The tasting room at Bella Wines is one of the most remote among the Naramata Bench wineries. Even so, it is only the middle of August and most of the wines are sold out.
Winery owners Jay Drysdale and Wendy Rose bought this bucolic farm on Gulch Road in 2013 and planted three acres of Chardonnay and Gamay in 2014.
“I was worried whether people would travel this far,” Jay admits. The turnoff to Gulch Road off Naramata Road is well along the northern end of the road.
The location has not, in fact, discouraged visitors. “The people that find us really want to be here,” Jay says. “We have been sold out every summer since we opened [in 2015]. It has been amazing.”
The reason is that Bella is unique among the Naramata Bench wineries (indeed, unique in British Columbia) in that it produces sparkling wines exclusively. The wines are made only with Gamay Noir and Chardonnay grapes. The three styles of sparkling wine include wines made in the ancestral method, echoing the artisanal Champagnes that wine farmers made before Dom Perignon.
Bella’s farmhouse and the postage-stamp organic vineyard, where pigs and chickens forage among the vines, seems transported from an 18th Century French countryside. So is Jay’s winemaking. Wines begin fermenting outside with wild yeast in neutral barrels. Most have the second ferment in bottle in the traditional Champagne method. Nothing is added except yeast and enough sugar for the second ferment.
Many of these wines are disgorged after just six to nine months on the lees, to be released when the flavours still express the fruit. Cuvées that Jay judges exceptional spend three or four years on the lees and are released as reserve wines. These are the wines with which he goes “toe to toe” with grower Champagnes.
Close to a quarter of Jay’s wine is made in the ancestral method, where still-fermenting wines are bottled and finish creating bubbles in those bottles. On release, ancestral sparkling wines might be a little cloudy and, well, funky – but always interesting.
“My approach to this was to go back to basics, in that I really try and make wines that show a real honesty of where they come from,” Jay says. “I like breaking the norm. I think B.C. has copied each other too long. I think it is time to shake things up a bit and try different things.”
Born in Kamloops in 1972, Jay learned wine while paying his way through college by cooking in Vancouver restaurants. There was a career detour to Calgary where, among other ventures, he developed a chain of spas. But after taking a sommelier course, he began working in wine stores. He moved to the Okanagan in 2004, first to run an Oliver restaurant and wine store and then in 2008 to work with the British Columbia Wine Institute.
In 2010 Jay took a sales position with the Enotecca group of wineries. “That’s when I fell in love with winemaking,” he says. With coaching from Severine Pinte, Le Vieux Pin’s winemaker, he began making wine for personal consumption while enrolling in Washington State University’s winemaking program.
“I got hooked in the winemaking, and I knew I wanted to do my own thing,” Jay says. “Then I met Wendy, who shares the passion I have for bubbles.” Wendy grew up in a California household where Champagne was served regularly.
Together, they launched Bella in 2012, operating as a virtual winery until establishing the vineyard and tasting room on the Gulch Road farm. Jay refers to the location as a homestead. “We grow our own food,” he says. “We raise pigs and chickens for meat and eggs. We have a huge vegetable garden. I am actually testing vegetable crops in between the vine rows this year because I see seven feet of wasted space. I have 100 feet of potatoes down one row, 100 feet of bests and carrots down another. I am going to see how they do for breaking up soil compaction; and beneficial or non-beneficial bugs. I am testing a lot right now to see what works and what doesn’t.”
The estate vineyard, with its young vines, still accounts for only a fraction of the 2,000 cases of wine Bella now makes each year. So far, most of the wine is made with purchased grapes, with each lot turned into a vineyard-designated wine. Jay has not locked down all of his vineyard sources; but this gives Bella wines a kaleidoscope of character from vintage to vintage.
“I really enjoy discovering the personalities that come from each of these vineyards,” Jay says.
Here are notes on some of the wines still available, either on line or in Bella’s tasting room;
Bella Sparkling Gamay 2016 Hillside Vineyard ($26 for 135 cases). The grapes are from one of the oldest plantings in the Okanagan. Whole cluster ferment has given the wine a pale golden hue but a rich, layered palate of fruit 90
Bella Sparkling Blanc de Blancs 2016 Keremeos Vineyard ($26 for 100 cases). This begins with toasty notes of lees, leading to a fruity palate and a finish of spice and sage. 89.
Bella Sparkling Blanc de Blancs 2016 Kamloops. ($27 for 165 cases. The Chardonnay in this wine is from the limestone-rich Harper’s Trail vineyard at Kamloops. The wine is crisp and fresh with flavours of lime and apple and with a backbone of minerals. 91.
Bella 2016 Chardonnay Ancestrale Keremeos Vineyard ($40 for 135 cases). Slightly off-dry, this wine is fruity with notes of peach, apple and lime. 90.
Bella 2016 Gamay Noir Ancestrale Mariani Vineyard ($40 for 54 cases). There are flavours of ripe apple and peach mingled with a funky hint of vegemite. 89.
Bella 2016 Gamay Noir Westbank Vineyard Ancestrale ($40 for 160 cases). This wine begins with a lovely pink hue. There are hints of cranberry and plum on the aroma and palate. The wine has a crisp and dry finish. 90.
By John Schreiner
reprinted with permission