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Discover the Hidden Gem: Exploring the Wonders of Monte Creek Winery in Beautiful 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

BC Interior Wine Region: Thompson Valley
and its Climate

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Monte Creek Winery

Did you know we make wine in British Columbia, Canada?

Here’s the catch. We don’t produce much and we love drinking them ourselves! Therefore, very few BC wines leave the country.

One winery gem is Monte Creek Winery 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.

Imagine this: the Cascade Mountain range casts a magical rainshadow over the Thompson Valley, creating long dry autumns that make grapes happy. Unlike places like Bordeaux or the Willamette Valley, we don’t have to worry much about pesky fungal diseases because the rain takes a backseat after June. It’s a dream come true for organic and biodynamic farming enthusiasts.

And as all wine students know: wine grapes thrive between 30º and 50º latitude. Guess what? BC’s wine-growing areas extend all the way up to 50˚ latitude and beyond! We’re pushing the limits!

 
 

 

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Winter Freeze at Monte Creek Winery

But with our northerly latitude, things can get seriously chilly. That means the team at Monte Creek, led by viticulturalist Dominik Hensler, has a frost-fighting mission on their hands. They have to dig up the soil around the vines and cover the trunks before winter arrives, protecting them from the bone-chilling cold. It’s no easy feat, but they’ve cleverly adjusted their trellising so that the vine trunks only grow 8 inches above the ground, making the task a little more bearable.

Galen, winemaker and sustainability guru, says “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.

To combat the extreme temperatures, they’ve been experimenting with Geotextile sheets, also known as ‘earth fabric’. These sheets provide extra insulation, keeping the temperatures around the vines 4-5º C (39-41º F) higher than they would be otherwise. It’s a cool solution to a frosty problem!

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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, bodies of water 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.

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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 cooling breezes.

The Thompson Valley is known for temperatures of 37-40º Celsius (99-104º F) in summer.

Yowza, some like it hot!

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

In 2021 during BC’s heat dome, he had to deal with temperatures hitting 47º C (117º F)!

 

How the Wines Taste at Monte Creek Winery 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. Think about it: poor little grapes can’t put on sunscreen the way we do. So Dominik must leave extra foliage around the grape bunches to protect them from the scorching sun, especially with early-ripening vinifera varieties.

On the other hand, they can’t just leave the foliage alone to form a cover – which the plant would happily do left on its own. Instead, they must cut a careful hole around each grape bunch so that air can blow in as well. Otherwise, fungal diseases 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 vinifera varieties.

But, hard work pays off!

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The Tasting Room at Monte Creek Winery

Monte Creek Winery in a nutshell

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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
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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 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.
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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’s journey into the world of wine started in the picturesque Shuswap, a popular lake and summer getaway near Monte Creek Winery (pronounced shoe-shwop, by the way).

He pursued his passion by earning a Bachelor of Science degree. He then took a gap year (or more!) and delved into the restaurant industry, where he gained valuable experience and eventually became a sommelier. That’s when the wine bug bit him hard.

So he went off to Brock University in Niagara to study with the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticultural Institute. Afterwards, he returned back to BC to work for one of BC’s original pioneering wineries, CedarCreek Estate in Kelowna working up to assistant winemaker.

Galen’s thirst for knowledge and exploration took him on exciting adventures with renowned producers like Ata Rangi in New Zealand, Cape Mentelle in Australia, and a stint in Oregon.

But he’s not done yet! Currently, Galen is pursuing his Masters in Environmental Practice, proving that his passion for wine and the environment go hand in hand.

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Galen Barnhardt, winemaker for Monte Creek Winery at the Vancouver Wine Festival

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

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Grapevines at Monte Creek Winery
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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.

The panel addressed BC’s ‘big topic:’ the increasing frequencies of wild fires and smoke taint in the wine.

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 style is truly admirable. It takes guts to stand in front of a room filled with seasoned wine tasters and openly admit to using activated charcoal to eliminate unwanted flavours caused by forest fire smoke.

It’s a practice that most consumers wouldn’t even think twice about, and if they knew, they wouldn’t condemn it.

But here’s the thing: wine professionals often have reservations about anything that removes flavours from the wine. They prefer to keep things “natural,” fearing that the process might also strip away some of the cherished wine flavours.

However, when it comes to Monte Creek’s wines, there’s no denying their natural goodness. Galen’s wines are as straightforward as he is in his discussions. 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 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 uses overhead sprinklers to cool the vine canopy down.

Many BC wine producers use overhead sprinklers to cool the vine canopy; it drives me mad. In a region which is so dry, it seems irresponsible to use water as an air conditioner.

However, grapevines shut down when temperatures reach above 35º C (95º F). Therefore, sprinklers serve as a cost effective way to bring the heat down in the canopy.

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.”

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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 adsorptive 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 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.

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If you’d like to read how Osoyoos Larose Estate Winery is using misters in the vineyard to cool grapes down, check out this post, “From Heat Domes to Cooling Mists: Producers Navigate Weather Extremes in Defining the Root of BC Terroir.”

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Travelling to the Okanagan? You’d better read this first! The Ultimate South Okanagan Guide: Places to Stay, Eat and Play.

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.”

Hooray for cool-climate wines! This is my wine style of choice.

I asked Galen what he drinks on the weekend with his friends. “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.

LLS RoseSparkling Mockup Cork

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)

 

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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.

 

AWS Chardonnay Front
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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.

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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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