturing the vines all the way to enjoying the wine with a great meal) excites you the most? What do you find is most rewarding about your role as winemaker for CedarCreek?
TW: To have identified a block of fruit that historically didn’t produce a premium wine, to have worked with the vineyard team on a plan to try to improve the quality of that block, and to see that quality translate into a finished wine is incredibly rewarding. Our Platinum Pinot Gris is a great example of this – historically it went into a $15 wine but by adjusting the way we grow the grapes, by farming organically, by reducing crop, and by taking more care in the winemaking including fermenting it naturally in a mixture of concrete and French Oak, we are now producing a beautiful single vineyard Pinot Gris which sits with the best in Canada. To have found unique characteristics in the vineyard and see it translated into a wine people love is most rewarding for me.
CedarCreek Platinum ‘Jagged Rock’ Sparkling Rosé
Fruit for this sparkling is sourced from the Jagged Rock vineyard – a noteworthy place that is surrounded by steep rocky cliffs at 1,400 feet elevation. The large cliffs reflect heat back on to the vineyard creating sparse sun scorched soils that are ideal for growing remarkable fruit that’s delicate, diverse and expressively rich. This bottling was aged nine months on lees in stainless steel and comes across as an effervescent and lighter rosé, with brilliant aromas of strawberries and cream as well as pink grapefruit that jump out of the glass. I love the fine-tuned acidity that allows this to really sing on the palate without overwhelming those characteristic fresh fruit flavours. ($35)
CedarCreek 2021 ‘Estate’ Sauvignon Blanc
Grapes famously hold a mirror to their surroundings. The southern Okanagan has an herbal quality to the air at the height of growing season – sage and antelope brush warmed by the sun. So maybe it’s not surprising that there’s a tell-tale grassiness to this herbaceous-by-nature sauvignon blanc. The fruit is picked early to retain the bright, fresh acidity that shows through on the palate. Bone dry, with electric acidity, this is somewhat of a textbook Marlborough, New Zealand-like sauvignon blanc, with its notes of lime, lemon grass and subtle green cooking herbs. ($21)
CedarCreek 2021 Platinum ‘Home Block’ Riesling
The Home Block vineyard slopes down the eastern shores of Lake Okanagan where the soils, sun exposure and microclimates change dramatically. Primarily grown on Block 1, closest to the lake, their riesling benefits from the water-retaining clay soils and temperature moderating effect of the lake. Fermented in a combination of large German oak barrels and stainless steel, the result is a riesling with intensely aromatic mandarin and orange blossom, complemented by subtle, struck match reductive characters. Flavours are flint-accented, with stone and citrus weighing in nicely on a tight palate and dry balance (11.2 g/l of residual sugar). Aged 6 months on lees. Enjoyable now but this is definitely cellar worthy and will reward its patient imbiber through 2030. ($35)
CedarCreek 2021 Platinum ‘Simes Vineyard’ Pinot Gris
Certified organic yeasts and a selection of stainless steel, concrete and oak highlight this outstanding wine that hails from a cool, late ripening, northern Okanagan vineyard. The ’21 vintage was an extremely dry one – warm to start the year, with a cool and wet spell in early June. Unprecedented midsummer heat led to the earliest start of harvest on record. Precise and focused acidity helps provide texture and balance to the tantalizing flavours of pear and nectarines. The finish is long and excellent, coming across minerally clean. This is BC pinot gris at its finest and one of the true benchmarks of the variety. ($35)
CedarCreek 2020 ‘Estate’ Pinot Noir
From a vineyard planted in 1989, and known today as the Home Block, fruit for this entry level pinot tends to be very consistent from one year to the next, producing flavourful, expressive wines. Much like the 2019 before it, this 2020 expression has a wonderful essence of blackberry and raspberry fruit on both the nose and fore palate, with further notes of earth, underbrush and savoury herbs revealed on the mid palate and finish. It’s a beautifully structured wine, quite different from what might be otherwise expected of a wine at this (entry level) price point. Again, impressive. ($28)
CedarCreek 2019 Aspect ‘Block 2’ Pinot Noir
This wine is a tribute to the unique blend of clones planted on clay, silt, and stone and is fermented using wild yeasts. Winemaker Taylor Whelan says “Our Aspect Collection pinots best express the terroir we are working with. They’re made predominantly from clone 115 and are grown on distinct soils. Block 2 soils are heavier with the vines having more access to water – this leads to a more elegant and red-fruited profile.” French oak is used for aging (14 months, 18% new) and this allows the wine to fully express itself and truly capture the character of the vineyard. Right now, expect finely ground tannins, red fruit flavours, clove and a mineral splash that leads to a long and excellent finish. ($75)
CedarCreek 2020 Platinum ‘Haynes Creek Vineyard’ Cabernet Franc
After more than two decades, cabernet franc, a grape principally grown for blending at CedarCreek, is finally stepping out into the spotlight. Grown in the winery’s southern Okanagan vineyards, this late ripening grape maintains balance and preserves elegance. Fresh red fruit shines through, and with every sip, you’ll understand just how far this variety has come since those “blending” years. Before its 14 months spent in French oak, the wine underwent a 50 percent wild ferment (25 percent whole bunch) and ultimately delivers a generous, but smooth, 14.5 percent ABV. Expect maturing red and black fruit flavours over a medium to full body, dusty tannins and a juicy, savoury finish. ($55)