Thomas Jefferson created lists of his top wines from different regions throughout France and Europe. Many wine lovers of his time did and continued to do well into the 19th century. The fact that one of those lists of Bordeaux chateaux was written into law in 1855 is both the bane of Bordeaux and the reason for its top status worldwide. However, there are arguably good reasons why the chateaux at the top are where they are. Terroir in wine (i.e. where a wine is grown) can create a consistency that is timeless. To paraphrase Terry Theise in an amazing Grape Radio podcast, winemakers come and go, wine styles come and go, climates and weather patterns change, but the soil stays the same and is the most immutable influence on the grapes. Essentially, no matter what human is in charge of making the wine that year, the wines from these great locations have a better shot than most to become the best.
So why start a post like this, which will invariably turn into an argument?
Well, there’s nothing wrong with a little debate now is there? Even though these days it seems that debate is “out” while black and white absolutism is “in”, wine lovers love to talk about wine and so this is hopefully a way to start that conversation. I think it’s time to start recognizing that there are some valuable differences between the landscapes that produce the wine that we enjoy. The list I’m going to present does not take into account the merits of the people in control of the wineries and for that reason alone, there may very well be properties that are not included that some could easily argue should be included. There is no shortage of personalities in the BC wine world but, adhering to the supremacy of terroir as stated above, it’s the land I’m looking at, not the people.
Also, while I recognize that there are some very smart people that are investing boatloads (or the metric equivalent known as a “shit-tonne”) of money into making the best wine that they can, calling oneself a Grand Cru (or in the case of one new “label” using the term “First Growth”) does not make one’s wine a Grand Cru or First Growth. Status like this must be bestowed onto your wines by others (consumers, media, and industry peers) through general consensus. It’s not just marketing spin, it’s a quality ranking. EVERYBODY that works in EVERY winery thinks that THEY make the BEST wines. Having the words “Grand Cru” written on your label, website, or sale sheets won’t make your wine a Grand Cru. It’s a status, not a tagline, that can not ever come from the winery. Honestly, nobody will take it seriously. Putting a Ferrari badge on a Honda and charging $80,000 won’t make the car that much better. In the end, it’s still a Honda and most everyone will be able to figure that out eventually. Thankfully I’m not the only one to question this and I hopefully won’t be the last. In Canada right now, there is no legal control over the use of these terms like there is in France where Crus are classified and set into the law of the land. Here in BC, it’s still the wild west.
What makes me such an authority on BC wine?
I’ve tasted enough BC wine, both bad and good, for enough years that I’m confident with my assessments of quality and longevity when it comes to understanding the wines from the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys. It’s not drinking the stuff either – I’ve work in it; vineyards, cellars, planting vines, harvesting grapes, crushing grapes, testing fermenting juice, bottling, stocking, and selling. That said, I have no problems with disagreements that will crop up so don’t hesitate to tell me if I’ve forgotten your favourites. Everyone’s tastes are different and I have no desire to force my preferences on anyone else. But please keep in mind, this is my blog so these are my favorites. Want to list your own favs? Get your own blog. I get asked a lot which wineries are the ones that are “not-to-miss.” Essentially the Grand Crus on this list are the ones that I always mention in my replies.
What are the qualities that I’m looking for in a “Grand Cru”?
Identifiable and consistent vineyard source(s) – The vineyard has to be consistently identified as producing quality wine for over 7 years. This is where it might be handy to draw a distinction between a “vineyard” and a “winery”, which is sometimes not always easily apparent. One can visit Mission Hill at their winery on Mt. Boucherie but very little of their grapes are actually grown anywhere near there. The winery must own the majority of their vineyards and have direct control over the quality of the fruit.
Identifiable and consistent vineyard characteristics– The vineyards must themselves demonstrate some unique attributes relating to soil composition, aspect, slope, orientation, etc, that are shared by no others. I don’t believe that a winery can make a consistently amazing product with a revolving door of leased or contracted vineyards providing the fruit no matter how skilled the wine maker. The resulting wines will be too heavily processed and manipulated by necessity and won’t be as complex or as interesting. Grapes from the best sites will make quality wines with only the minimal amount of intervention, even in “challenging” years. I have not scientifically collected data on all of these wineries for this criteria, rather it’s more from my own notes and touring experience.
History of consistent high quality – This will have to be relative of course, since the BC wine industry is young at this stage of the game. In general, a vineyard must be the source for exceptional wines for at least 8 vintages, preferably 10. The wines must show a uniqueness that is clearly evident across multiple vintages. Though the wines in the portfolios don’t have to all be long-lived wines, the perception of ageability as a mark of quality can not be ignored.
Focused wine portfolio – This is probably the most contentious issue (outside of the concept of terroir itself) because the world of BC has many wineries that continue to produce a scatter-shot of wine varieties without any focus on a particular one. Name one famous wine growing region where the wineries are all known to produce more than a dozen different varieties of wine and are recognized for all of them worldwide? That’s right, there aren’t any. No winery is ever going to make this list by simply making more different varieties of wines better than the next winery – a fault I find with ‘national’ wine awards that reward the quantity of quality by ranking wineries based almost entirely on medal count. I’m not saying that these wineries don’t produce quality wine because that’s clearly not the case – there are some fabulous wines out there made by wineries with massive and diverse portfolios. For this list I am interested only in wineries that intend on creating the best wine that they can and are focused on that aspect almost singlemindedly on a small portfolio. I don’t believe that can be done by growing 25 different grape varieties and making 30 wines or even more than 10.
All of the wineries listed here need to have proven consistency with all four of these elements to be considered a Grand Cru.
On with the list.
Grand Crus and Premiere Crus
I know you’ve probably already scrolled down to see it anyways but there’s still another detail to consider. I’ve created a list of Premier Crus which rank slightly below the Grand Crus and I think that needs some explaining as well.
The Grand Cru wineries listed here I consider BC classics – the top-most wineries capable of producing wines of consistency, complexity, depth, and profundity year after year. What separates them from the Premiere Crus is a very thin, flexible line that blurs more often than not. It was this blurring that prevented me from not including these fabulous wineries on this list even though I was only going to focus in on the Grand Crus initially. I believe that all of the Premier Cru wineries that I’ve listed can produce wines on par with the Grand Crus. The only difference is a deficiency usually in one of the 4 elements listed above, mostly the last two. Youth (i.e. the age of the winery) is a significant issue since it is just not possible to know if there is a consistent product, nor if that product is somehow unique compared to other wineries in the same region. Of course, that will change over time. A large and varied portfolio is also an issue among some of these wineries but that seems to be changing as well. As wineries (and consumers) learn what their strengths are, I’ve seen some wineries alter their focus accordingly, which is a positive step in my opinion that will surely see some of the Premier Cru wineries boosted up to Grand Cru.
So here we go. I present to you…
The Wine Country BC Grand Crus:
(listed North to South)
Tantalus Vineyards – Kelowna
Acknowledged by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson in multiple editions of the Word Atlas of Wine, the vineyards at Tantalus have had the wine cognoscenti drooling over their Riesling going back to the days when it was known as Pinot Reach Cellars owned by Susan Dulik. This is the likely the oldest continuously producing vineyard in BC. It was part of J.W. Hughes’ Pioneer Vineyard that was planted in 1926 and was sold to Martin Dulik, Susan’s grandfather Martin, sometime between 1946-49. The Riesling vines that make up the bulk of the vineyard’s reputation were planted in 1978.
Laughing Stock – Naramata
Laughing Stock makes the list based largely on their flagship wine, Portfolio, but also for their attention to quality across their small selection of wines. They’ve won Lieutenant Governor’s Awards in the last 4 years for 3 different wines and their focused collection of wines (4 whites, 3 reds) means that their attention to detail won’t ever be overextended. 2014 was their 12th harvest and the 10th release of their Portfolio. In a blind tasting of 8 BC meritage wines, I singled out the Portfolio as my favorite. So did the lovely couple from New Jersey, California Cabernet lovers who had barely tasted or even known about BC wine before that event, sitting next to me.
Blue Mountain – Okanagan Falls
Blue Mountain has more reputations than most wineries and for all kinds of reasons. They are known for Burgundian wines (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Gamay) as well as Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. Just the sight of a stripped label on the shelf sends wine lovers swooning. They are also known for their high quality sparkling wines with the Blue Mountain Brut as the flagship. Ian Mavety purchased the property in 1971, planted it to Vinifera grapes in the mid-1980’s and began the sparkling program in the early 1990’s under the tutelage of Raphael Brisbois, the French-born, Napa-based consultant who now also handles Benjamin Bridge among many others. Ian’s son Matt handles the wine making now and continues the tradition of high quality.
Fairview Cellars – Golden Mile Bench, Oliver
Bill Eggert opened the doors of Fairview Cellars in 2000 and for those who have been there, it is the ultimate small winery experience, complete with a piano. Bill is one of the few people in the valley that I would call a true “wine grower”. He does not make wine, he grows it, and it shows. Every vintages’ growing season, weather tantrums, and natural hiccups are represented clearly in each bottle (and sometimes on the label, with names representing an event in the vineyards’ growing season like “The Wrath” and “The Bear”). One of only 3 wineries in BC of which I’m aware to offer a wine above the $100 mark, Bill is focused on red wine production but has also produced a stunning Sauvignon Blanc in recent vintages.
Black Hills – Oliver
Senka and Bob Tenant and Peter and Sue McCarrell were the two couples to start Black Hills in 1996 after purchasing a former vineyard on Black Sage Road that had been abandoned for ten years following the pull-out program. Consultant wine making help to Senka, then the fledgling wine maker, was from Berle “Rusty” Figgins, younger brother of Gary Figgins from the famed Washington State winery Leonetti Cellars. Starting with the sale of the 1999 Nota Bene in 2001, word began to spread about the quality, complexity, and concentration of this meritage that would become one of BC’s first cult wines. The portfolio was focused on 3 wines by the time the two couples sold Black Hills to Vinequest Wine Partners in 2007 and it remains focused on only 6 wines (3 whites, 3 reds) along with 2 additional wines (white and red) for a second label called Cellarhand.
Osoyoos Larose – Osoyoos
The first vintage of the Grand Vin was not supposed to happen in 2001. However the grapes were apparently so good and the resulting wine even better than expected that it was decided to release the inaugural vintage from those grapes that in 2001 had only been in the ground for 2 years. A joint venture between Vincor (later Constellation Brands) and the Groupe Taillan from France, Osoyoos Larose has risen to become one of the stars of BC wine by producing only two red wines. As part of the biggest divorce in BC wine history, Groupe Taillan purchased the remaining shares from Constellation and now controls the whole brand. While we haven’t seen the tangible benefits of this new arrangement yet, it is clear that John Schreiner’s recent glowing opinion of their direction away from the “suffocating joint venture” will be good news for Osoyoos Larose.
Wine Country BC Premiere Crus
(listed North to South)
Joie Farm – Naramata
Poplar Grove – Naramata
Painted Rock – Penticton
Wild Goose – Okanagan Falls
Clos du Soleil – Keremeos
Orofino – Cawston
Seven Stones – Cawston
Burrowing Owl – Oliver
Nk’Mip Cellars – Osoyoos
Crus to come?
(Too young to rank but show incredible promise)
Is this the ultimate BC wine list? Not at all. Just like wine, it will change and evolve over time. There are a couple of Premier Crus that only have to wait it out until they’ve been around a few more years to be bumped up. One of them was a Grand Cru in their first vintage in my opinion. I’ve even made some changes since I started writing this article and have gone back and forth on at least a couple. The point is not to make a proclamation whereupon I state that my own superior experience and knowledge of the subject entitles me to state unequivocally that blah blah blah blah blah and it should be taken and written into law blah blah blah blah…
This is a list of my favorites that I mention to people when they ask. Agree or not, let me know. I have reasons for each of them and maybe we can explore that a little. I had hoped to add those reason into this posting but cut them out due to length. Perhaps I can bore you all with a podcast about it in the future. Or maybe a feature on each one of them? We’ll see how it goes.
It is said that a rising tide floats all boats. These are the wineries that I think are really bringing it up in BC’s wine country. Enjoy your BC wine. Cheers!