Standing proudly on a ridge above Osoyoos Lake, Nk’Mip Cellars began 15 years ago as a collaboration between Canadian wine company Vincor and the Osoyoos Indian Band.
Now an award-winning wine producer, Nk’Mip (pronounced ‘ink-a-meep’) is North America’s first aboriginal owned winery.
“We already had 300 acres of very high quality grapes … and they thought it was in our best interests to come together and make a winery,” says band member and assistant winemaker Justin Hall.
“(The idea was) to utilize our high quality grapes and actually make wine out of them instead of selling grapes to so many of people, and them all profiting from it. Why not profit from it ourselves?”
Vincor was bought by Constellation Brands in 2006, which recently sold its Canadian wine arm to Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan for $1.03 billion.
The Osoyoos Indian Band (OIB) has a 51 per cent stake in the winery.
“As good business people, the OIB understands the value of the relationship with the corporate wine company,” says senior winemaker Randy Picton.
“They understand the value of corporate buying power with regard to materials, and built-in marketing, so they are quite willing to allow the corporate side to run things on a day-to-day basis.”
Twice a year band chief Clarence Louie and his council members meet with the corporate side of the company to discuss the direction of the winery.
“Our mandate for the winery is to produce wine off native soil,” says Picton.
“The band has over 1000 acres in production, and we have about five or six different vineyards that we source grapes from. We get our cooler climate varietals from vineyards situated more northerly in the valley, and our Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Blanc all come from the 350-acre vineyard in Oliver, which is owned and managed by the OIB. We have 50-75 acres we micromanage from that vineyard, the balance of that they sell off to other wineries.”
Picton and his team consult with the band about wine names to find words from the Okanagan language that capture the spirit of the wines.
Nk’Mip’s premiere tier of wines is named Qwam Qwmt, which means “achieving excellence”. (“I’ve heard different interpretations, says Picton. “Some of natives get more graphic than that and suggest ‘best effing thing that you want to stand on the mountain top and shout about’. )
When it came to naming Nk’Mip’s Bordeaux style red blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec, the name Mer’r’iym (marriage) was chosen to celebrate the perfect union of these grapes.
Since the early days, Picton has encouraged aboriginal team members to be involved in the winemaking process. Cellar supervisor Aaron Crey, a member of the Cheam Indian Band (near Chilliwack), has been with the winery since 2003.
“In the beginning all I knew about wine was that there’s a red one and a white one, and I liked some more than others but I wasn’t sure why,” laughs Crey. “Randy showed me how to uphold the highest quality of standards throughout the entire production from grape to bottle.”
Crey is now working on a new Merlot, while Hall — an OIB member who has also been with Picton since 2004 — oversees the Pinot Blancs and Dreamcatcher aromatic white blend.
“You’re always going to find something new and different with each vintage,” says Picton.
“You never stop learning. The difficult thing from a winemaking perspective is that you only get one shot every year and you have to wait until next year to make changes to your program. Over the years we’ve become more familiar with our blocks of our grapes, and we have a very good understanding of the winery.”
Consistency is key, and for Picton that means cross-blending to achieve it.
“We’re not making Coca-Cola here, so we don’t expect everything to be the same year in year out, but would like to have some consistency,” he says. “A lot of that we can do through blending. We’re allowed to cross blend up to 15 per cent vintage to vintage. If you have a weaker vintage you can blend that into a stronger vintage, or vice versa. We use those opportunities if we need to, to maintain the consistencies in the portfolio.”
Two new wines are due to be released in 2017: a QQ Riesling and a white Mer’r’iym (a Cabernet Sauvignon and Semillon blend).
• Catch Picton and the team at the Vancouver International Wine Festival, where he will be pouring the 2015 Qwam Qwmt Chardonnay, 2014 Winemaker’s series Talon, 2015 Riesling Icewine, 2015 Qwam Qwmt Pinot Noir, and the 2014 Mer’r’iym. Or visit nkmipcellars.com