Honey mead flows out of foothills winery
Millarville: Spirit Hills holds grand opening on Dec. 22
By: John Barlow
| Posted: Wednesday, Jan 16, 2013 07:43 pm
When a beekeeper found $600 buried in his barn he figured it was a good omen for his new venture and mead would be flowing from his foothills winery.
Hugo and Ilsa Bonjean launched Spirit Hills Winery, Alberta’s third honey winery, on Dec. 22 and the operators are exstatic with the response to their latest business project at their sustainable farm near Millarville.
“The support from the community and the interest is just overwhelming,” said Hugo. “The response we are getting from people is phenomenal.”
Days before their grand opening on Dec. 22 Hugo said more than 25 per cent of the first batch of honey wine has already been sold.
Due to the outstanding response Hugo said he already has plans to market the mead to commercial businesses in the area.
“This first batch we are going to sell off the farm, but going forward we will market to select liquor stores in the area and we will deliver wine as well,” said Hugo.
Although he only put the finishing touches on his winery days before the grand opening, Hugo has been developing his vision for a large scale facility for some time.
When the Bonjean family moved to Millarville from Belgium 15 years ago some of the things they missed from home were the good beers, breads and wines of Europe. As a result, the family started making their own and it was not without a little prior knowledge — Bonjean’s lineage includes generations of French winemakers and the family’s vineyards are still in operation in Auvergne, France today.
Besides, Hugo admitted wine flows freely in their home as both he and his wife enjoy good wine.
Over the years Hugo and Ilsa experimented with various wines and their friends and neighbours always enjoyed their latest fruit wines.
Then the Bonjeans wanted to utilize their bee hives and started dabbling in honey wine or mead and more than a year ago they decided to expand their hobby into a business.
Seeing some of the other successful wineries such as Cypress Hills in Saskatchewan and Chinook Honey Company in Okotoks the Bonjeans were convinced to go full steam ahead.
“We saw that honey wine could be a viable business,” said Hugo. “We have a real love of wien and it is something we have been doing for years. We have been making fruit win and when I what others were doing with honey it inspired me. It was really cool.”
Alberta is one of the largest honey producers in the world and he said it did not make sense there were not more honey value-added businesses in the province and he wanted to help build the industry.
“I became really interested in honey in Alberta and I think this province can be the Okanagon of mead. This adds value to honey and there is so much of it here.”
The Bonjean’s Spirit Hills Winery does not make traditional mead, but more of a dry honey wine infused with local flowers and fruits. After a great deal of experimentation Spirit Hills’ two main wines are Dandy, a white dandelion honey wine, and Berry Bliss, a honey wine infused with black currants from Kayben Farms in Okotoks.
Hugo said many Albertans have a family member or someone who used to make dandelion wine which was the original settlers fermented drink. He described Dande as a dry fruity wine with a subtle honey flavour. It is best served cool and has a unique drinkable flavour with a deep aroma of wildflowers.
In contrast, Berry Bliss is vibrant red mead which smells of spice and dark fruits. Described as a true red wine similar to a Beaujolais, it is a full bodied dry wine with distinct honey flavours and wonderful paired with food.
Hugo enlisted Tara Petersen, an accredited Sommelier of the International Sommelier Guild, to sample his two wines and her feedback was a pleasant surprise for Spirit Hills Winery.
“At first I was a bit skeptical when asked to profile the meads,” said Petersen, “but what a wonderful surprise it was to find local wines of such quality. Both Dande and Berry Bliss are well-structured and balanced wines with perfect acidity and an outstanding length. They are very food friendly, but can also be enjoyed all by themselves. And even though they are both dry, you can smell and taste the honey, it’s almost like you can taste the sunshine and the flowering fields. These are wines that we Albertans can be proud of.”
Although Berry Bliss and Dande will be the two constants at Spirit Hills Hugo said they will also produce seasonal wines such mulled wine for Christmas, a new flower honey wine in the spring and a big surprise in the works for next fall.
Making honey mead and wine is the foundation of Spirit Hills Winery, but Ilsa said there is more to the project that simply bottling fine, quality wines.
“Spirit Hills is more than a winery,” she said. “It is about creating a local, sustainable, organic, healthy family business. It’s a whole concept, you can almost call it a philosophy.”
The Bonjeans use only local ingredients in the wine and local labour was used to build the facility which includes a magnificent tasting room.
Spirit Hills’ grand opening is Dec. 22 from noon to 5 p.m. The winery is located off Highway 22 south of Millarville.
The winery is open year-round by appointment. It will also be open every day from Dec. 26 to Dec. 31 from noon to 4 p.m. For more information visit www.spirithillswinery.com