Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the Okanagan – An Interview with Dylan Roche

What do Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the Okanagan have in common?  Dylan and Pénélope Roche of Roche Wines.  This married couple met while pursuing their winemaking careers and during their world travels worked in Bordeaux and Burgundy. They then moved to the Naramata Bench where they started Roche Wines.  One item of interest is that Dylan spent 5 years in Burgundy before going to work in Bordeaux, while Pénélope was born and raised in Bordeaux in the long winemaking family of Château Les Carmes Haut-Brion. 

Roche Wines produces wines from Pinot Noir (Burgundy) and from Cabernet blends (Bordeaux).  I was curious to find out more about Dylan and Pénélope’s experiences with their winemaking backgrounds and how that has translated into their wines made here in the Okanagan.

My Interview with Dylan Roche

Dylan Roche (L) and Karl MyWinePal (R) interview

Dylan Roche (L) and Karl MyWinePal (R) interview

Karl: Tell me about your two Pinot Gris that I tasted, the Tradition and the Texture.

Dylan: The Tradition was the first wine release of any significant size that we have continued with. The grapes come from our Kozier Organic Vineyard, near Laughing Stock. The vineyard is a bit of an amphitheater that faces just north of west. That curve includes some of 3 Sisters’ and Fox & Archer’s vineyards. Overall the vineyard is northwest facing and slopes toward the lake. There is some topographic variation in how the blocks are placed. For the Pinot Gris, one block faces slightly southeast and there is a mountain to the east so the morning sun comes in a bit later, and then the afternoon sun is reduced because the land slopes slightly away from the sun. That is where we harvest the Texture Pinot Gris grapes as the grapes hang on to their acidity and the wine has a super zippy style.

2020 was a horrible spring and early summer and warmed up a bit but not great for gardening. Did the same happen for you? Did that cause the high acidity and citrus in the 2020 vintage?

It was a late start, didn’t warm up till the second week of July; the Fall was pretty ideal but not too hot. 2020 was not ideal for growing Cabernet Sauvignon, but some of the hotter years are too warm for all Pinots. 2019 had heat then a rainy Fall. We took the Pinot Gris off just before the rain, but in 2020 the Fall was ideal so had a longer hang time.

Is Texture Pinot Gris normally on the citrus side?

Roche Wines Tradition Pinot Gris 2018 and Texture Pinot Gris 2020

Roche Wines Tradition Pinot Gris 2018 and Texture Pinot Gris 2020

It’s often citrus and into nectarine but not ripe peach. We like bright stone fruit and stoniness with the acidity and minerality of the wine. It is also a winemaking style. All our whites are whole bunch pressed but the Texture is settled and fermented cool in stainless steel. The Tradition Pinot Gris is from a west-facing block. It faces the afternoon sun and gets warmer, giving us more phenolics and density to the fruit. Then the wine also spends 9 months or more in neutral oak. Within two days of pressing the grapes, the must is in barrel and starts fermentation.

Do you use cultured yeasts?

We use selected yeasts, mostly French. But since we use multiple barrels for fermentation it does give us a chance to do a percentage of spontaneous ferments.

For Pinot Gris I think of Alsace, but is it big anywhere else in France?

It really is Alsace and then into Austria, Slovenia, and northern Italy. I think with Vin de France appellation we might see Pinot Gris in the Loire or elsewhere. Things are slow to change.

You and Pénélope spent time in Bordeaux and Burgundy and moved to the Okanagan. Was there anything that you had to unlearn from what you learned in France in order to get the wines you want here?

I think the biggest realization came after a few seasons because Burgundy and Bordeaux are pretty humid for many years; even after it dries up in July you get summer thunderstorms. Bordeaux has an oceanic influence. On a typical afternoon in the summer in Bordeaux, it can have 75% humidity compared to 15% here in the Okanagan. It’s a massive difference.

You have the desert climate here vs the maritime climate in Bordeaux so you don’t have to worry about mildew and things.

Downy mildew barely exists in the Okanagan. Another factor is the clay-limestone in Bordeaux is very good at holding water and a lot of what happens in grape growing is directed towards getting rid of that water, whether from tilling the soil, no cover crop, and even planting at super high density. You have come across Denis Dubourdieu? He was a researcher at the University of Bordeaux and followed in the footsteps of Emile Peynaud and Pasteur in research but died a few years ago. One thing he said is all the high-density planting is not to compete for soil resources; we are using the canopy to pump water out of the soil. So they have massive canopy and leaf surface and low yields. This is a tool to get rid of the water as photosynthesis involves pulling water from the soil and evaporating it. The big thing back to your question, the change of thinking, is instead of getting rid of water, we are trying to hang on to it. That is something that helps me understand what we are doing in the vineyard, how to think about the vines, and how they are ripening. For some of the most amazing wines I tasted, one element they have in common is density in the mid-palate, then length without big alcohol or tannins. That is something you get from consistent ripening. If your vine is suffering from heat and drought stress, you will never get super consistent ripening and often get wines into extremes of alcohol or tannins, or lacking in the mid-palate. Another takeaway from France is that the soil is your buffer against that stress. If the roots can stay in a cool zone, then the vine can have continuous metabolism even if it is 38 degrees Celsius outside. The magic of Chateau Neuf du Pape is the heat and exposure, but there is clay beneath the rocks and that is how the vines can keep their stability. For certain varieties in the Okanagan, maybe Cabernet Sauvignon or Viognier are ok growing in gravel or rock, but for the cooler climate varieties, we need to build the humus in the soil. We have silt particles that can help us build the soil to protect the vines through those summer heat spikes.

You have the two vineyards. The Kozier Vineyard was planted in 2007 and you moved here in 2011, so the vines have had more than 10 years to mature. Have you noticed a difference in the vines or the quality of your wine?

Two-thirds of our home vineyard was planted in 1997/98 with 1 acre of Zweigelt and 3 acres of Schonberger, which are now are over 20 years old. In 2017 we added Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. So we will get our second harvest from those vines this year. The first harvest is in the barrel and that is exciting. With the Kozier vineyard, we started working with it in 2013, and at that time the vines were 4-5 years old. The vines were getting over a period of super vigor from youth. The vines went past that vigor peak and were in slight decline where the vines were weakened. We needed to add compost for mid to long-term help and over the short term we used organic additions from seaweed and fermented fish fertilizer. We did bring the vines back over a couple of years to slightly more vigor. Some say grapevines need to suffer, that is true, but there is a limit. Any vines truly struggling to survive are going to ripen their fruit too fast and will produce too little fruit. There is such a thing as too much stress. A vineyard that is lacking vigor is easier to care for than a vineyard that has too much vigor because sometimes you just have to wait for the nitrogen in the soil to dissipate. We can always bring some love to the vineyard, but if there is too much water and nitrogen that makes it difficult.

Pénélope wanted to be a chef but changed to be a winemaker. Is there a restaurant in the winery’s future?

I think we are quite a long way from that possibility. We have to focus on what we are doing and we have three children. As soon as COVID restrictions lessen we are determined to have a food element, and not a restaurant right away. We really enjoy food and wine as part of our life. We want people to get to know our wines with food. We are planning as soon as we can to offer little pairings that are simple to prepare to enhance the experience and put our wine in its best light.

I think I saw that Pénélope was also going to do some youtube videos.

Yes, we did a few simple recipes as a way to stay in contact with people while nobody is traveling. It is fun and keeps people excited. Sometimes making wine is a 3-year process so it is nice to do something that gives you satisfaction in a few hours.

Have you heard of Sandrine French Pastry and Chocolate in Kelowna? I think that it would be cool for you to do a basket with their chocolates and your wine.

A month or so ago, Pénélope put a virtual basket together with some of Sandrine’s chocolates and called it the French Connection, They also added some wines and from Le Vieux Pin. In Oliver there is a bakery called Road 9 – Audrey’s Bread, started by an ex-pat French friend named Audrey. The Road 9 bakery is making beautiful sourdough and baguettes and everything we miss from France. For more info visit https://road9-audreysbreads.com

You are making both Burgundy and Bordeaux style wines. Do you and Pénélope enjoy making them equally? Or do you concentrate on Pinot Noir and she concentrates on Bordeaux blends?

We feel lucky to work with both. We feel that we have a link to both regions. Making these wines entails two different processes and philosophies. In one case it underlines that Pinot Noir is tricky and fickle. If we can create one wine out of one vineyard and have it be really expressive that is very satisfying with our Pinot Noir. I was in Burgundy for five years which were formative years for me thinking about wine. When I came to Bordeaux I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder. Burgundy is artisanal and more often organic and small, etc. I had this image of Bordeaux winemakers wearing ties and being corporate. Then I landed with Pénélope ’s family at Château Les Carmes Haut-Brion which operates on a Burgundian scale operation of 11 acres. I ate crow by learning about Bordeaux terroir, and that there are small and big producers who are good at what they are doing and can bring expressive wines to the bottle. Part of the work in creating the wines is sorting the grapes. In a big winery, you can have 40-60 different lots between the different grape varieties grown. The frequency of tasting and the ability to build your palate, then to go through these wines through their evolution and determine where each one fits, e.g. top quality, that one is for bulk, is an important skill to learn. You would not learn that skill Burgundy as there is not enough wine produced by a winemaker. This is what the vineyard gave us, and if it is not good enough, maybe we need to blend it with another block to get to an acceptable level. There is very little choice quite often as the winery must bottle it regardless of quality.

If you don’t, you don’t make any money and it gives you a bad reputation.
Tell me about Amulet Wines.

We are just about to release the new vintage. You know Dwight Sick, from Stag’s hollow and Pentage and now at Moraine. I worked at Stag’s Hollow as my first job in the Okanagan. Dwight and I worked together for one season and are good friends. He has a pure passion for wine. He brought his Amulet project to our winemaking facility. He has been doing this for 15 years in various forms. He and a friend planted some of the first Grenache in Canada on the west bench of Penticton. He has Grenache, Viognier and Marsanne. He has been making Rhone-style wines under the Pentage label and Stag’s Hollow Grenache. We grow some of Viognier now. Amulet Wine production is very small. There are two barrels for the red and 4 barrels for the white wines. Dwight is trying to explore what the Rhone varieties can do. We are cooler climate-focused. Only 30 cases are produced of the Syrah-Grenache Rosé and are released to a mailing list. The Viognier Marsanne 2019 is released. A Syrah will be released in the Fall as well as an Amulet Red (a Grenache-Syrah blend).

Any thought of you buying a third vineyard maybe in Oliver and trying some Rhone varieties?

I hope that we could have a small block of Syrah or something similar. It is tough to buy vineyards now. Ideally, we would source Syrah from a vineyard which would convert to a purchase or a long-term contract. Now we have two growers that we have a long-term relationship to build for Syrah. We grow all our whites.

Are you going to do something special after moving here 10 years ago?

That is a good idea. We have a few months to figure it out. It is 10 years since we moved to Okanagan, and 7 years since our first release under the Roche label, and the 4th year in this building. I don’t have anything yet, but you planted a seed.

Tell me about your Chateau Futures.

That is an idea we put into play two vintages ago. I learned about selling wine in Bordeaux. In Bordeaux, there are many middlemen. Most people here don’t realize that is how it works. We want to associate our Chateau blend wine with futures. We are releasing the futures offer for the 2019 wines this Spring. In Bordeaux, they would release the offer for 2020 in the Spring. We want to give people a chance to taste the wines closer to what they are going to find in bottle. If we’re tasting the 2019 in May 2021, it’s almost ready for bottling. The young wine can be tasted and pre-purchased. The wine is then released a year later after at least 10 months of bottle ageing. We pour our wines at the tasting room 4 months from bottling rather than 18 months. It gives people a chance to think ahead. We want to bring an educational side to people visiting. If you taste wine ready to drink, you don’t learn about what it is like between fermentation and bottling. Futures gives people an opportunity to be able to say that this wine is changing and will be different in the future, and how should they judge it. We want to help them learn how to taste past the tannins and to judge the texture of the tannins. By mid-May, we will have a futures offer. People will pay half now and half later, and will come at a 15% discount. The info will be on our website. People can pick up their wines and lay them down. Our wine is friendlier than a big Bordeaux wine at 3-4 years old, but really will be happiest after a few years of ageing.

Thank you for your time to speak with me Dylan.

Drink Good Wine. That is my motto and I really want to help you drink good wine. What is good wine? That can be a different thing for each people. Food also loves wine so I also cover food and wine pairings, restaurant reviews, and world travel. Enjoy life with me. MyWinePal was started by Karl Kliparchuk, WSET. I spent many years with the South World Wine Society as the President and then cellar master. I love to travel around the world, visiting wine regions and sharing my passion for food & wine with you. Come live vicariously through me, and enjoy all my recommended wines.