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Monte Creek Winery in British Columbia

Interview with Winemaker Galen Barnhardt

This British Columbia (BC) Winery Spotlight is on Monte Creek Winery in Kamloops, Canada.

Monte Creek Winery opened its doors in 2009. The story I heard (I have no idea if this is true) is that the owners purchased the land to grow blueberries… and then found out the soil wouldn’t support it. So they planted a vineyard instead.

If that story is true, then that’s the best mistake that could have happened for the rest of us.

At this year’s Vancouver International Wine Festival, I sat down with Monte Creek’s winemaker, Galen Barnhardt. Below are some of the topics we discussed.

First, I’ll share a brief account of BC wine region and the climate around Monte Creek Winery. This is followed with some quick facts in the ‘Monte Creek Winery in a Nutshell‘ section. Finally my discussion with Galen will follow with tasting notes of the wines and food pairing recommendations.

 

Table of Contents

You can click on a subheading below to get right to that section. Or, scroll through and enjoy the complete post!

BC Interior Wine Region: Thompson Valley
and its Climate

Monte Creek Winery in Kamloops, BC
Monte Creek Winery

You may not know that we make wines in British Columbia, Canada.

There’s a reason for this. It’s simply because we don’t produce a lot of wine and we pretty much drink them all.

For the neophyte, Monte Creek Winery is in the Thompson Valley wine region in British Columbia’s interior. It sits on the lower hills of the east side of the Cascade Mountains and is nestled in the valley before the landscape juts up again to form the Rocky Mountains.

Monte Creek is just on the outskirts of the city of Kamloops.

 

Essentially, the Cascade Mountain range creates a rainshadow effect over the Thompson Valley. This means the region can have long dry autumns, perfect for ripening grapes. Moreover, the lack of rain after June means that wine growers don’t need to fret too much about fungal diseases in the way places like Bordeaux in France or the Willamette Valley in Oregon do.
 
In fact, the area is absolutely perfect for organic and biodynamic farming. I’ll get back to this point later.
 

And as any wine student will tell you, high quality wine grapes can only grow between 30º and 50º latitude.

Yet, BC’s wine growing areas stretch to 50˚ latitude and just beyond. So it’s scarcely past the edge of where viticulture is possible.

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Winter Freeze at Monte Creek Winery

The northerly latitude means it can get bloody cold here.

As a consequence, Dominik Hensler, the resident viticulturalist at Monte Creek, Galen and the rest of the team must dig up the soil around the vines to cover and protect the trunks before winter sets in. This can be an arduous task. As a result, they’ve modified their trellising so that vine trunks only grow 8 inches from the ground – making the job somewhat bearable.

According to Galen, “Sometimes you get a bit of erosion and if a cold snap hits, everything
exposed will just die. I find [burying the vines also] affects soil structure so I don’t love it.”

At Monte Creek, temperatures that reach minus 20º Celsius (-4º F) and below are a tad too common in winter.

As a result, Galen and the team are currently trialling these Geotextile sheets (see photo) also known as ‘earth fabric’.

Covering the vines with earth fabric helps to maintain temperatures up to 4-5º C (39-41º F) higher than they would be without.

 

Image of Geotech sheeting at Monte Creek Winery
Geotextile 'earth fabric' help to maintain temperatures up to 4-5º C (39-41º F) higher for the vine trunks than they would without

Furthermore, the Geotextile sheets will save the staff from having to dig up the soil each year. With grape quality in mind, it means Galen and the team can begin training the vine trunks higher, avoiding some of the humidity the grapes pick up from the soil.

Most importantly for Galen, it means they can stop messing around with the soil structure by digging it up every year.

Bodies of Water help Mitigate the Climate Extremes at Monte Creek Winery

In these interior wine regions of the province, it’s bodies of water that help mitigate the temperature extremes – both in the hot summer months and in the cold winter months.

Monte Creek’s main 2 vineyards, Monte Creek and Lions Head, are therefore on opposite sides of the Thompson River.

The Thompson River in winter - the water helps mitigate temperature extremes at Monte Creek Winery

The movement of air helps to protect the vines. In winter, the river gives off heat. In summer, it provides a cooling effect from the breezes.

This is important because the area is known for temperatures of 37-40º Celsius (99-104º F) in summer.

As climate change kicks in, Galen spoke of the more recent temperature extremes from last year.

In 2021, he had to deal with temperatures hitting 47º C (117º F)!

 

How the Wines Taste in the Area as a Result of the Climate

Since Monte Creek Winery sits at 50.64º N, some challenges and one major bonus for grape quality result.

On the plus side, Monte Creek’s wines will always have naturally high acidity making the wines taste fresh and mouthwatering.

On the flip side, the shorter growing season means that Dominik and the viticultural team need to make constant trips through the vineyard pruning by hand. The trick is to leave more foliage surrounding the grape bunches to protect them from the scorching sun, especially with the early-ripening vinifera varieties.

Unfortunately, they can’t just leave the foliage alone to form a cover – which the plant would happily do left to its own devices. Instead, they must cut a careful hole around each grape bunch so that air can blow in as well. Otherwise, fungal diseases may take hold.

It’s a tricky proposition for Galen and the team as they have to work hard to, “get the flavours to ripen before the sugars skyrocket” in those early-ripening varieties.

But, hard work pays off!

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Monte Creek Winery Tasting Room
The Tasting Room at Monte Creek Winery

Monte Creek Winery in a nutshell

Location

Monte Creek Winery Website link here

2420 Miner’s Bluff Road
Monte Creek, BC VOE 2M0

– a 30 minute drive from the downtown core of Kamloops (heading east).

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General Manager

Erik Fisher

Winemaker

Galen Barnhardt

Vineyard Manager

Dominik Hensler

Enologist

Liisa MacLean

Marketing

Ashley Demedeiros

vineyards

Vineyards and Viticultural Philosophy

  • transitioning towards fully certified organic by 2023
  • livestock includes, goats and pigs; they also keep bees!
  • has 3 estate vineyards – Monte Creek (right at the tasting room location), Lions Head which is across on the north side of the Thompson River and a recently planted vineyard in Keremeos, in the Similkameen Valley.
  • but they also purchase grapes from the Okanagan for their Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon bottlings (purchasing grapes is a normal occurrence throughout BC)
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Tasting Room

  • Open all year round
  • May to October 11am-6pm
  • November to April 11am-5pm
Le Terrace Restaurant at Monte Creek Winery overlooking the Thompson River
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Restaurant

  • The Terrace Restaurant features alfresco dining, meaning that the dining room is the patio. Therefore, the restaurant is closed when it’s raining. But fortunately, it almost never rains in Kamloops.
  • reservations recommended
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Winemaking style

The fruit takes center stage in the wines of Monte Creek. No oak bombs here!

What do I mean? When Galen uses oak, he does so sparingly. If there’s oak you’ll taste it in the mid-palate, but every wine finishes with fruit flavours in the length. (This is something professional wine tasters are trained to look for as a sign of quality)
 
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Notable for

  • Under the direction of  General Manager, Erik Fisher, and of winemaker Galen Barnhardt, Monte Creek has spearheaded getting high quality hybrid varieties approved for Vinters Quality Alliance (VQA) status. Previously, only vitis vinifera varieties could be stamped VQA.
Erik Fisher, General Manager at Monte Creek Winery
Erik Fisher, General Manager of Monte Creek Winery. Erik and Galen were instrumental in getting hybrid varieites approved for VQA status

Spotlight on winemaker Galen Barnhardt

Last month, I met up with Galen at the Vancouver International Wine Festival. In the next paragraphs, I’ll share more from my conversation with him. Tasting notes of his wines and food pairing recommendations will follow. Stick around.

Galen Barnhardt: Education and Early Work

 

Galen grew up in the Shuswap [pronounced shoe-shwop], a popular lake and summer resort not far from Monte Creek Winery.

He received his Bachelor of Science degree from TRU in Kamloops. He then worked in restaurants, eventually gaining experience as a sommelier.

There he got the wine bug.

So he went off to Brock University in Niagara to study with the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticultural Institute. Afterwards, he returned to BC to work for one of the original pioneering wineries, CedarCreek Estate in Kelowna. (Yes, CedarCreek is one word). There he ultimately worked his way up to Assistant Winemaker.

 

Winemaker of Monte Creek Winery, Galen Barnhardt

After stints with renowned producers such as Ata Rangi in New Zealand, Cape Mentelle in Australia and time spent in Oregon, he’s not stopping. Galen is currently completing his Masters in Environmental Practice.

Which is very fitting indeed, as Monte Creek Winery is on track to become fully certified organic by next year (2023).

Vines at Monte Creek Winery
Grapevines at Monte Creek Winery
Wild fires are a hazard for BC's wineries. In 2021, Blue Mountain Vineyards announced they wouldn't be making any wine that year.

My first encounter with Galen was at a BC vintage report seminar.

One of the big topics in British Columbia are the increasing frequencies of wild fires which can lead to smoke taint aromas and flavours in the wine. This was one of the questions for the panel during the seminar.

What do you do with wines that have smoke taint?

Galen’s response, “I know I’m not supposed to say this, but you filter it with activated charcoal.”

 

Galen’s upfront approach is one of the (many) reasons I admire him. It’s not easy to admit to a room chock-full of professional wine tasters you use activated charcoal to remove unwanted flavours in wine from forest fire smoke.

It’s a practice that most consumers would never think twice about, nor condemn it if they knew.

Yet, wine professionals have a tendency to dislike anything that ‘removes’ flavour from the wine as it’s not a ‘natural’ process and risks removing some of the revered wine flavours too.

On the other hand, no one out there can argue Monte Creek’s wines aren’t natural. In fact, I’d say Galen’s wines are a straightforward as he talks. The proof is in the pudding, or in this case, the fruit.

 

How you get great fruit at Monte Creek Winery - it's in the soil!

Previously, I wrote about why soil type matters for grape quality.

What I didn’t mention in that article is how some wine growers are maximizing soil health as a way to increase vine vitality and disease resistance.

 

Ways to keep the canopy temperatures down so phenolic ripeness can happen

Addressing how they deal with the occasional scorching temperatures of 47º C (117º F), I asked if Monte Creek has ever used overhead sprinklers to cool the vine canopy down.

The context to that question is this. For me, seeing overhead sprinklers in BC’s warm interior drives me mad. In a region which is so dry, it seems irresponsible to use water as an air conditioner. Instead, it should only be used (very sparingly at that) to water the vines.

In defence of those who use overhead sprinklers, grapevines shut down when temperatures reach above 35º C (95º F). Temperatures above that are, indeed normal for BC’s interior. So sprinklers are a fairly cost effective way to bring the heat down in the canopy. You only have to pay the initial cost of the sprinklers and its setup.

Now here’s Galen’s response when I asked if Monte Creek uses overhead sprinklers,

 

“We haven’t done that…It’s one of those solutions that probably works but it’s a bit of a bandage. I’d rather have the vine health as healthy as possible. So for me it’s ‘build the soil’.

You know if you have a big root system and then you have the mycorrhiza, you know, the little fungi interacting with those roots and they can tap into all those nutrients and also all that water through that, that’s going to do way more for the vine than a sprinkler system.”

Grape vines at Monte Creek Winery

Mycorrhizal fungi

Bravo!

The mycorrhizal fungi Galen is talking about are the ones that grow in association with the roots of a plant in a symbiotic relationship, in this case with the grapevine roots.

In this exchange, the grapevine gains the benefits of the fungi’s root system, the mycelium. This helps because the mycelium has much higher adsoptive capacity for water and mineral nutrients.  

But beyond soil health, many wine producers will swear that choosing not to irrigate vines is one of the most efficacious ways you can grow strong roots systems that bury deep into the soil searching for water.

These producers argue that un-irrigated vines are more resistant to long periods of drought because of their expansive roots systems.

To be clear, Monte Creek Winery does use drip-irrigation, but this is the best way to conserve water while irrigating. Furthermore, there are many studies that argue that drip-irrigation, when used properly, will facilitate deep root growth and result in premium quality grapes as well.

Galen's Winemaking Style

 

What truly strikes me about Galen’s winemaking style is the purity of his fruit.
 
If his wines are aged in oak barrels, the treatment never overrides the fruit characteristics.
 

This is what its like to sip Monte Creek wine. First, primary fruit flavours jump out of the glass. The oak is only slightly revealed in the mid-palate – that’s where you’ll taste nutmeg, baking spices or toast. Finally, the primary fruit kicks in again in the final attack while the mouthwatering acids provide the length in the finish.

Here’s what Galen had to say about his winemaking style:

 

“We’ve gone through this transition….When you’re a new winemaker, you feel like you need to overextract the hell out of things. I think we’re gaining confidence. I think just as we mature, we say ok, we’re cool climate; we’re always going to have a little bit more delicate fruit coming off, maybe not a lot of big tannins… so why are we trying to make big Chateau wines? So we’re really trying to push acidity, obviously more fruit forwardness and gentle extraction.”

This is my personal preferred style of wine; it’s the style of wine we learn to appreciate in wine schools. Sure, it’s not for everyone.

In fact, when I asked Galen what he drinks on the weekend with his friends he replied, “I’m a mountain biker. My friends and I generally drink beer.” 😂🤣

Tasting notes and food pairing recommendations of Monte Creek's wines

Tasted on: May 19th, 2022

Monte Creek Living Land Sparkling Rosé 2020

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Price

$20-24 order direct from the winery or in BC Liquor Stores

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Grapes

100% Marquette

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Tasting Note

Lots of of crunchy red fruits on the nose; think pomegranites and redcurrants with a sweet floral lift of jasmine flowers.

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The first sip reveals more red fruits: loganberries, raspberries and bing cherries. There is some necessary sweetness on the tip of your tongue, but its only just noticeable due to all of those tart red fruits, bubbles and mouthwatering acids.

This rosé is a mid-weight wine that has a medium length and finishes with more tart, crunchy cranberry fruit.

This wine can clearly stand on its own and at 13% alcohol, I’ll forgive anyone for finishing the bottle in one sitting.

Monte Creek Winery Living Land Sparkling rosé

Eat with

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Eat with pan seared salmon, tuna or a Niçoise Salad.  Your also in luck if you love Asian fusion foods- think fried rice, crispy duck or jack fruit bao buns. Those hard to pair foods that have honey or sweet fruits in the recipe will go well too. For example, throw all your fresh garden goodies together and toss with this Orange-Poppy Seed Vinaigrette.

The fruit forwardness, sweetness and elevated acidity means this is a versatile wine that will be the life of any party; be it dancing by yourself in the living room, or surrounded by friends and long tables jam-packed with food.

Monte Creek Living Land Riesling 2021

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Price

$ 22 order direct from the winery

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Grapes

100% Riesling

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Tasting Note

Aromas of ripe peaches, apricot and honeysuckle jump out of the glass with a lime zest and lime juice pop. The wine tastes dry (by which I mean there’s some residual sugar in the wine but the acid is so high, you don’t notice it at all)

 

Monte Creek Living Land Riesling
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a mid-weight wine with some texture to it, medium alcohol and that lazer-beam acidity radiating all the way at the back of your mouth along through the sides of your tongue. Zzzing!

Eat with

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Here’s a tip, If you ever go out for a multi-course meal and you only want to order just one bottle: choose an off-dry Riesling!

In particular, pick a Riesling that hits those rich, ripe fruit notes of apricot and peaches – it will go with everything. That’s because the fruit ripeness or richness and slight sweetness in the wine stands up to heavier foods. At the same time, the the lime juice and high acidity will wash all fats from your tongue, and finish with mouthwatering tartness that will leave you hungry for more food.

In fact, this style of Riesling goes with the widest array of foods. It will even stand up to raw fish (sushi) with salty soy sauce – which is no small feat. Salads with a Sesame Ginger Dressing like this one are a brilliant match as well.

Fresh pan-seared BC wild salmon, anyone?

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Monte Creek Ancient Waters Chardonnay 2019

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Price

$24.99  order direct from the winery

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Grapes

100% Chardonnay

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Tasting Note

What I love, love LOVE about Galen’s style is that he respects the fruit. Therefore, the new oak flavours are present in this Chardonnay, but it finishes with the primary fruit flavours from the grapes.

And this wine just tightrope walks between sour tart green fruits and warm toast and a touch of fresh cream. The nose has aromas of lime juice, yellow and red apples, acacia flowers, toast, cheese rind and blanched almonds.

 

Monte Creek Ancient Waters Chardonnay
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On the palate, the flavours continue to dance between tartness and ripeness: lime juice, underripe peach and ripe nectarine interplay with a touch of toast (oak).

With a few years in the cellar, I bet this wine will become more custardy and drink like créme brûlé.

This is a mid-weight wine; the acid is high and the alcohol is a warm 14%

Eat with

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Because this Chardonnay sings in both soprano and tenor, your food choices can too.

Choose slightly creamy but savoury dishes: chicken with cream sauce, cauliflower with cashew cream, as well as soft cheeses like Brie to semi-hard cheeses like Comté and Fontina. Pasta: Carbonara.

Or, on the lighter side, think halibut or trout with a warm parsely vinaigrette! Most salads would complement this wine so try this cold-pressed Sunflower Vinaigrette, the cashews in the recipe will highlight the blanched almond notes in the wine.

Nutty squash dishes like butternut or kaboocha squash salted with my favourite BC organic coconut oil will work marvelously!

Monte Creek Living Land Pinot Noir 2020

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Price

$24.99 order direct from the winery

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Grapes

100% Pinot Noir

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Tasting Note

Aromas and flavours are bursting with ripe red fruits: cherries, field strawberries, and red plums. There’s also a light lilac floral lift on the nose.

 

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Some light tones of nutmeg and sandlewood in the background… is there any oak barrel ageing? There is, but the treatment is soo elegant.

Once again Galen proves he’s a master with oak management. The spice dissipates after the mid-palate and the wine finishes with more of those ripe red juicy fruits. Soft tingling on the gums denote the light tannins. This Pinot has a medium finish with some complexity.

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Eat with

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Heck, with this wine, why bother with food? Just drink it!

Serving suggestions: Flash-chill the bottle in the fridge for 15 minutes just before serving it.

And if I must suggest food… this wine will go with a variety of mid-weight dishes: Anything mushroom, or butternut squash ravioli, pork chops, oven roasted pizza with Genoa salami, and ratatouille.

Or, planning any picnics? Your walnut spread, cheese plate and charcuterie will love their Pinot companion.

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Monte Creek Living Land Cabernet Franc 2020

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Price

$26.99  order direct from the winery

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Grapes

91% Cabernet Franc; 9% Merlot from the Keremeos Vineyard

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Tasting Note

I love Cabernet Franc and for me, Monte Creek’s version fits the bill perrrfectly.

It’s soo aromatic! Elevated aromas of cherries, red and black plums, and redcurrants leap from the glass. Mineral notes of both dust and wet earth are present along with some sandalwood potpourri and light toast.

Monte Creek Winery Cabernet Franc
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The moment you put this wine in your mouth, there’s an explosion of flavour upfront. Red, slightly tart fruits like crunchy redcurrants and red plums finishes with a touch of woodiness and incredible mouthwatering length.

There’s some elevated tight-grained tannins on this wine and balanced medium alcohol.

Gosh, this sure is good juice!

Eat with

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A great serving suggestion is to flash-chill this wine for 15 minutes before serving.

Eat with herb crusted Lamb rack, chicken dishes and all of those pizzas that they serve at the Terrace Restaurant at Monte Creek.

Goat cheeses, duck with fruit compote. Even this red beet carpaccio with with walnut dressing will be yummy.

Other vegetarian dishes? Try Roasted Romanesco with Polenta.

 

Have you tried Monte Creek's wines?
What's your favourite?

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