Thursday, November 25, 2010

Living Sky Winery, Saskatchewan

“really good fruit wines that are as complex and enjoyable as any grape wine”

For so many years, people wanted to get off the farm and live in the city. But the tide appears to have turned as people are deliberately choosing to make a living in the country. But this is farming with a difference – market gardens, fruit orchards, flower farms. And Saskatchewan now has two fruit wineries, one of them very close to Saskatoon.

Living Sky Winery is the dream child of Sue Echlin and Vance Lester. Sue grew up on a ranch in Alberta and Vance is a biologist by training. Sue had 10 horses, and they were growing hay on their farm near Perdue (about 65 km west of Saskatoon), but they were still travelling to the city to earn a living. They wanted to be full time on the farm.

Fruit Wine
They decided to try making fruit wines after a wine touring holiday in BC. Five years ago they planted their orchards – 10 acres of cherries, raspberries, black currant, haskap and rhubarb. (They purchase strawberries from a Hutterite colony.)
Fruit wine is a lot more flexible than grape wine. Sue and Vance hired Dominic Rivard as their winemaker, but Dominic is a consultant. He lives in Nova Scotia and works with a number of different wineries around the world. In fact, when Sue and Vance first contacted him, he was in Thailand setting up a fruit winery.

Dominic, Sue and Vance chose fruit that would grow well in Saskatchewan and that Dominic felt would make good wine. Sue and Vance are responsible for growing and harvesting the fruit. The fruit is then frozen and stored until Dominic comes out to make the wine.

And they don’t know in advance what kind of wine they will be able to make. First of all, it depends on the harvest. There were no cherries this year because of winter kill, but there was a good harvest of black currants. Dominic will test the fruit for sugar and acid levels, and that information will guide the winemaking process.

The fruit ferments for two weeks and is then filtered and clarified. Most fruit wines don’t require aging as they don’t have tannins. They did age their cherry port, and black currants have tannins so they might be able to age them as well. “We’re planning to try to age a port in oak this year,” Sue says.

Environmentally Conscious
Living Sky Winery is not certified organic. However, Sue says that they are very environmentally conscious. “We avoid chemicals if at all possible,” she explains, “and we till to get rid of weeds.”

They moved the Delisle Co-op building onto their farm, and it has a new lease on life. The back end is used to manufacture the wine, while there is a small tasting area at the front.

There are no neck wraps on the bottles because they’re unnecessary, and Living Sky Winery relies on online marketing (website, Facebook, Twitter) rather than print materials.

“Our biggest challenge is convincing people that you can make really good fruit wines that are as complex and enjoyable as any grape wine,” says Sue.

I’ve just finished a bottle of rhubarb wine, and it was great. Fruit has a lot of sugar, so it can’t be as dry as grape wine. But it’s an awesome option for people who like a slightly sweeter wine or who enjoy port and dessert wines.

The second challenge is based on location. “It’s a whole different ball game from BC,” Sue says. “Sourcing equipment is difficult when you’re so far away from the industry. Let alone getting delivery trucks to find your farm.”

There is a second fruit winery in Saskatchewan, so perhaps this will be less of a challenge in the future. Cypress Hills Vineyard & Winery is just off the Trans Canada Highway and close to Maple Creek and Fort Walsh.

Living Sky Winery is currently selling Rhubarb, Raspberry and Strawbarb table wines, a Framboise dessert wine and a Juliett cherry port. The port won a bronze in the 2010 Canadian Wine Awards. And I’ve just learned on Twitter that they hope to start making cider in 2011.

Sue and Vance started selling their wines at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market two weeks ago, and they hope to have a permanent booth in January. You can also contact the Winery and make arrangements for shipping, pick up or home delivery (Saskatchewan only).

Taj Mahal restaurant now serves Living Sky wines, and Sue hopes that they will be able to sell more wine directly to restaurants in the future. “Some BC wineries sell 100% of their wine to restaurants,” she says.

Once the good weather returns, I’m looking forward to driving out to the winery for a tour and tasting. Tours are by appointment only. “We want to be able to spend some time with people,” Sue says. “We don’t want people to just taste and leave.”

Good luck, Sue and Vance. Living Sky Winery is a welcome addition to our province.

Note: Mooberry Winery in Parksville, Vancouver Island is also a fruit winery.

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