The Okanagan Valley is British Columbia’s wine making hub and it can be argued that Mission Hill Family Estate Winery is its capital building – responsible for putting the Okanagan, and BC wine for that matter, on the world stage.
Despite a long history of winemaking in the region, it really only took shape in the 1990s, specifically when the 1992 vintage of Mission Hill chardonnay won the Avery Trophy for “Best Chardonnay Worldwide” at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in London, England.
Awards and critical praise have followed the winery – and the region – ever since. Take 2019 for example. Mission Hill was named Canadian Winery of the Year at the WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada, earning a record-setting 18 medals. It was the fifth time that the winery had won this title since the awards were founded in 2001, making it the winningest winery in Canada.
David Lawrason is a founding partner and chief critic at WineAlign and was co-head judge at the 2019 awards. Regarding Mission Hill’s achievements, he wrote: “With that kind of consistency, you have to believe there is more than just luck on their side. In my view, the reason has to be a particular quality vision or goal. Anyone who has visited the magnificent hilltop winery in West Kelowna has sensed that aspiration.”
Lawrason continued: “What I have noticed in the past year or two, and in tasting many of the Mission Hill entries at the 2019 Nationals, is that there is indeed a sense of sophistication, achieved through well defined “varietal” character, well-woven amid other complexities, and a certain textural elegance. The wines are hard to dissect, but they feel right. It is something that I find in many of Europe’s best wines, and I think it resonated with our keen, internationally attuned judges as well.”
Much of Mission Hill’s success in recent years needs to be credited to Darryl Brooker, who joined Mission Hill as chief winemaker for the 2015 harvest following his successful five-year tenure as lead winemaker at Cedar Creek Estate Winery.
Brooker is now President of Mission Hill Family Estate and Sebastian Farms where he is responsible for all aspects of winemaking, viticulture and guest experiences at Mission Hill Family Estate. He also oversees Sebastian Farms, a collection of exceptional estate vineyards located throughout the Okanagan Valley.
He began his 20+ year career in winemaking at Mountadam Vineyards in Barossa Valley, one of Australia’s pioneer chardonnay makers, followed by senior winemaking roles at Villa Maria Estate in Hawkes Bay and Marlborough, New Zealand. With the desire to channel his career in a new direction, he relocated to the Niagara Region in Ontario where he led the effort to produce award-winning pinot noir, chardonnay and riesling at Flat Rock Cellars.
Australian-born, Brooker is driven by a single passion: To produce wines of incredible depth and unprecedented quality that reflect the unique terroir of the Okanagan and can stand alongside the best in the world.
Part of Darryl Brooker’s continuing legacy at Mission Hill will be his overseeing of the winery’s transition to 100 percent certified organic farming. As of the 2019 vintage, all of Mission Hill’s North Okanagan vineyards are certified organic with the southern vineyards being farmed organically but just not completely certified yet (it takes three years of consistent organic farming to be officially certified). By 2021, all vineyards farmed by the winery will be certified organic.
“I think it is impossible to ignore social responsibility, however the real motivation for us to make the bold decision to convert all of our vineyards to organic is to continue to make better wine.” – Darryl Brooker
There’s no question that there’s been a difference since making the decision. As Brooker points out: “Vines are healthier and stronger, which in turn promotes increased varietal character in the grapes. The health of the soil also has an incredible impact on grape quality.”
Brooker adds that he “truly believes that organic viticulture gives us better wines. You need to be more attentive in the vineyard; you do not have a way of fixing a problem; you need to be way more proactive. This means spending a lot more time in the vineyard and being more in tune with the vineyard.”
Prior to this very recent interview, I had met Darryl Brooker on two occasions. Both happened in 2018. First at an exclusive retrospective tasting where Brooker was presenting a ten-vintage vertical of Canada’s most collected and iconic wine, the Mission Hill ‘Oculus’. I remember having the chance to chat with him after the tasting and I couldn’t help but notice just how hospitable his conduct was, gladly taking the time to shake hands and engage with everyone in the room. We would meet again just a few months later at a portfolio gathering for Mark Anthony Wine and Spirits.
I consider Mission Hill’s wines to be among the best I’ve tasted, not to mention, very consistent. I have fond memories of that ten-vintage Oculus retrospective, and both their ‘Compendium’ and ‘Quatrain’ – part of their Legacy collection tier of wines – are also incredibly made to the point that I’d confidently say that they can rival just about anything out of California, Tuscany and Bordeaux.
Below is more from my interview with Darryl Brooker followed by my tasting notes of some of Mission Hill’s most recent releases from their ‘Reserve Series’ lineup of wines:
Q: How did you get started in wine?
A: It was purely through tasting and enjoying wine. I met by wife in Sydney and she came from the Hunter Valley, a well-known wine region in Australia. When we would go and visit her family I found that it was a lot of fun to go wine tasting and I was really taken with the wines. I was only just 20 years old and started reading a lot about growing grapes and making wine. I realized that you can actually do this as a job, so I enrolled in University to study wine making, and the rest is history.
Do you have a favourite varietal that you like to work with – or perhaps one that consistently challenges you? If so, which is it and why?
I love making a range of wines, however my favourite varietal year in and year out is definitely chardonnay. It is such a versatile grape from Sparkling wine, unoaked, oaked and everything in between. It is the perfect balance of the vineyard and the influence of the winemaker. It can never be a great chardonnay without both aspects.
How important and influential is Mission Hill’s recent and past achievements to you? Knowing that consumers (and critics, alike) look to Mission Hill as a benchmark for producing premium quality wines, was that a strong motivating factor for you when you became head winemaker and ultimately the winery’s president?
Absolutely. The history is always a big part in winemaking and Mission Hill has done so much for the Canadian wine industry. It is an honour to lead winemaking for Mission Hill and not something that I take lightly. The real challenge is to keep improving, year over year and keep challenging ourselves to get better, both in the vineyard and in our winemaking.
Any insight on what we can look forward to from the 2019 vintage?
I think the evolution of the wines in general. The wines have more character, they tell a story and they reflect more clearly the place they are grown. The Okanagan Valley is such an exciting place to grow grapes that it is important to showcase that in our wines.
What is one of the hardest things about winemaking year in and year out? Conversely, what do you find is most rewarding about your role as winemaker?
The hardest thing is that you only get to make the wine once a year, you only get one chance each year. If you make a mistake you have to live with that for a long time. The most rewarding is related to the same thought. You work so hard to make the most of what mother nature gives you and it is incredibly rewarding to see that hard work in the bottle and enjoy it for many years to come. Every vintage (year) are like babies. You remember the good times and the tough times and you remember every detail.
How are you enjoying British Columbia?
I love British Columbia. The best place on earth in my opinion. I have been lucky enough to live around the world and it does not get any better. The weather, the outdoors, the food, the wine and the people. All highlights.
Which wine region do you think British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley can be best compared with and why?
I think Central Otago in New Zealand. Really intense growing season and very small on the world scale. Hot days and cold nights and it is recognized as producing world-class wines but they are generally hard to get.
Has your practice or technique needed to change since joining Mission Hill? If so, can you explain how you’ve had to adjust?
Definitely. I have never worked anywhere with so much diversity, from north to south and with all the different soil types. It is like making wine in many different regions – Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhone Valley, all in the same region. You cannot have one approach to making wine in the Okanagan Valley. You are constantly adjusting and changing based on the vineyard site. You need to start fresh every day and the diversity is incredible and also very exciting.
What goals are you still working to achieve?
The beauty of winemaking is that it changes every year. The vines get older, the weather changes, wine styles change. The goal for me is to continue to express the Okanagan Valley and the vineyards we farm organically. The goal is to continue to show the world that we have something very special right here in British Columbia and it is more exciting every year.
Mission Hill 2019 ‘Reserve’ Rosé
A treat for patio season, this is a crisp and vibrant rosé that shines brightly with thirst-inducing aromas of fresh watermelon, mouth-watering raspberry and strawberry rhubarb pie. There’s balanced acidity weighing in which gives it that refreshing appeal. Great to drink on its own but will also pair nicely with barbecued chicken drumsticks and wings. ($23.99)
Mission Hill 2019 ‘Reserve’ Sauvignon Blanc
This 2019 sauvignon blanc was primarily grown in the southernmost estate vineyards in Osoyoos. Each vineyard has a distinct microclimate which lends unique flavour characteristics to the varietal before it becomes part of the final blend. What we get is a broad spectrum of flavours, beginning with pineapple, citrus notes, lemongrass and continuing with the classic gooseberry flavours that make this varietal so unique. There’s a nicely weighted mineral core and even some spicy notes on the finish. It’s a good choice for summer. ($22.95)
Mission Hill 2018 ‘Reserve’ Riesling
What I enjoy most about a quality riesling is the ability for it to translate its terroir, thus becoming more than just a one-dimensional wine that tastes sweet. Sure, there’s more residual sugar in riesling, but we’re not supposed to mind it – or even notice it much – if it’s made well. This reserve riesling presents a medium body with multi-layered and complex notes of citrus and orange peel, pear, apple and very refreshing stone minerality. It’s fresh and mouth bursting, yet crisp and cutting, and the finish is excellent. ($24.75)
Mission Hill 2018 ‘Reserve’ Chardonnay
You can really tell that Mission Hill, under Darry Brooker’s direction, takes careful aim at their chardonnay production. It’s Brooker’s favourite varietal to work with and it shows. The 2018 reserve was sourced from three estate vineyards – Oliver, Osoyoos, and the Naramata Ranch. The Oliver Vineyard estate includes the blocks of vines that the original 1992 award-winning chardonnay was sourced from, providing an excellent foundation and the key characteristics one might expect to taste of such matured vines. Fresh citrus and ripe stone fruit aromas are complemented by a bright line of acidity and smooth texture from subtle oak aging. A particularly good valued selection considering the pedigree. ($23.95)
Mission Hill 2017 ‘Reserve’ Merlot
This 2017 reserve merlot was grown in two estate vineyards. Oliver and Osoyoos, with the latter being the region’s most southern area, comprised of arid benchlands that benefit from the lake’s effect. The warmer climate allows Bordeaux varietals to completely ripen for full flavour. Full-bodied and well structured, with notes of blackberry, plum and hints of dark cherry on the nose. There’s also tobacco leaf, leather and spice. Ripe fruit on the palate is supported nicely with a smoothened tannin presence. Allow this to open up in your decanter for full and pleasurable experience. ($24.55)
Mission Hill 2017 ‘Reserve’ Shiraz
This is a very dense and rich wine, made in a style that’s famously reminiscent of Australian shiraz. There’s generous blackberry and blueberry jam notes, ripe plum and that signature bell pepper that people have come to expect of this varietal. There’s solid structure here even if it is a slight bit intense at the moment. The three percent viognier added provides proper balance and lift. It’s a deeply concentrated wine that can withstand a few more years in the cellar and it begs for a ribeye steak pairing. ($30)