Why aged wines are awesome

Sometimes, opening an aged wine has its hazards. This is the carnage after removing a cork that had disintegrated.

Aged wines take courage. Aged wines take patience. Aged wines take discipline.

All three of those things take a little work and some effort on the part of the wine collector, which may be why most wines are generally consumed young. In practical purposes, it is also expensive to keep wines in a cellar for extended periods of time and most people (or restaurants) just don’t have the space to keep a worthwhile collection. With little or no exposure to the taste of aged wines, most wine lovers will rarely be able to experience the amazing aromas and flavours of an aged wine. Without any appreciation of it, aged wines have little chance to become a part of our BC wine culture.

Unless of course you have lucky enough to have a friend or coworker who can expose you to the amazing world of aged wines. For me, the first seriously aged bottle of wine that I had the pleasure of tasting happened to be from a coworker at a winery in 2008 who had brought in a bottle to share. It was an Ontario riesling from the early 1990s and was a little over 15 years old at the time when I got to taste it. I’d never tasted anything like it. It smelled and tasted like apple pie and a full bouquet of flowers that had been gently doused in kerosene. It was weird at first but became entrancing and I loved every sip.

I have tasted other aged wines since then. I have tasted verticals of BC wines from Clos du Soleil, Black Hills, Painted Rock, Osoyoos Larose, and others, some of which went back a full decade to the oldest wine in the set. I have tasted 14 year-old Pinot Noir from Burrowing Owl that tasted nearly as fresh as the day it was bottled and Icewine from Lang that was just over 17 years old at the time. All were truly memorable and utterly amazing tasting experiences.

Why do we not age our wines in BC? Master of Wine Rhys Pender has often stated that BC wine, with its higher levels of natural acidity that is the envy of other wine regions around the word, is a perfect candidate for creating long-term, ageable wines. Washington State wineries like White Heron have figured this out and have made some amazing examples like the 2003 Malbec that I had purchased while on a trip to Wenatchee in 2011. I have worked hard to save some wines for at least a little while and this is how I did it.

The trick to aging wine is to either have some good distractions or be able to hide wines on  yourself. By distractions, I mean having other wines to serve instead of the ones that you are intending to age. If you want to keep that bottle of Nota Bene or Oculus securely stowed away for an appropriate amount of time, it is best to have other wines readily available. Ideally, though not always financially practical, it is best to have multiple bottles of the same wine to try out. In my own experience, I was able to purchase a case of 2006 Nota Bene and it became our special occasion wine that we opened only on our anniversary or some other special dinner. Choosing our anniversary was a great way to do it because that meant that we only really opened one bottle each year. That made the wines last a long time until the last one was approaching 9 years of age (from the vintage date) by the time is was consumed.

The other option is somehow to hide the wines on yourself. For me, I put them in my wine rack where I have carefully labeled some of the wines with neck tags on them. For the wine that I really want to disappear, I actually put them lower down in the collection and I simply do not label them. It’s as easy as that. The labeled wines stand out more and I will naturally head for those wines first. It’s not failsafe, but it is surprising how much longer a wine will last if it doesn’t have any attention drawn to it.

If you are looking for something that will really go the extra mile, consider a larger format bottle such as a magnum or a double-magnum. These are not as uncommon as they used to be although you might have to go to the winery’s own wineshop to purchase these. Larger format bottles age more slowly than standard 750ml bottles because the ratio of wine volume to surface area of the cork is much greater. Therefore, the flow of oxygen into the bottle (the rate of “oxygen ingress”, according to those in the cork trade) is is about the same but the volume of liquid inside the bottle is much greater so the wine ages slower. The ratio of the ullage (the air space between the wine and cork) is also correspondingly smaller compared to the volume of the wine. Anecdotally, a magnum will add 30-50% on to the total age of the wine. If your 750 ml bottle of 2003 Oculus peaked at 10 years in 2013, the same wine in a magnum will probably be at a similar state of development right around now in 2017 or 2018. That percentage likely increases as the bottle size gets larger with double-mags, Jeroboams, Imperials, and other larger sizes but, since I’ve never owned any of those formats myself, cannot personally attest to the ageability of those sizes.

What I can attest to is that aged wines are a completely different, amazing, and engaging wine experience unlike anything else that you ever get from an old bottle of cola. There is something about wine as it ages that makes it change into something truly amazing. That does not mean that every wine gets better with age. Some of them clearly are not meant for that and some people do not like the taste of aged wines. That is purely a matter of taste. You should not ever feel guilty for opening a bottle of wine ‘before its time’ if that is the way that you prefer it. Wines don’t get better with age, they simply change. If you don’t like what they change into, then it isn’t better for you, is it?

For me, I love aged wines and I believe that there are others out there who would love them too, if only they could try them. If you have aged wines in your cellar, share them with friends and help spread the word! Aged wines are a beautiful experience.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

8th Generation 2011 Riesling Selection

The 2017 LG Awards Results

The results of the 2017 Lieutenant Governor’s Awards for Excellence in British Columbia Wine are now in! Congratulations to all of this year’s winners:

Cassini Cellars
The Aristocrat Cabernet Sauvignon 2013

Cassini Cellars
Nobilus Merlot 2013

Castoro de Oro Estate Winery
Crimson Rhapsody 2014

Gray Monk Estate Winery
Odyssey White Brut 2014

The Hatch
Crown + Thieves “The Broken Barrel” Syrah 2013

Howling Bluff Estate Winery
Century Block Pinot Noir 2013

Kitsch Wines
Riesling 2015

Maverick Estate Winery
Bush Vine Syrah 2014

Noble Ridge Vineyards and Winery
“The One” Sparkling 2012

Perseus Winery
Invictus 2013

Upper Bench Estate Winery
Upper Bench Estate Chardonnay 2015

As someone who has been somewhat obsessively gathering information about this particular award for the past few years, I eagerly look forward to seeing the results. I was also lucky enough to have been a witness to this year’s judging first-hand for a short time on the second day of judging.

There are quite a few interesting bits of information about this year’s list of winners. All are from the Okanagan Valley. I personally have enjoyed seeing winners from all of the regions of BC’s wine country represented somehow. So far Vancouver Island (Enrico in 2015), the Fraser Valley (Domaine de Chaberton in ’05 and ’06), the Similkameen Valley (Eau Vivre in ’12 and ’13), and Lillooet (Fort Berens in 2014) are the only non-Okanagan wines to win at this competition. Based on some of my travels to other regions over the past couple of years, I predict that this will change. However, since the bulk of production is still in the Okanagan Valley, the odds are still more favourable to wins coming from there.

Gray Monk takes their second-only LG award for the 2014 Odyssey White Brut sparkling wine. For such an esteemed first-generation estate winery, it seems entirely odd to me that they have not won more often in the past. Their previous win was for the 2007 vintage of the same sparkling wine seven years ago. Similarly, sparkling wine has helped Noble Ridge win one for “The One” 2012, which makes “The One” a two-time winner in three years. (Yes, I enjoyed writing that particular sentence…)

Cassini Cellars won two awards, both for big red single-varieties. Though that is not frequent, a double win like that has happened before and usually demonstrates that a winery is getting very good at establishing a particular style. The Hatch and Perseus wineries, both owned by Terabella Wineries,  shows that promising things are happening within that organization as well. Both Terabella properties are first-time winners as are many of the other wineries in this set while Cassini has won previously for a 2012 Cabernet Franc in 2015.

As I see it, the most significant fact for this year is that for the first time ever, there are no large commercial wineries present among the winners. Andrew Peller Ltd. received an award last year (through Red Rooster’s win for the 2012 Reserve Merlot) and each of the previous years have seen at least one win by a commercial production winery. In the early days of the LG awards, commercial wineries dominated the awards, winning multiple awards each year and often for the same wines again and again. Sumac Ridge and Jackson-Triggs (both Vincor brands) dominated the early competitions. Between 2008 and 2012, this slowly began to change and the smaller production wineries began to take over the winners’ circle to a point where the commercial wineries were shut out this year.

Why has this been the case? Two things spring to mind. The first, and probably least probable, is that the depth and quality of the smaller producers is swaying the judges’ opinions. While it is possible to see great quality wines from commercial producers, the attention to detail in small-production batches has really caught on in the past decade. The second, and probably more likely, is that the larger commercial wineries simply don’t bother submitting their wines to the LG awards. Vincor’s many awards pretty much stopped when Constellation took over and in the tumult since that time, the realignment of their brands has seen some get neglected, for lack of a better word. Powerhouse LG award-winners Sumac Ridge (who still hold more LG awards than any other winery – 10) were dismembered into Stellar’s Jay and Black Sage Vineyards premium lines while the Sumac Ridge branding took on the lowest-priced value line. The once-great original estate winery survives in name only with little chance for a future LG award at all and with no impetus from their parent company to want to enter them into it.

Mission Hill has never entered anything into the LG’s, or at least has not won anything which seems unlikely given the high quality of wines produced by that company. Now that four-time winner CedarCreek is under their portfolio, that name is unlikely to appear on a plaque in the near future as well.

I have written posts at the LG awards in years past (see 2014, 2015, and 2016) and there will be more about it in my upcoming book about the history of wine in BC. I very much wish that more wineries would participate in it but in many ways, that would make it more complicated to conduct and may require additional resources on the part of Government House. As it is, the competition is already a very large process. The judging takes place over three days and seems (from my own observations at least) to be far less rushed and more thorough than other competitions. With only a dozen winners in any given year and 486 wines entered this year, the actual odds of winning an award is staggeringly low compared to other competitions.

From an observer’s point of view though, that exactly what makes them all the more exciting and interesting! Congratulations to all of this year’s winners!

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

The Forgotten Hill Wine Company

There is something immensely satisfying watching friends realize a dream. My friend Maya was instrumental in helping me move from the coast to the Okanagan in 2007. She was a friend of the family and we bonded instantly over wine. We toured wineries together, critiqued wines, wine shops, and wine labels together, and gossiped non-stop about the industry and some of the goofy and amazing experiences that we’d had. We both started working in the cellars (for different wineries) in 2007, have met and compared notes with regularity ever since. When I started this blog and podcast in 2009, Maya was involved in some of the earliest podcasts and even contributed awesome articles, which have remained popular to this day.

Maya in 2007 standing on the future vineyard site.

On one of my first trips to meet Maya in Naramata in 2007, she showed me a recently levelled patch of dirt that she claimed would one day be the site of her family’s vineyard. It was a hot day in July and the dust was everywhere but it was clear that this was a unique site. High above Okanagan Lake on a southwest-facing plateau, the vineyard would clearly offer some of the best views seen by any grapes in Naramata and maybe even the whole valley. It also had something extremely interesting that sparked my interest in learning about the geology of the Okanagan: beach sand.

640 meters above sea level, approximately 300 meters above the lake.

I’m sorry – WHAT?? After driving uphill for 10 minutes from Naramata, 300 meters above the current level of Okanagan Lake, there is BEACH SAND??  Yes, there is. It is the remains of the former shoreline from Glacial Lake Penticton, a body of water that encompassed both Okanagan and Skaha Lakes as the glaciers receded following the ice age. Standing at the edge of the vineyard overlooking the lake that is now far below, this will boggle the mind somewhat if one spends too much time thinking about it. It is best to have a glass of wine before attempting this.

Thankfully this spring, her family’s dream to open a winery has finally come to fruition and a wine tasting is now available to prevent this kind of senseless mind-boggling. Over a decade in the making, the Forgotten Hill Wine Company opened its doors to the public for tastings this spring by appointment only. Don’t let the ‘by appointment’ thing scare you. There are solid practical reasons for this including very limited parking and single-lane access to the wine shop. However, the reward for the adventurous is big since it is securely ensconced far beyond the pavement high above the village of Naramata. After easily booking online and then making the trek up to the top of Smethurst Road, your welcome could not possibly be any warmer. (Wine touring tip – spending the afternoon in this area of Naramata is now entirely possible since Smethurst Road is also home to Nichol and Daydreamer Wines.)

Maya and Ben Gauthier in another vineyard (2010)

Maya and her husband Ben operate Forgotten Hill and the Forgotten Hill B&B on the same property. Both are trained winemakers and viticulturists who are able to talk about their wines with precision and passion. The wine shop is small but matches the garagiste scale of the winery. Their initial offering is of four wines – two Pinot Gris, a Rosé, and a Pinot Noir – but future plans include Syrah, Viognier, and a second Pinot Noir.

For those who like the small-scale wineries and the attention that they clearly pay to what seems like every individual bottle of wine, Forgotten Hill will not disappoint you. Maya has always been fascinated by Pinot Gris and was relentless is her pursuit of the perfect version of it for her vineyard site. The Pinot Noir is also immaculately executed and is a stellar confluence of silky textures, complexity, and a long , dreamy finish.

Rather than waste space with tasting notes, I would rather that you seek these wines out and judge for yourself rather than simply trust my opinion. I will say that all of the wines are solid performers that will hold your interest throughout a meal or a dinner or an entire evening for that matter. I have enjoyed more than a few bottles of prior non-production vintages of the Pinot Gris and can say with certainty that they are absolutely true to their unique place on the highest elevation vineyard on the Naramata Bench.

After spending the past 3 years of my life looking backwards by researching BC wine’s past, it is refreshing to get a glimpse of its future. Forgotten Hill is not only the carefully executed culmination of a dream, it also shows how the leading edge of the wine industry is not afraid to explore the furthest reaches of the Okanagan. I am glad to have been able to witness even a small part of its evolution.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

 

Back at it

 

Hi BC wine folks,

It has been too long since I’ve posted anything even somewhat resembling a blog post. There are many, many reasons for that but the big one is that I was working on the book about the history of the wine industry is this province. I can say that the manuscript is now (mostly) complete and that it has been submitted to the folks at Whitecap Books. 

The working title is “Valleys and Vintages: A Taste of British Columbia’s Wine History” and represents almost 2 and half years of interviews with amazing people, travels throughout the province, many photographs, and intense research at many public archives and museums. The experience has been an unforgettable one so far although it really is not over until I have the book in my hand. The process now shifts gears.

What I really hope to convey is that even though BC’s wine industry is young, there are a lot of places where history can really come alive. Standing in a loganberry patch on the Saanich Peninsula, that could very well have been the site of the very first planting of that berry in the province and certainly provided berries for the first wines ever produced in BC, was a powerful moment. Watching the sun set over the water while standing on the site where the very first commercial vineyard in BC’s interior used to be was eye-opening and powerful since I was watching almost the same view that those grapes had had 110 years earlier. Searching through documents like menus and price lists from pre-prohibition hotels and saloons, overdue account statements with a kind note to the customer handwritten and signed by J.W. Hughes, and original letters to the City of Victoria from Growers’ Wines signed by Herbert Anscomb were just some of the many documents that have thankfully be preserved in various public archives.

We are lucky that so many people from the genesis of the modern wine industry are still with us today. I am so thankful that I’ve been able to interview many of them over the past two years. They have opened their wine shops for me, shown me their wineries and vineyards, and met me at restaurants and coffee shops so that I could here their stories and recollections firsthand. I recorded as many of the conversations as I could so that I could make sure that every word, every expression, and every nuance was recorded.

Traveling to some of the places by motorcycle was also particularly thrilling since every change in temperature, every smell, and every sight was impossible to ignore. This is where the climate controlled environment of an air-conditioned car denigrates the experience of traveling through wine country. Yes, it might be a little more comfortable, perhaps a tad more convenient, and of course one cannot purchase nearly as much wine while on a motorcycle, but arriving at a new winery without having to get out of the airlock of a vehicle was a beautiful way to soak in the context of a vineyard. I could feel the slight cooling sensation as I approached a vineyard such as Emandare near Duncan because of their proximity to a lake. I could feel less humidity in the air after I left the highway and arrived at Blue Grouse. I could sense the rising humidity levels as I entered the Fraser Valley and got closer to the water in Tsawwassen. Travelling by motorcycle is a great way to stay connected with the world around you but in a way that is far more real than anything transmitted over Wi-Fi or 4G.

For those of you who might be interested in hearing about some of the research that went into this book, I will be presenting a seminar on BC wine history at Okanagan College in Penticton on May 4th, 2017. Click on the Okanagan College logo to find out more and register for the seminar. I am really looking forward to sharing with you some of the great things that I’ve found about the history of wine in BC and some of the adventures that I went on in order to find it. I hope to see you there!

I will try to post more often again about BC wine and the happenings in wine country. I am even hoping to get the podcast machine back into production as well if I can find suitable co-conspirators who are interested in talking about BC wine. Look for more action coming from Wine Country BC over the coming year. 2017 promises to be an exceptional vintage.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

Progress

Ok folks, this big news in wine country this morning. The BC Wine Appellation Taskgroup has released their final report. This is the media release that just showed up in my inbox. I will be commenting on this further because, well, there is a lot to comment on and frankly I really never like to just send through a press release verbatim on this site. Check out the information for yourself and look back here in the coming days for comments on it. 

~Luke

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE — November 5, 2015

BCWATG logo

New Wine Regions,
Regulatory Reforms
Proposed by BC Wine Task Group

A stronger “sense of place” will strengthen BC’s reputation among domestic and international wine consumers

Vancouver, BC – A BC wine industry group released its final report Thursday after a seven-month comprehensive consultation on the future of British Columbia’s system of appellations. The BC Wine Appellation Task Group – an independent ad-hoc committee of leading representatives of the industry from across British Columbia – has developed a set of 13 recommendations that are being described as a “turning point” in the growth and increasing reputation of premium winemaking in our province.

Group 1“Around the world today wine makers and wine enthusiasts are increasingly interested in the soil and climate conditions of where the wine is grown,” says Ezra Cipes, Chair of the BC Wine Appellation Task Group. “Our recommendations will help to strengthen a sense of place for our wines that is uniquely about British Columbia.”

The Task Group has submitted its recommendations to the British Columbia Wine Authority (BCWA), the regulatory authority to which the Province of British Columbia has delegated responsibility for enforcing the Wines of Marked Quality regulations. BCWA will be responsible for conducting an industry plebiscite in the coming weeks to approve the Task Group’s 13 recommendations to reform the regulations.

The Task Group recommendations include:

  • Creating 4 new appellations: Thompson Valley, Lillooet-Lytton, Shuswap and Kootenays to add to the current list of five officially designated wine regions (Okanagan Valley, Similkameen Valley, Fraser Valley, Vancouver Island, and Gulf Islands). (see map Appellations – Emerging BC Regions)
  • Creating a framework for 15 sub-appellations within the Okanagan Valley from Vernon in the north, down to the US border (see map Okanagan maps – Terroir boundaries)
  • Harmonizing the audit process between multiple government agencies to enhance quality standards and reduce regulatory red tape
  • Ending the use of taste panels to access faults and strengthen product health and safety

The BC Wine Appellation Task Group was supported by the BC Ministry of Agriculture, and conducted in cooperation with the BC Wine Authority and BC Wine Institute.

“British Columbia is increasingly becoming known for its premium wines across Canada and around the world,” says Hon. Norm Letnick, Minister of Agriculture. “I would like to commend the Task Group for dedicating their time and their passion in creating a strong, unified vision for our wine industry.”

A report titled Wine Industry Turning Point describes the effort to reach out to stakeholders in every winemaking region of B.C. – from Vancouver Island, the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys, the Fraser Valley and BC’s emerging regions. In addition to town halls and other one-on-one consultation, the Task Group conducted a successful industry and consumer online survey with over 800 participants.

For a copy of the Task Group report and the maps, survey and other appendices, see the links below, or visit www.bcwinetaskgroup.ca.

This year’s BC book harvest

I originally started this post back in early August because it was the first time that I could actually sit down and do some proper writing here. Jobs and other large projects had occupied my time up until that point. 

And then the fires started and priorities changed pretty quick. Since then of course, more books have appeared including Jennifer Schell’s coastal sequel to her producer-appreciation cook book “The Butcher, The Baker, The Wine and Cheese Maker” called (deep breath) “The Butcher, The Baker, The Wine and Cheese Maker by the Sea“. I have not picked up the new one yet but it is on my “To buy” list. Until then, there are these two fine BC-produced books to check out:

photo 2Two books have been appearing not inconspicuously on wine shop shelves this year and as a lover of B.C. wine for many years, I have developed a reflex to buy them as soon as a new one comes out. I have even bought some books twice or even thrice as gifts or when a new edition are released. The thrill of reading about the people, places, and wines never gets old for me even though at this point in my career I now know many of the people personally. So while I am freely open to admitting that I can go for days without having to take a sip of wine, it is a rare occurrence when I can make it through a day without reading about wine. Wine books are almost more addictive for me than wine itself.

The two new books this year are “Naramata Bench Vineyards and Wineries” by Garth Eichel and Taryn Liv Parker’s “Okanagan“. Both are regionally-focused and both contain stunning visuals with real experience-based descriptions of the profiled wineries. By that I mean that they don’t just simply review the wines and tell the ‘official’ story of the winery. Instead they try to tell you what it would be like for you to go there. This is a crucial difference from most region-specific wine books which offer a spew of generalized information – facts ‘n’ stats – about the history of the region, the terroir, the wines, and the producers of the area. This experience-oriented style makes both of these books approachable and in my opinion a more honest representation of what the reader will experience if they go to visit the same winery. The drawback is that that at times it can lack depth for people who might want to know some of those specifics.

Let’s begin with Eichel’s “Naramata Bench“.

photo 1Producing a book about a visually stunning place like Naramata and having it not be equally visually stunning would have been ridiculous. That is not the case here as the book is loaded with great photos and excellent layouts. The trick with photographing any wine region is to make it look interesting in a new way. Of all of BC’s wine regions, Naramata has probably been photographed more than any other so the onus was entirely on Eichel to show us something new and avoid clichéd shots that any tourist can capture.

He accomplishes this with diversity. Sure there is scenery – that’s unavoidable – but there are close-up details (Therapy’s weather vane), portraits of owners and wine makers, contributed older photos (Bob and Tim from Kettle Valley with their sons as toddlers), and action shots (Jay Drysdale sabering a bottle of bubbly with an axe) that make each layout exciting to look at. There’s a predictable rhythm to it and a lot of repetition (there is always a photo of someone pouring a wine at every tasting bar) but it works and shows the setting for the winery’s experiences accurately. And just like the landscape clichés, there are no “super-serious” photos of squinting winemakers holding a glass up to the light to “examine” it. Eichel thankfully has avoided this with excellent creativity with the camera. My favourite feature however is that each photo is also suitably captioned with details specific to each photo – wonder but often overlooked element in a lot of wine books.

The text rolls along fluidly and is easy to read. Interviews with the owners are the basis for the text and Eichel uses lots of direct quotes in his narrative. The wineries will tell their stories when visiting the shop in person so paraphrasing is probably not the best way to communicate the experience so this technique is refreshing and fits into the experience theme upon which this book seems based.

photo 3If Eichel’s “Naramata Bench” is Sgt. Pepper’s, full of colourful characters and stories, Parker’s “Okanagan” is the White Album, absolutely anchored to its time and place. It’s physically huge and heavy with a hard cover giving it the same imposing effect of strength similar to large pillars on the façades of banks and courthouses to denote security and authority. The blank white cover simply and elegantly adorned with the word “Okanagan” suggests something epic while the small subtitle near the bottom acts as a perfect tease to the book’s contents. Rather than loudly advertising the fact, Parker’s cover is subtle and uncluttered and let’s the colours inside the book explode more vividly when flipping through the pages.

To me, this book looks and feels more Okanagan. The rough texture of the pages, the high-contrast photos, the light sand-coloured text boxes and highlight squares throughout the book all appear more like something produced in the Okanagan to me. If anyone from around the world wants to know what it’s like to be in the Okanagan, this is the book that I would send them. The layouts give me the impression of a high school or university year book (Oh, there’s a photo of Mike! Hey, there’s Virginia!) which I believe is a perfect form for conveying that very sense of time and place. When I want to relive how I felt working in this industry in 2014-2015 (when this book was in production) I will absolutely pull this book out. It is truly a temporal work of art.

Her attempt to look at the region as a whole entity of the Okanagan not just through the obvious physical elements like geography, but also through time – history. To my delight, Parker seems to be aware of the Okanagan’s past and appreciates its influence on the present. No other B.C. wine book that I’ve read has ever included a photo of Velma Sperling, grand-daughter of Giovanni and Rosa Casorzo. Giovanni was hired by Father Charles Pandosy to work at the Oblate mission. Velma is a living link to that era of our history that roots today’s wine industry and continues to help it grow. The same land is still in the hands of the Casorso family and Velma’s daughter Ann Sperling, also photographed in this book, has a highly distinguished career as a winemaker.

Each winery’s entry gives a snapshot of their style. A list of the property’s signature wines, key varieties, and vineyards are an quick guide for anyone interested in specific varieties. The section “The Property Experience” is a point-form listing of events and special offerings. Every winery has a tasting bar, we all know that. Parker tells us more about what makes each winery unique. For those wine lovers looking for that special experience, you will find one for you while thumbing through “Okanagan”.

The biggest question I have of both books is how the wineries were chosen to be included in each one? Eichel’s “Naramata Bench” has a small section on “Other Wineries” while Parker’s “Okanagan” just doesn’t mention some wineries at all, leaving awkward holes in some of the regions. There is section on the North Okanagan but strangely, no wineries listed there. Eichel’s “Naramata” includes a near phone book of listings for places to stay, places to eat, tour companies, and travel information – all helpful items but curious for a printed book considering Google is now the de facto go-to resource for most people. Both books are self-published and must be financed somehow. However I sometimes get the impression that I’ve bought into very large advertisements, especially turning to the bizarre two-page spread on Greyback Construction, a local construction company that happens to have built many wineries. Neither book purports to be objective guidebooks or anything like that however it makes me wonder if or how the financing may have influenced the content.

This media literacy (or paranoia?) comes to me courtesy of my own “question everything” personality (or disorder?) and perhaps isn’t shared by many others, nor perhaps from the Millennial generation who care about it differently than I do. (A short stint at Simon Fraser’s Communications Department probably didn’t discourage that behaviour either…) Both books are extremely well planned and well executed highly recommend you pick up both as soon as you can. Sometimes regional books don’t make it to a second printing so don’t pass on either of these two if you see them.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

Wine Shops: Why do some wineries get it so wrong?

Wine shops are weird places. There aren’t a lot of other businesses where you can go, consume some of the product for free (or nearly free), and buy (or not buy) some of said product. Test driving cars or trying on clothes are both perhaps the closest, except that in both cases the pr20140214-125934.jpgoduct doesn’t get consumed by the consumer in the process. Nobody gets offended if they aren’t allowed to eat the car.

But selling cars is similar to selling wine in that the knowledge needed on the part of the sales person to sell the car needs to be reasonably good. If you don’t know very much about cars, you probably won’t be able to sell them very effectively. So why are wine shops still staffing their front-end tasting bar with people who have little knowledge about the wines they are selling or even wine in general?

I once asked a person behind the bar if they knew how many vintages the winery had ever done of a particular sparkling wine.

“Oh, I don’t know. It doesn’t say anything about that on the back label.”

Fail.

The correct answer could have been;

“This is the xth vintage of this wine.”

or;

“I’m not sure, let me find out for you.”

or simply;

“I don’t know.”

Any of those answers above are perfectly acceptable. I didn’t think that it was a particularly difficult question to ask. I knew there hadn’t been that many vintages of it made previously. I had started a vertical of this wine at home and I wanted to be sure that I hadn’t already purchased it before. I knew I had 3 bottles from three previous vintages already at home but wanted a confirmation that this was or was not a newly released vintage.

Speaking of the back label on a bottle of wine. The back label can have as little or as much information on it as the wine maker or owner deems appropriate for their house style and branding. It does not contain all of the information that there is to know about a wine, nor does it replace the training needed to pour the wine at the tasting bar.

“This is our Chardonnay. You will taste peaches, melons, vanilla, baking spices, and a hint of mango.”

Will I?? I’m going to taste all of that? Wow, I didn’t know that. Thank you so much for tasting the wine for me. Why should I even bother now?

Here’s the problem with telling customers what they are going to taste before they even taste it. They will either:

A) … not taste any of those aromas and feel stupid about it, thinking that they don’t have a good palate. They will effectively give up on trying to focus their sense of taste because they can’t yet perceive the aromas that you said that they would. This is the equivalent of telling a child in the school choir to just mouth the words because they are singing out of tune. That kid will grow up believing that they can’t sing or are tone-deaf and will never try again for the rest of their lives. This is not an exaggeration, this is proven fact from the realm of musical education.

B) … taste everything that you mention, love it, and then go home with a bottle where they will quickly notice that it “doesn’t really taste like it did at the winery.” Due to travel shock, stemware differences, or environmental differences (odours, etc), the sterility of the wine shop can’t easily be duplicated in a home setting. Where you drink your wine will affect how you perceive it.

Either situation (where the person’s self-image or the winery’s image is adversely affected) is completely avoidable. The solution is to simply STOP READING THE TASTING NOTES. Talk about the vineyards, the region where it was grown, the person who made it, or what food you ate when you tried it for the first time. Stop reading the tasting notes and use your experiences instead. This is where creativity can really raise the bar. “This Chardonnay pairs perfectly with buttered popcorn and a Tina Fey movie.”

You mean you’ve never had a glass of the wine that you’re selling? Perhaps you should choose another kind of job.

Stories of your own experiences with a particular wine are the real gold in the wine shop. Stories are interesting and they are unique to each person behind the bar. They do not lead the customer on with “aromas” and “flavors”. They can be funny or informative. Wine shop customers LOOOVE hearing about wine shop staff parties. They think we live THE LIFE here in wine country (we do, right?), drinking wine all the time (well…), and looking at the beautiful views of the valley from our decks all year in the unbroken sunshine. That’s why people have driven out of their way to buy a bottle of wine that they could actually have purchased at a liquor store or VQA shop instead. But no, they drove all that way to visit you and it is your job to give them a good experience that goes beyond the back label.

It comes down to staff training. Most of the training that I’ve seen wineries do is just sad. Wine knowledge is not an easy thing to convey to people who are insecure with their own understanding of wine. The best thing to do is to simply not hire those kind of people. If you were hiring a car salesman, don’t hire someone that doesn’t know anything about cars. Unfortunately the reality of the labor situation in the Okanagan is that this is not always possible. A lot of wineries that I’ve seen so far this summer are cripplingly understaffed. When you need hands on deck, sometimes wineries have to make do with what they have been offered. Even with a staff that is short on wine knowledge, there are ways to make the most of your team’s skill set.

Even a little team building will go a long way. Take a wine tour to visit other wineries. See what they do right or wrong. Talk about it. Did that wine shop seem welcoming? Was that woman behind the bar dressed professionally for their winery? Why or why not? What can our wine shop do different than what we saw on our wine tour together today?

Simple stuff really.

20111206-164434.jpgThe other obvious (and easy) thing to do with new staff is to taste the wines with the wine maker. Not the winery owner, not the marketing person, not the tasting room manger, the wine maker. Nobody knows the wines better than they do and this is a winery’s best resource for teaching “wine 101” to the people who the winery is trusting to be their face for the season.

Give wine to your staff. Some wineries I’ve worked for are downright parismonious with their own wines when it comes to providing them to staff. There has to be a few perks to working at a winery and this is one of them. But it’s important because it allows the staff member to have their own experiences with the wines at home so that they can use those experiences to sell it in the wine shop. “Oh, I had that Riesling with a pulled-pork sandwich last week. It was so good…” It is selling the experience and not a wine that simply tastes like peaches, melons, or vanilla.

In short, hiring staff and giving them very little training is an obvious quick and easy way out. You might think that you are saving money by not giving them wine, not hiring a consultant to train them, or not sending them out on a day-long wine tour. Ultimately however, you will lose more money in lost sales or opportunities than you will save and you will likely never even know it. Customers will be able to figure out pretty soon that if you’ve taken the quick and easy way out with your staff. Maybe you’ve also taken the quick and easy way with your wines as well?

Customers can will figure that out pretty quickly too.

BC VQA Golden Mile Bench now a reality

They have done it. The Golden Mile Bench can now be used on wine bottle labels starting pretty well right away. It will be seen as “BC VQA Golden Mile Bench”. The wineries that have vineyards within the boundary are CC Jentsch Cellars, Checkmate Artisanal Winery, Culmina Family Estate Winery, Fairview Cellars, Gehringer Brothers Estate Winery, Hester Creek Estate Winery, Inniskillin Okanagan Vineyards, Road 13, Rustico, Tinhorn Creek Vineyards, and Willow Hill Vineyards. Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick made the announcement today at Tinhorn Creek Vineyards.

This is a big deal. It’s a big deal because they succeeded after 6 years of trying to clearly and scientifically delineate a unique area for growing grapes.

Part of the reasons for that was discussed on Monday evening at Okanagan College’s Speaker’s Series when the topic for discussion was “Vineyard Soils of the South Okanagan: Defining the Okanagan Terroir” by Scott Smith and Pat Bowen from the Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre . In fact, based on geological models, the Okanagan could be further into other distinct regions along with the Golden Mile Bench: Kelowna, Penticton-Summerland-Naramata (all together), Okanagan Falls, Vaseaux-Oliver, Black Sage Bench-Osoyoos.

20150330-222957.jpg(In my own humble opinion of course, Naramata and the wineries on Skaha Lake should be together and separate from the Summerland wineries, who have completely different geology as well as sunshine. Being on the east side of the valley gives Naramata way more sunlight than Summerland, as anyone who has relaxed in the evening shade on the deck of Local Lounge in the heat of summer can appreciate. Conversely though, Summerland gets the sun first thing in the morning before Naramata which is itself beneficial. Calling the whole region Penticton though is a bit of a stretch since the town site itself contributes nothing in the way of grapes. But I digress. The regions shown on the chart are purposely meant to be general, which is really all we can be at this stage in the evolution of our young wine industry.)

Very interesting to see all of this complex information masterfully distilled into one short seminar by Scott Smith. It brought a good deal of discussion on various topics including marketing. The most moving portion of the presentation however was the projections for climate change where it became clear that the Okanagan will be changing and quite drastically. The audience was a mix of Okanagan College students and interested industry people. Perhaps there will be another announcement from another potential sub-GI in the valley’s future?

As a summary, Scott Smith added what is in effect a definition of our grape growing region.

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Ageing Wines – Why Bother?

Here we go – another off-shoot of my Nota Bene vertical tasting from earlier in January. This is something that I think is an extension of many other articles that I’ve been writing lately. On we go…

Why bother buying a bottle of wine and then waiting 7 years to open it? How ridiculous is that? Why do some people do it?

20140425-193555.jpgI’ve had more than a few customers guffaw at my suggestion that this or that wine can be aged for up to 10 years. The typical reply is something like, “Wine doesn’t last more than a few days in our house!” and then they look to their spouse / friend / entourage for the requisite approving laughter.

Most wine made today isn’t meant for long-term ageing. I remember a wine teacher of mine saying that 99% of all wine produced is meant for consumption within 2 years. Most of it probably will be anyway regardless of the producers’ intent.

So what is the point of ageing wine?

Mature wine tastes different. A well made wine is smoother, more complex, and full of nearly unidentifiable aromas and flavours that would not have been apparent without age. The way that I describe it to customers is that young wine has all kinds of easily identifiable flavours – black fruits, red fruits, cocoa, chocolate, vanilla, campfire smoke, etc. As the wine ages, those flavours will change, mutate, and intertwine into things like coffee, burned almonds, and maybe blueberry teacake. As the wine gets even older, the flavours become less easy to identify. They turn into something that still smells good but for some reason just doesn’t trigger a sense memory as easily. This is where the most bizarre descriptors, that some people like to make fun of, are often used. A very good taster will be able to perceive some of these aromas earlier on in the life of the wine and be able to predict what will happen as it ages.

Up until about 50 years ago, wine making technology had not yet evolved to be able to make a wine that was palatable when it was young. Only certain areas producing softer wine styles (like Beaujolais) were able to produce wines that could be consumed very young. According to the Oxford Companion to Wine, mature wine was preferred in the Roman empire and it was also possible that the Greeks aged their wines as well. It was not done in bottles as we know today but rather in casks (barrels and larger vats).

DSC_3031Bottles sealed with corks became available for ageing in the 17th century but this did not become widespread even by the time of Thomas Jefferson in the early 19th century. Bottles were (and still are) difficult to transport safely without breaking so bottling at the destination was common until the early 20th century. Even still, the wines weren’t really ready to drink.

It wasn’t until the invention of certain winery techniques and technology that people were able to make wine that was ready to drink sooner. Protecting the grapes, juice, and young wine from oxygen was a new thing in the 20th century. Fine filtering was new as well. Fermenting the whole berries or even whole bunches of grapes without crushing them first made the resulting wines fruitier with less grippy tannins and therefore, easier to drink sooner. This, I think, is the New World’s biggest stylistic contribution to the world of wine.

20150123-095548.jpgOf course, that march of technology didn’t just end with that. Membrane filters, micro-oxygenation (a technique pioneered by winemaker Patrick Ducournau in Madiran, France to tame the insane amount of tannins in that appellations’s Tannat grapes), reverse-osmosis and spinning cones, yeast nutrients, and bags of tannins, acids, and colouring agents all give wineries the ability to manipulate all kinds of aspects of a wine’s flavour profile so that the wine is smooth, tasty, and easy to drink almost immediately. The result was smooth wine in no time at all. It was wine for impatient people.

Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with that at all. We need wine in the marketplace (and to be perfectly honest, in my house) that doesn’t have to be aged. What I am interested in here is encouraging people to try saving some of those bottles that are capable of ageing because I think they are missing out on some truly amazing wine experiences. From my point of view, it’s like watching someone purchase a Ferrari who only plans to use it to get around on slow city streets and never take it above 2nd gear. Buying a top-quality, age-worthy wine and drinking it within the next 6 months is really missing out on a great experience. I encourage everyone who buys those kinds of wines to hold on to at least one of them for a little longer.

It’s not only red wines that can age. We’re very lucky here in BC to have an abundance of natural acidity that Rhys Pender MW claims other wine regions around the world would love to have. It is acidity that helps preserve whites for long-term ageing. He mentioned that as part of the 5 year vertical of Clos du Soleil that I attended a couple of years ago. The complexity of the flavours was astounding and I enjoyed every single wine in the vertical of Capella. (I very much regretted drinking my 2007 white – it wasn’t called Capella then – far too early.)

Here is a list of some BC white wines that I’ve had success with ageing, either on my own or as part of tastings or events (in no particular order).

  • Clos du Soleil Capella (aka White)
  • Tantalus Old Vines Riesling (I’m holding onto a few of these)
  • Orofino Riesling (same with this one)
  • 8th Generation Riesling (and this one)
  • (notice a trend yet??)
  • Domain Combret Chardonnay (at 16 years it should have been salad dressing at that point, but it wasn’t)
  • Painted Rock Chardonnay
  • just about anyone’s Late Harvest or Icewine (the ’93 Riesling Icewine from Lang was beautiful but still not quite ready in 2010)
  • Road 13 Sparkling Chenin Blanc

And reds…

  • Black Hills Nota Bene
  • Clos du Soleil Signature
  • Mission Hill Oculus (and the other 1st generation of BC Meritages – Pinnacle, Osoyoos-Larose, etc)
  • Just about anything from Fairview Cellars or Kettle Valley
  • Hester Creek Cabernet Franc (and many Cab Franc – I think this is a great variety in BC for ageing.)
  • 2nd Generation Meritages (Laughing Stock Portfolio, Poplar Grove Legacy are the ones I’m familiar with)
  • Nk’Mip Syrah (always a staple at their wine maker’s dinners)
  • Burrowing Owl Pinot Noir (the ’97 in 2009 was ridiculous)
  • Painted Rock Syrah (I haven’t tried them all in a vertical yet, but if you check back here next January…hint hint)

I may have forgotten some but it’s a start. It’s not easy predicting which wines will age and which ones won’t. I’m had some go off that I thought would be sure to do well. Unless the winery has been in business longer than 10 years (which is not very many of them at this point), they won’t really know either. They can tell you what they think will happen based on what the winemaker has intended to happen, but that’s not always a sure thing either.

In the end, it all comes down to personal preference. If you haven’t ever had an aged wine, there’s a possibility that you might not like it. If you don’t like the aroma of apples and flowers soaked in kerosene, don’t age your Riesling because that’s very likely what they will become. I’ve had aged Riesling and I absolutely love those aromas so I know that’s what I’m interested in waiting for.

So I encourage you to try, just try, to put a few bottles away of wines that you enjoy and want to see through to maturity. It takes the whole wine experience to another level.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

What do you mean “Oak”?

IMG_0524Wine production can involve the use of things made with oak. Barrels, tuns, staves, chips, and even sawdust. While it seems obvious that some wines have an ‘oaky’ taste to them, a lot of wine tourists that I’ve met over the years seem to have differing understandings of what makes a wine ‘oaky’.

Not all wines that touch oak are going to taste ‘oaky’.

Oak in wine making is infinitely variable, like a spice. Too much salt will make food taste bad while too little won’t bring anything out. The trick is to get it just right. The best chefs in the world are the ones that not only know how to work that balance, but also share similar tastes to what you prefer in food. (That’s one of the major reasons I’ve resisted doing wine reviews on this site. Who’s to say that the wines I love should be equally loved by everyone?)

So what do wine people mean when they talk about ‘oak’ flavours? What makes some people cringe from ‘oaky’ wines?

Wish I’d made this up…

On more than one occasion I’ve had people tell me outright that they don’t like oaky wines. Almost exactly 100% of the time, it’s just moments before I’m about to pour a small sample of a wine called Chardonnay in their glass. I then ask what kind of wines they prefer and they say things like, “Well, reds mostly, like Syrah.”

(You can see why I really love my job. It gives me all kinds of things to talk about and at least once a week there’s a solid, robust facepalm, complete with the follow-through.)

So, while not always the case throughout the world, in BC I can safely say that all reds are oaked. They have all seen oak in some way (more on this later) even though they may not taste overly ‘oaky’. An unoaked-red wine is actually pretty harsh.

DSC_5732

Anthony Buchanan taking a sample at Eau Vivre in Cawston.

As a cellar hand at one winery, I had the awesome task (it was really cool) of testing the wines each morning during fermentation which involved recording the specific gravity to make sure that fermentation was progressing. Each test also involved a sensory evaluation – tasting the juice as it progressed into wine. It was the highlight of my day. I would walk briskly (scamper, actually) from tank to tank and barrel to barrel with my wine thief filling up my graduated cylinder with a sample, take the measurement, and then pour off a little into my glass to see how the wine was behaving that day. Each barrel and tank had a different temperament and it was an amazing experience to follow their journey from grape juice to wine. Barrel-fermented whites were the most interesting with sweet, rounded flavours while tank-fermented whites developed a lean, brisk, and refreshing quality.

Taste testing the reds was a completely different story. While the whites evolved delicately from a sweet juice to a beautiful wine, the reds evolved from a sweet juice to a acerbic, moribund liquid that made me cringe more and more as it progressed. In short, it was hideous. That’s when I realized that red wines really, really needed the softening effects of oak to simply be palatable. In that cellar I was working with Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Perhaps there are some reds that are a little easier to take when younger (perhaps Gamay?) but for those varieties, it was a little rough.

How oak gets into wine

It really isn’t obvious that a wine can be “oaked” (i.e. treated with oak) in many different ways. These methods vary considerably in cost from very expensive to very cheap. Usually it goes that the better the wine’s intended quality, then the more costly the wine’s production methods will be, resulting in a more expensive wine. A high quality $45 Merlot will likely see new barrels and have some quality pumps and equipment to pump it in and out along with proper environment controls (temperature, humidity, etc) in the barrel cellar. An $8 Merlot will likely have had sawdust poured into its (probably very large) tank which is then filtered quickly after a couple of months.

Um, did you say “sawdust”? Ewe…

That’s right. Barrels aren’t the only way to get that oak flavour into a wine. That’s the cheapest way but it’s certainly not the only other way. Home wine making kits use this method quite often. It’s inexpensive, efficiently quick, and the results are pretty smooth all things considered.

Oak chips (Eric Risberg/Associated Press)

Oak chips (Eric Risberg/Associated Press)

Other legal ways of imparting oak flavours into wine (in ascending order of cost): oak chips (about the size of a finger nail, they come in big bags), oak chunks (fist-sized), oak staves (leg-sized, comes in massive meter-wide tea bags), and finally barrels. New barrels are the most costly and some wineries only use them once before selling them or otherwise disposing of them. Some will use them for 3 fills (a fill can be anything from 3 weeks to 3 years) and while others will use them until they haemorrhage and cease to be able to hold a liquid of any kind anymore. Older barrels (after 3-5 fills) won’t impart many of the oak flavours to the wine anymore and are considered to be ‘neutral’ unless they are reconditioned. Barrels can be shaved (a cooper can open them and plane off a layer of wood on the inside) or have fresh oak planks installed on plastic stems inside the barrel. Shaving isn’t easy or very effective and adding staves decreases the capacity of the barrel but both can extend the life of a barrel and save the winery a lot of money.

It is important to know that when barrels are made, the inside of the barrels is heated over a fire to make the wood more flexible but also to ‘toast’ the wood (essentially, charring it). Wineries can specify how ‘toasted’ they want their barrels from untoasted to heavy toast. Most wineries I’ve worked at have used a light to medium+ range of toast on their barrels. Wood chips, staves, and planks are also toasted to some degree as well to simulate the effect of toasting a barrel.

Those oaky flavours

So what are the flavours that oak can impart to a wine? What makes a wine taste “oaky”?

stavesThe are probably tons of simultaneous chemical reactions that take place within a barrel of wine, some of which we actually know about but I’m guessing like everything else in wine, many other interactions that we don’t know about. According to the Oxford Companion to Wine (which I have been known to call “The Condescendium” on occasion but is nevertheless an excellent wine resource), lactones, phenolic aldehydes and other volatile phenols contribute a wide range of flavours from coconut, vanilla, cloves, and smoky aromas. Caramel aromas can also be imparted to the wine, a result of the wood-toasting process when the barrels were made.

I find that white and red wines react differently when oaked. Chardonnay is the probably the best know / most hated variety that is associated with oak flavours, which really explains people’s prejudice against it. (Honestly, the world changes folks – not all rosés and Rieslings are sweet and not all Chardonnays are butter-popcorn and vanilla. Please get over it.) When properly made, an oaked Chardonnay is absolutely lovely. I can’t imagine having cedar-planked salmon, the rock star of Pacific Northwest cuisine, without an oaked Chardonnay.

So while Chardonnay usually takes one for the oak team, most wine shop customers are generally unconcerned (or unaware) that the other wines that they’ve had have also seen some oak time as well. Perhaps it was in neutral barrels or perhaps a portion of it was fermented in barrel and blended back later, but there was some oak used in the production of those wines. Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, and Pinot Gris can all subtly benefit from a little wood time which probably go completely unnoticed by the “I hate oaked wine” crowd.

Get on with it

The most amazing smell in wine making is filling a brand new barrel with red wine. I distinctly remember my first barrel work day in the cellar – filling 20 barrels with freshly fermented Merlot. The whole place smelled amazing. I’d never experienced anything like it. It was unbelievable.

The point of this article though was really to draw attention to the fact that oak and wine go together very well. There’s a reason why wine makers have been using it for centuries. There is also a ton of more information about oak (French vs. American oak, why oak and not pine?, differences between chips and barrels, etc) that I did not include here otherwise this post would have gone on forever. (Perhaps a part two is required?)

So enjoy the wine for what it is. Please don’t prejudge a wine simply because it might be oaked. I know that you don’t do that because it’s obvious that you are cool, knowledgeable, Wine Country BC readers and listeners, and that I’m probably preaching to the choir here. Even still, let me know what you think. Oak? No oak? Have some winemakers gone too far with their use of oak? Bring it.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke