Spirit Hill Winery
YES! We can produce wines in the Foothills. Refined wines that speak of the local terroir. They are made with the nectar of flowers and the help of bees. Let me explain.
Mead, aka “flower wine,” is an alcoholized beverage made from honey. It can be dry or sweet, just like regular wines. Mead is allegedly older than wine or beer, but, as I quickly found out, each proponent of their favourite drink will claim that title. What is sure, though, is that beer (wheat) and mead (honey) were principally made in regions where grapes (wine) could not grow.
The ancient Greeks celebrated mead as a god-sent elixir bestowing magical and sacred properties. Mead could prolong life, build strength, increase fertility, and impart wit and poetry. However, mead is also associated with Vikings… hairy and “rustic” figures drinking mead from horns, brawling their ways down to the British and the French coasts in search of young virgins they would carry back home on their shoulders… Either way, mead has been part of Western culture for a long time and is now enjoying a revival.
Simply put, flower wine is honey and water fermented with yeast. Of course, this recipe is only the beginning. Like bread (flour, yeast and water), flower wine is more than the sum of its parts. The flavours and aromatics in the honey come from the nectars of the flowers and the addition (or not) of fruits, herbs, grape wines, perhaps some ageing in wood, or carbonation contribute to the creation of styles limited only by knowledge, creativity, and talent.
Alberta produces 45% of Canadian honey, and that honey is of the finest quality. It comes from clovers, canola and most interestingly, wildflowers if the beehives are located near forests. The seasons, the regions and the diversity of flora and their nectars add subtle differences in flavours and aromatics – just like grape varietals do to wines. Notions of terroir are therefore as important to flower wine as they are to grape wine.
In 1997, Hugo Bonjean and Iles de Wit left Belgium to homestead on a farm south of Millarville with their three children. They quickly realized the potential their land offered. The Foothills of the Rockies grow a wide assortment of wildflowers that vary over three seasons and mountain elevations. The resulting honey is incredibly delicate and ideal for making fine flower wines.
The Bonjeans use a vinification method similar to winemaking and control all aspects of the production process. The resulting wines share many characteristics with grape wines. They have similar acidity and ph levels, complex aromatics, and varying levels of residual sugar. The wines are balanced, complex and offer a smooth finish with good length.
Visiting Spirit Hill Winery makes for a beautiful afternoon excursion. The Bonjeans offer all you would expect in a winery: a tasting room, winery tour, club membership, on-site wine purchasing and the possibility to explore their hiking trails. Before you come, it is best to call to learn about their hours and book an appointment. A scheduled visit gives the Bonjean family a chance to provide you with their full attention.
Albertans are new to mead and flower wines, and promoting these wine styles is a labour of love. Still, Spirit Hills is being noted by the likes of Éric Beaumard, winner of best sommelier in Europe and a 3-star Michelin restaurant manager. Tristan MacLaggan, Director of Hospitality, Pursuit Collection in Banff, has praised Spirit Hills saying, “Not only are the wines delicious, but they tell a story of who we are and what we do best regionally in Alberta.” Spirit Hills started selling in Japan a few years ago, and demand is growing. Today they harvest 900 beehives located between Hwy 22x and Hwy 3 and produced 6000 cases last year.
Spirit Hills has proven that it is possible to produce refined wines with an authentic Alberta terroir. The Foothill of the Rockies, and in particular, Millarville, have stolen Hugo and Ilse’s hearts – Alberta is their home. Perhaps it is time to pay them a visit and enjoy a taste of flower wines.
Spirit Hills Flower Winery
240183 2380 Drive West, Millarville www.spirithillswinery.com
Phone: (403) 933 3913
Please call for their hours or to book a visit.