“I’m much more than a conservative, conventional winemaker. I’ve slowly come to embrace the more artist side of winemaking.” – Shane Munn
With great wine making comes great responsibility. Okay, so that line is borrowed from the first Spider-Man movie, sort of (fans of the film know what I’m talking about), but in the case of Martin’s Lane Winery and winemaker Shane Munn, that’s a saying that could easily pass as their mantra.
Designed and built to produce world-class pinot noir and riesling wines, Martin’s Lane – named after owner Anthony von Mandl’s father – is also world-class in how it’s built and operated. With sustainability as its fundamental pillar, the winery’s building is an expression of the raw, exposed environment, using materials designed to weather, age and reflect the natural roughness and beauty that surrounds it.
Raw, rugged and fractured, with its sun-scorched earth and jagged rocky hillsides, British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley is a place where the elements reign, and the winery was designed to depict that very essence.
Situated beautifully into a steep hillside, the area has low humidity and rainfall, with cool nights and warm days and an abundance of volcanic and glacial soil. It’s a perfect setting for growing pinot noir and riesling grapes, which are the singular focus at the winery – two varieties traditionally not often seen alongside each other. But, as winemaker Shane Munn puts it, “we’re in the New World, where we’re not bound by traditional constraints, so we’re forging our own path while still remaining inspired by the greatest wines in the world.”
Shane Munn arrived at Martin’s Lane in time for the inaugural 2014 harvest. Along with proprietor, von Mandl (who launched Mission Hill Family Estate 20 years earlier), the two of them share the same vision in their winemaking philosophy, which is to craft wines that display complexity, texture and elegance. Munn likes to remind me that this particular winemaking project is still very young, “so in terms of the wines we’ve released, we’re only two to three vintages old.”
According to Munn, “fastidious organic viticulture and a mix of traditional and progressive winemaking methods are used to produce single-vineyard and single-block wines – with the aim of carving a path for Okanagan pinot noir and riesling and reaching heights in terms of international reputation that none before have aspired to.” Maybe that’s a much better mantra than the one I made up.
“we’re forging our own path while still remaining inspired by the greatest wines in the world.”
Before joining this radically charged winemaking unit, Munn previously worked at Millton Vineyards in his home country of New Zealand before making the move to Canada – and specifically Ontario – to work at Malivoire. He’s also spent time at G.D Varja in Barolo, Italy. A graduate of Charles Sturt University in Australia (Bachelor of Applied Science-Wine Science) Munn also holds a Science degree, majoring in Operations Research and Statistics.
Munn’s winemaking philosophy is based around respecting the integrity of the meticulously tended, certified organically farmed vineyards he spends overseeing. Extremely gentle handling and obsession with detail combined with time and patience form the basis of his wines. Traditional and organically focussed winemaking techniques – “beyond the superficial sustainable initiatives currently underway by some in the Okanagan” – are harnessed with the aim of producing his complex pinot noirs and rich, textural rieslings. All wines are always spontaneously fermented and never fined or filtered.
“It’s of the utmost importance that the care for the land we farm flows into the winery and produces wines of authenticity and individuality of site,” says Munn during our virtual conversation. “No commercial yeasts have ever been used in the winery (in seven vintages). Its important to us that there is a transparency in all our farming and winemaking methods. We have a mindset in the winery that gentle handling, little or no adjustments of the juice or wine all fits this methodology.”
It’s a practice, not to mention a message, that suits the winery’s look and feel, considering the fact that the Martin’s Lane look is very much a part of that message. The winery’s almost 35,000 square foot vertical, five-level integrated design is built into the hillside. The building’s form is conceived as a fracture down the middle opening the interior spaces to daylight while one side follows the slope down the hillside, and the other follows the horizon.
Gravity flow utilizes the downhill slope of the west-facing hillside so there’s no harsh pumping required to move the grapes, juice and wine through the stages of the production process. The tiered orientation built right into the earth minimizes energy consumption and provides stable temperatures and humidity so there’s no need for conventional heating or cooling systems.
“Radical is often a word used to describe the brand,” says Munn. “From my point of view that’s more to do with the very unique, contemporary architecture. The winemaking is more traditional – due to the complete use of our gravity allowing us to use very traditional techniques and methods.”
“I’d say my philosophy is gentle and guiding rather than pre-determined and set in stone.”
Right now, Martin’s Lane releases three rieslings and four pinot noirs – all single vineyard expressions – but there’s more in store for this young winery’s future. “Down the track, say three vintages from now, we’ll likely have at least seven different pinot noirs,” confides Munn. These will be “expressions of some of the single blocks within our vineyards adding to the existing single vineyard bottlings. But only if they are very high quality and (as importantly) display a uniquely different personality to the other wines.”
“If we jump forward even further, there’s three high density vineyards (10,400 vines/hectare and indiscriminately planted) that were planted in 2020 – farming these, let along making the wines will certainly get us out of our comfort zone. We may see fruit from these sites in five to seven years and will add even more complexity and depth to our portfolio.”
Of course, with Munn focusing on just two grapes, thus making Martin’s Lane a specialty brand (not unsimilar to its sister winery CheckMate, which focuses on just chardonnay and merlot), I had to bring up the ‘artisan’ question. Perhaps not surprisingly – if you know Shane well – it seems that he shies away from the artisan label when it’s being tossed in his direction.
“I can’t say I like that word. It has the same ring as curator (unless you’re an art curator in the traditional sense!), but I guess if you look at that term from a spiritual sense then I suppose that applies to me,” quips Munn. “I’m much more than a conservative, conventional winemaker. I’ve slowly come to embrace the more artist side of winemaking – it certainly helps working within a winery that is a drawcard and a bit of an architectural wonder itself.”
Munn’s intuition and drive will inevitably be the key to success for the Okanagan to reach new levels of international acclaim for both pinot noir and riesling, but he’s much more modest in where his success has brought him to date. “I’d say my philosophy is gentle and guiding rather than pre-determined and set in stone. Someone has to make decisions, otherwise the fruit will sit on the crush pad!”
Martin’s Lane 2016 ‘Naramata Ranch’ Riesling
This particular single vineyard riesling comes from vines that sit on red granite and volcanic, silty soil. According to winemaker Shane Munn, “The Okanagan is a very unique and dynamic place to grow and make riesling. The soils are challenging.” The style here is off-dry, textured and complex. Munn pushes the skin contact more (to around 48 hours) and uses more alternative vessels (1,250L German oak and ceramic for the fermentation and elevage). The results are phenomenal, with tantalizing floral and wet stone aromas that lead to tangy and savoury flavours of tangerine, lemon and minerality on the palate. Definitely a step up in price from most, but the reward is absolute. ($55)
Martin’s Lane 2016 ‘Simes Vineyard’ Riesling
At nearly 50º latitude, this wine comes from one of the coolest places in the Okanagan. Throw altitude into the mix and things become interesting. A focused attention to the viticulture has produced a focused and firm riesling that slowly unravels its tight body with notes of apricot and peach taking the lead. There’s also suggestions of lemon, beeswax and honey. Mineral notes add a certain refreshing element to the mix. Impressively textured, complex and outstanding length. Quite good now, but sure to be even better in a few years. ($45)
Martin’s Lane 2016 ‘Fritzi’s Vineyard’ Riesling
From a southeast-facing parcel that rests at the foot of a dormant volcano, these 25-year-old vines are flexing their muscles, showing off what they’re truly capable of producing. There’s evident mineral strength to this riesling, with added notes of gravel. Mango, apricot, peach and lemon zest all combine to provide an intense and powerful flavour profile that leaves you contemplating this wine for minutes after those initial sips. Or maybe it’s the very lengthy finish that’s making me do that. Either way, this is a wine that’s only begun to reveal its story. My recommendation: leave this be for another decade and feel it purr on your palate when that glorious day of uncorking this gem arrives. ($65)
Martin’s Lane 2016 ‘Simes Vineyard’ Pinot Noir
Apart from the transition to organic viticulture, winemaker Shane Munn insists that it’s been the subtle changes to the winemaking techniques that make all the difference. Regarding pinot noir, he refers to “increasing the percentage of whole bunches from about 20-25 percent in the first vintage to using 50-100 percent depending on the site or block.” The result is a wine that exudes terroir. In fact, this is a pinot noir that checks so many boxes – but in a really good way. From a north-facing site (sun always behind it), this is their coolest vineyard where fruit is the last to be harvested (October). The colour is dense, and immediately there’s a nose of underbrush and cedar, along with cherry, plum and baking spice. The palate is medium bodied, rich, elegant and finessed, yet firm. Brambled fruit, savoury herbs and a very lengthy mineral finish complete the experience. ($100)
Martin’s Lane 2016 ‘DeHart Vineyard’ Pinot Noir
Shane Munn continues his explanation of the subtle changes to his winemaking techniques by adding that “there’s an increased reliance on concrete for fermentation (with a long cuvasion). Maturation length in barrel hasn’t changed but the cooperages certainly have – after years of refinement to ensure the oak is always subliminal in nature, we now focus on just one cooperage.” This is just the second vintage from this particular west-facing, high elevation vineyard (making it officially the fourth pinot noir in the portfolio), and it’s another stunner. Notes of cedar and earth are introduced on the nose. Plum and stone fruits carry the palate, and there’s that minerality lurking ever closely. It’s a ripe, deep and deliciously concentrated wine, but not as over-bearing as, say, a pinot from Sonoma. This strikes the right balance. Well done. ($100)
Martin’s Lane 2016 ‘Naramata Ranch Vineyard’ Pinot Noir
From vines first planted in 2008 (with more blocks added at different elevations), what makes the Naramata Ranch offering so unique to the winery’s other labels is its varying mesoclimates, which ultimately yield fruit that display subtle differences in flavour and concentration. Aged for 17 months in both French and Austrian oak, it’s a hefty and bold wine (14.5% alc/vol), very textured and round at the moment, yet no less elegant and complex than its counterparts. Ripe and earthy, with cherry, spice, underbrush and a touch of liqueur, it’s bound to attract many who appreciate the style. The feeling is, at this present moment, that this is one that’s more for the cellar – at least for a few more years. ($100)