The news came down this week that the BC Wine Authority has approved the application for the Golden Mile Bench Sub-Geographical Indication (or Sub-GI) which will be the first of its kind in BC.
What this means is that for the first time, the large region that is the Okanagan Valley will now have a smaller region within its boundary. Subdivision of a GI has never happened before in BC and is a first step in the direction that many in the wine industry already acknowledge – that there are many distinct sub-regions within the Okanagan and some of them are unique enough to produce wines with distinctive and recognizable qualities. The Golden Mile Bench is going to be the first to recognized and will hopefully pave the way for some of the other distinct regions. Hopefully those will include the Black Sage Bench, Kelowna’s south-east bench, and perhaps even the Naramata Bench. I’ve always found that Gewürztraminer from wineries in West Kelowna taste very different from Gewurz’s elsewhere. Now whether or not the grapes are actually grown there is another story.
This is where these Sub-GI’s will become contentious among wineries. Will a wine made from grapes grown in a Sub-GI become inherently more valuable because it is from a smaller delineated area? How will that affect the prices of wines from other regions? Will a winery in Naramata really want to promote the fact that their best Syrah isn’t actually grown on the Naramata Bench at all, but rather is grown somewhere else in the Okanagan? The fact is that the Oliver / Osoyoos area accounts for over 50% of the grapes produced in the province according to stats compiled by the BC Wine Institute in 2011. A lot of wineries located elsewhere in BC get their grapes from the Oliver / Osoyoos area (most notably for red wine) but is that something that they want their customers to know?
Truthfully, I’m not interested in tasting a wine from a winery on Vancouver Island made from grapes grown in the Okanagan any more than tasting wine in France made with Italian grapes. I’m pretty sure that most other wine lovers are with me on that although how small to draw that terroirtorial line is unclear. It may be a bit unsettling to the wineries currently in production right now, especially those that have chosen to focus their portfolios on grapes or styles that are not appropriate for their actual location (quite a few of them from my experience). When more sub-GI’s make it into legislation, there will be some significant shifting of the BC wine industry’s tectonic plates as wineries seek to take advantage of these newly distinguished regions. Recently I’ve seen a couple smaller wineries around Kelowna dispense with their big Syrahs and Meritages (grown nowhere near their wineries) in favour of Pinot Noir and Rieslings grown in their contiguous vineyards. Both of those grapes are not only appropriate for their growing region, but are also proving to be distinctive in their own right, perhaps even warranting their own (possibly grape-specific) sub-GI.
Another problem is with wineries and vineyards already located off on their own in geologically unique, but remote, areas. Where will they fit in? Wineries like River Stone, which shares a fence with Wild Goose’s Mystic River vineyard, but are otherwise on their own north of Oliver or Anarchist Mountain, Andrew and Terry Meyer Stone’s vineyard east of Osoyoos, will like likely not be included in any potential future sub-GI because of their distance from other vineyards. Will they loose out because of this in the long run? There is nothing that links their vineyards geologically (a major factor in drawing the boundary for the Golden Mile Bench) to any of the larger vineyard areas nearby. Ironically Culmina Estate Winery, located right in the middle of the Golden Mile Bench and a leader in the application for the Sub-GI, has had their own Margaret’s Bench vineyard (located further up the mountain) excluded from the Golden Mile Bench Sub-GI. They will only be able to label wines from that vineyard as BC VQA Okanagan Valley.
The novelty of something new will drive the gold-rush mentality at the beginning but ultimately it will be up to each region to qualify and publicise its distinctiveness from the whole. In other words, the wineries that slap the new BC VQA Golden Mile Bench on their labels will not have to work very hard to sell those bottles as consumers will likely clamour for their first wines from the new appellation. The marketing potential for a new Sub-GI is huge. This will be big news with wine consumers, tourists, and within the wine industry itself who may then begin to push for other Sub-GI’s elsewhere. Sandra Oldfield and Sara Triggs, both involved in the organization of the Golden Mile Bench application, were very clear in a recent webinar on the subject that they are more than willing to share what they know about the Sub-GI application process to other regions.
Whatever happens with other regions within the Okanagan, the big picture is pretty clear; We are still only in the beginning stages of learning what grapes grow where to make the best wine. It will not be an easy progression and there will be as much (dis)agreement about everything as there ever has been in the past. The point is that things are progressing and that the industry isn’t where it was 5, 10, or 20 years ago. Read some of John Schreiner’s older editions and see what I mean. Wine changes and evolves over time and so to will the BC wine industry. The new Golden Mile Bench Sub-GI is really the beginning of the next chapter.
Cheers to exciting times in wine country!