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

Wine Labels in BC: How Wines are Named

There is a lot of information on wine labels. Sometimes deciphering them can be a bit of a challenge. There are strange words that don’t look like they’re in English and it’s probably because they aren’t. I vividly remember walking down the aisles of my local liquor store trying to figure out which wine to buy for dinner and having absolutely no clue about any of them. In this series of articles, I will explore the information behind the labels for wines made in BC.

In general, wines are usually named after 3 things:

  1. The grape variety or varieties used to make the wine (as in Merlot or Chardonnay)
  2. A proprietary name (i.e. a name that the winery simply made up, as in Oculus or Nota Bene)
  3. A place name, usually for the region where the grapes are grown (as in Bordeaux, Burgundy, or Champagne)

If you’ve ever been confused by the things that are written on the labels, perhaps this will help you out when you visit your local wine store or winery. Let’s start with the grape varieties first.

The Grape Variety or Varieties

IMG_6224There are thousands and thousands of grape varieties out there and the ones that we see on wine labels here in BC represents only a small portion of what’s available around the world. There are many families of grapes out there but the one that concerns us the most here is called Vitis Vinifera. Vinifera grapes are the ones that have been the most popular for making wine and some of the names of them will probably be familiar; Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and many others.

Wineries in BC have been making wine from these Vinifera varieties for only the past 25 years, although there were a few intrepid producers who planted Vinifera vines in BC before then. Some wineries make wines using only a single grape variety as the source of juice. This kind of wine usually lists that particular variety clearly on the front label like the Joie Farm Riesling on the right.

Sometimes the wine is a blend of two different varieties, such as Thornhaven’s ever-popular Sauv Blanc / Chardonnay, or Quails’ Gate’s Chasselas Pinot Blanc Pinot Gris. It’s not just whites that get this treatment either. Hester Creek’s perpetual Cabernet Merlot combines the names of the 3 grapes used in the blend (Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot).

Sometimes these names get a bit long. So for those wineries interested in brevity, they can use…

Proprietary Names

IMG_6216These are wine names that have been made up out of the blue: Fandango, Legend, Old Main Red, A Noble Blend, Two Hoots, and Beleza. Usually, but not always, these wines are blended with two or more different grape varieties. Sometimes it does get a little confusing as to which ones are the grape varieties and which ones are the proprietary names. Newer wine tourists should never be afraid to ask how the wine is named because it is not always obvious, especially with rare grape varieties. A wine label with the word “symphony” on it suggests that it is a proprietary name when it could also be a wine made with the grape variety called “symphony“. On Vancouver Island there is also a winery called Symphony Vineyards but thankfully they label everything clearly by variety. It helps to look at all of the labels clearly.

Proprietary names may not be able to tell you a lot about the wine but it’s very likely that the winery has a reason for its name and perhaps a story about it. From my experience, it is easier for people to recall unique proprietary names when shopping for wine the next day. A wine called “The Fifth Element” is far more uniquely named and memorable than a “Chardonnay”.

Unique names almost invite the consumer to look into the wine. They are almost forced to examine the bottle more closely and read the back label more carefully. A merlot is a merlot is a merlot and may not garner any more attentive examination than that. A bottle with “Hypothesis” written on it will likely be examined far more thoroughly.

Place Names

Wines named after places are much more common in Europe, or as wine people like to call it, the “Old World”. The 3 examples of place names in BC wine that come to mind use the names of the towns only, but only one of them does it directly. “Calona” is a homonymic spelling of “Kelowna” and Oliver Twist Estate Winery was the first to incorporate the town name of Oliver into a winery name, among other meanings. (They cleverly promoted their use of screw caps – i.e. the twist-off, and of course alluded to the novel by Charles Dickens.) Osoyoos-Larose, a blend (not ironically) of the Groupe Taillan’s most prestigious Chateau Gruaud Larose and the town of Osoyoos, also uses the name of the town as part of the name.

20150102-222119.jpgA critical difference with all of these examples is that these are the names of the wineries and not of the wines themselves. There is no winery called “Chateau Bordeaux”. There are many chateaux (wineries) near Bordeaux (the city) that make wine and we generically refer to them as “Bordeaux” wines based on that.

It may happen here at some point in the future but it seems unlikely to be any time soon that anyone will sit back and relax with a glass of “Penticton” or “Oliver” the way that we do with a glass of Bordeaux, Chambertin, Beaujolais, or Chablis. The local town names here don’t seem right as the dominant name on the label nor do they roll off the tongue as the European names do. That kind of thing isn’t impossible in the “New World” (aka. not-Europe). If I put a glass of red wine in front of you and told you it was a Napa, what would you assume it was made with? Even for most casual wine lovers, Napa is synonymous with big, rich reds and particularly Cabernet Sauvignon. White wines from Napa (aka Chardonnay) and reds from the Willamette Valley (aka Pinot Noir) are also sewing their place names tighter to the variety or style.

A Domaine

We are pretty lucky here in BC with our labels being relatively easy to read. There aren’t too many obscure-sounding names to mispronounce or any “Chateau This” or too many “Domaines de That”. The wine industry here has grown along with a clean and modern style of branding that really seems to prefer uncluttered, easy to read labels. The same can’t be said of wine labels from the rest of the world and any cruise down a liquor store aisle will tell you that (especially in the German section). Burgundy confused me at first but I think I’m getting a handle on it now (after 10 years).

The issue here in BC is this: Will it even matter? I think it is starting to matter, perhaps more than wineries want to admit. I think that there are differences between the north and south of the Okanagan valley that is quickly becoming apparent. Could that one day be a part of the information on our wine labels? Sub-DVA’s like the forthcoming “Golden Mile Bench” are going to put a spotlight on a smaller piece of land very soon. Why can’t that happen to the Black Sage Bench or West Kelowna? Perhaps we need the divisions to build up first before we see them on labels.

Next time you pop a cork, think of the place where it came from. Enjoy your glass of Osoyoos (Syrah)!

~Luke

 

Hints of Gooseberries and Baloney

There’s an old Celtic proverb that goes, “We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.” I’m about as Celtic as won-ton soup but I’ve always found that proverb appealing for some reason. Growing up English-speaking in a French-speaking province meant that I probably had different, minority cultural views than the rest of the province. Language is very important for determining how we view the world. In the wine world, it’s not insignificant that there is no direct word in English for “Terroir”. Nor is there a word in French for “winemaker”. (The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (not the name of an episode of The Big Bang Theory) is the bigger linguistic concept, if you want to look into this kind of thing further.)

Our language certainly influences how we see the world but I think our world also influences our language. When I lived on the east coast, any liquid that fell from the sky was called “rain”. When I moved to Vancouver, I soon discovered that there were many shades of falling liquid (“showers”, “drizzle”, “downpour”, “pissing”, “deluge”, and – my favourite – “mist”) that each had their own characteristics.

So how does language enable (or hinder) us from describing the wines that we drink?

The Wine Review

People who are new to wine (and some that have been here awhile) find wine reviews kind of bizarre at best and misleading at worst. Tasting notes in magazines, websites, blogs, and apps are filled with descriptions of how the wine supposedly tastes. This wine has “hints of cherries, violets, and forest floor” while this one has “leather, earth, and cigar box notes” with a “firm structure” and much “intensity” and “smoky overtones of licorice”.

Interesting. Wine can have all that stuff in it?

It seems to be a bizarre way to communicate about wine, which itself is a difficult task. A customer at a store I used to work at (here it goes, another one of these stories that I wish I’d made up, but didn’t) that was shopping for a wine with his wife, pulled a bottle off the shelf, looked at it, and then yells across the store, “Honey! This one’s got strawberries in it!” Aside from getting some people to think that wine makers actually add these flavours to the wines (they don’t), it doesn’t actually tell anyone very much about the wine or if they’ll like it or not. One would assume that if one likes strawberries, then if it lists strawberries on the label then one should like the wine. But is that how it is meant to work? How does one communicate that kind of thing?

One of my heroes, Frank Zappa, said (allegedly) that “writing about music was like dancing about architecture.” They are two completely different modes of expression and not easy to make sense of saying the same, or even similar, ideas. I spent years writing about music at university and it was quite frustrating at times. So I decided to start writing about wine.

Perhaps I like the challenge. Perhaps I’m an idiot that really doesn’t learn? More likely is that I’m really interested in how people communicate. How do you know you will love a wine before you taste it? How can you express what you sense so that someone else can get the same reaction? Can it even be done? If it can’t, then what’s the point?

The Point

Wine people get really serious about this kind of thing sometimes. Wine reviews in magazines and blogs, favourable or not, can have a huge impact on the sales of a particular wine. Robert Parker was as powerful as he was in the wine world because of his tasting notes and final scores in the Wine Advocate. I’ve always found those final point scores to be the most divisive within the industry and consumers. Consumers seem to like them, if only as a useful shorthand when shopping. Wine industry, especially those who produce wines that have received good reviews, also love them. The rest of the industry, while not outwardly expressing their disdain, mumble quietly to themselves about it.

I’ve always had a problem with the scores simply because they are far too reductionist. As an neophyte wine drinker, I cannot say that scores didn’t influence my purchases. To see a high score or read a good review meant that if I saw the wine on the shelf, it would very likely tip it in favour of me purchasing it. I’m not sure when that changed but I do remember an incident that provoked some thought. I was searching for a Gewürztraminer from Domaine de Chaberton in Langley. They had won a top prize for it, scored big, and was on the cover of some magazine at the same time. I loved Gewürztraminer (still do) and went after it. I went to my local wine store. Not there. I went to Domaine de Charberton’s wine shop. Sold out.

I finally found it at a small wine store in Langley. It was there!! Hallelujah, I was saved! I brought a couple of bottles up to the dude at the till. I told him I’d been looking for these all day and that I was happy I’d found it. Then I asked what he thought of it. He said, “It’s good, but it doesn’t have a lot of varietal character.”

PLOOFFFFFFFFffffffffffffffffffff….   <<That’s the blogging approximation of the sound of an air mattress deflating slowly.>>

Aside from being a gargantuanly stupid sales job on his part, this dude brought me a dose of reality about my situation. I had gone nuts over trying to find a bottle of wine based on a review, medal, or point score and this guy’s disagreement deflated it in one shot. It made me think about what I was doing searching for this bottle of wine that I hoped would be awesome based on something that was communicated to me (in this case, in a magazine). Was the wine really as good as the magazine said it would be?

Well, I liked it. “Varietal character”? Check, all there. Lovely Gew in all the ways that I liked it at the time.

The end result of this was twofold: First, I never went back to that store. Second, I started to question all of the wine reviews that I read. I started to read them more for entertainment, for a giggle at the extravagant vocabulary and erudite turns of phrase (ha, that one was pretty “erudite” eh?), than to actually learn about the wines themselves. Because to me, it didn’t matter anymore. I wasn’t going to chase after the wines that got the reviews any more than I was going to see a movie that had the best reviews. To this day, I have never sipped on a glass of wine and thought, “Hmm, that’s a 91.” Nor have I read a book, eaten food, smelled a flower, or saw a beautiful woman walking down the street and assigned a point score to the experience. To reduce a wine or any human sensory experience down to a two digit number is ridiculous.

Get on with it

Whenever I get a little ‘too serious’ about wine tasting notes, I think back to this article about a potato chip connoisseur from The Onion that kind of pushes the reset button for me. I look for wines that I think I will enjoy based on recommendations from store staff or friends, tasting samples, and my own intuition. I have lots of wine friends and I’ve come to understand their tastes in wine. One of them prefers fuller, richer styles of whites and hates overly acidic wines. Another can’t stand BC Sauvignon Blanc, finding it too saline for her tastes. Another likes to be more adventurous and loves complex wines with lots of different flavours. Sometimes I can calibrate my recommendations to or from them based on this knowledge. I know that I have made purchases based on what my friends have told me about a wine. It’s not a conscious thing but I’ve found it interesting that I even do this. I know that effective communication is a huge element of working in a successful winery wine shop (or any retail store). Quickly and effectively communicating about the product is key when making the sale.

The point is that this interaction with my friends (or customers) is something that is more useful than words in a magazine wine review or a point score. Is there even a word in English for this kind of interaction or relationship? Can we ascribe a word to it now that we know it may exists? I can see it is how I am, therefore I should be able to have a word for it. (I’ll work on that and get back to you.)

When assigning value to a wine ultimately comes down to basic person-to-person communication, everything else seems kind of pointless.

Cheers to 2015

DSC_6342Rather than spend time looking back at all the things that happened in 2014 with another “Year in Review”-thing, why don’t we spend a little time looking forward? I like to head towards goal rather than dwell on the past. We can’t predict what the weather or the actual vintage will be like in 2015 but we can look at some of the human-related issues in our industry. In the world of BC wine, this could be a good news year.

Some things to look out for:

1 – Wine in supermarkets

When I first moved to BC, I remember hearing ads for hydroponic nutrients on the radio. Yet with our liberal attitudes towards “recreational herbs”, BC will introduce wine sales in supermarkets beginning in April. Of course, in keeping with our history of maintaining tight controls over everything (or at least, appearing to be in control), it can’t just be any wine at all – it will be BC wine only! Hurray! Not just cheap European plonk for $4 /bottles like I remember from Quebec.

There is a lot of speculation about this topic but most of it is really not that easy to predict. How will VQA stores be affected? Will it be profitable for store to sell only BC wine? What will customers ultimately think of it? Is it good for BC wine? Does it comply with our international trade agreements? Wine industry lawyer Mark Hicken doesn’t think so. It could very well all come crashing down as a big failure if it is not profitable.

Throughout 2014 we’ve been enjoying some of the new “benefits” of that the government has bestowed upon us, such as selling wine at farmer’s markets – something attendees of the Penticton Farmer’s Market has been dreaming about for years. We’ll have to simply wait and see how it pans out.

2 – Terroir BC vs. VQA

Painted Rock Estate Winery as viewed from the lookout on Hwy 97.

Painted Rock Estate Winery as viewed from the lookout on Hwy 97.

A new organization was created late last summer that will certainly be making themselves more known in 2015. Terroir BC is an association of wineries that craft wines entirely from grapes grown in BC. The name was coined by Michelle Rempel (MP for Calgary Centre-North – see below) along with John Skinner of Painted Rock and a group of other winery owners. Mrs. Rempel announced the group and outlined some of their philosophy in a facebook message in early September. It is less a statement than a manifesto from an MP with a solid understanding of wine and the wine industry.

Will this be a rival for VQA? Will it create customer confusion or will it settle BC’s QWPSR matter of once and for all? The disparity between corporations that produce “Cellared in Canada” and, well, everyone else is growing and the needs are different. Commercial wineries used to be the driving force in the industry here and still represent the vast majority of total production but are now the minority (there are 5) compared to the much larger number of independent estate wineries that only use BC-grown grapes from a designated viticultural area. When one group dominates an organization (VQA, BC Wine Authority, Wine Festival Society, etc.) they tailor it to suite their own agenda, causing rifts between members in the process. This is not something that most BC wine consumers are generally aware of unless it has come up in conversation while trying to find a bottle of La Frenz in a VQA store.

3 – Free My Grapes

welcome-grapeThe Free My Grapes movement started quietly but built steadily until bill C-311 was passed in Parliament. As it appears that provincial liquor monopolies are not about to let go of any of the revenue-grabbing powers, this law is being applied sporadically at best and completely ignorantly at worst. When Newfoundland charged FedEx over wine shipments earlier in the year, it became clear that the provinces weren’t going to let this stuff go. Eve Adams (MP for Mississauga-Brampton South) added fuel to the fire with her bizarre letter to wineries inviting them to submit their wines in something called the “Great Canadian Parliamentary Wine Competition” to be held in Ontario. Only a few BC wineries were contacted. Some wine makers tweeted copies of the letter in question, rightfully using the occasion to illustrate that because of the LCBO’s garrison-like measures of blocking all wine imports into Ontario, they could not even legally enter into such a competition.

The Free My Grapes campaign won’t end any time soon and nor should it. The more wine consumers across the country voice their concerns, the more that some kind of change will happen. The problem is that the most vocal provinces are the producing provinces like BC and the ones that need to raise their voices don’t seem to care. Somehow Ontarians still accept buying beer in cold, freaky warehouse-outlets called, imaginatively, “The Beer Store”, while the LCBO cash-cow keeps milking them for all they’re worth. How has this system even survived into the 21st century? I though BC was slow to change, but Ontario, really now…

Until we, as Canadian citizens, can purchase wines from wineries located within our own country, this is will always be an issue. Anything involving legislation change is a slow process for sure so look for this to continue well past 2015.

4 – Oil Prices and Americans

What happens in Alberta, doesn’t stay in Alberta. When the Canadian dollar started heading north of the American dollar a few years ago, wine shops saw less Americans than ever. It’s easy to think that we in the Okanagan are immune to these kinds of economic variances and most of the time, we are. I vividly remember a wine shop manager say, “Downturn? What downturn?” in 2009.

If eventually this leads to cheaper gas prices (assuming all of the oil companies can work together and carefully lower it slowly at the same rate – come on, we all know they do it), then we may see an increase in the car traffic on the 97. It’s not that helpful though if everyone in Calgary is trying to save money for the first time in a while. While the economy in Alberta might be taking a hit, the Canadian dollar is making the Okanagan a more appealing place for Americans to go. Some in the industry (like the BCWI) have been looking ahead to that for a while now with initiatives to get BC wine sold in Washington State.

5 – Federal Election

eclogoPolitics and wine don’t go well together. I have at least one uncle and a couple cousins with whom discussion of any political conversation must be completely off the table at any family gathering. However, a federal election is looming for Canada in 2015 and many are clearly looking for a change because they aren’t diggin’ the current administration and the dude at the top.

What does this have to do with BC wine? Well, there is a power-trio of Tories who are, shall we say, from a ‘younger’ demographic (compared to the typical image of politicians) and who have been instrumental in backing the local wine industry here. Ron Cannan (MP for Kelowna-Lake Country) got the ball rolling with his early stance on the Free My Grapes movement. Dan Albas (MP for Okanagan Coquihalla) created Bill C-311 which changed the laws around importing wine between provinces in 2013. Michelle Rempel (MP for Calgary Centre-North and Minister of State for Western Economic Diversification) is behind the recent Terroir BC initiative (see above), is a WSET Diploma candidate (like myself), and is quickly becoming my new Canadian political hero. Can this trio, and the progressive nature of amending the wine laws, potentially continue with a new government? <<Cue the mystery music here.>>

So…

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From Similkameen BBQ King 2014 (can’t remember who took this photo – if this is yours, please tell me!)

Whatever happens this year, I hope that it will be full of great memories for you in BC’s wine country. I plan to write about it even more so please check in here or follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

Happy new year from wine country!

~Luke

What do you mean “blended”?

Another question that has been inspired by the many wine tourist friends that I’ve met over the years is about blended wines. I worked at a winery that offered a beautifully constructed premium blended wine that a customer vocally poo-pooed before even tasting it.

“None for me! I don’t like blended wines at all. I much prefer the single varietals,” said the customer.

“What wines do you normally like to drink?” I asked.

“Oh, I love Bordeaux, Rhones, and Chiantis mostly,” was the reply.

*facepalm*

I wish I was making this up but alas, I am not. There was nothing I could do but “Uh-huh” and nod approvingly. A certain amount of tact is involved in working in a wine shop and I was not going to bother to explain that all of the wines they told me were actually blended wines. Bordeaux wines can be made with 9 grape varieties (6 red, 3 white), Rhone wines with a few (4 in the north, upwards of 27 in the south), and Chianti’s (based on Sangiovese but with a bunch more). Suffice it to say that blended wines may be a bit confusing even to some experienced wine lovers.

What is a “blended” wine?

IMG_0811The Oxford Companion to Wine defines a blend as:

Any product of blending but specifically a wine deliberately made from more than one grape variety rather than a single varietal (which may contain only a small proportion of other varieties).”

Blended wines are made with more than one different grape variety. Different grape varieties have different flavours and textures so blending the varieties together in different ways can enhance a wine beyond what the single varieties could have accomplished on their own. In short, the finished wine should be better than the individual wines were on their own. If that wasn’t the case, they should never have been blended. Wines are generally blended with others of the same colour although that isn’t always the case. Shiraz (a red grape) sometimes has a little bit of Viognier (a white) blended in during fermentation which, bizarrely enough, makes the wine darker. It also makes it more aromatic which is the reason Viognier is used in the first place.

In addition to this, I also extend the idea of blended wines to include wines that have been made using more than one vineyard source, although this might be a little confusing because it’s very hard to tell by taste. In my mind a Merlot from [yellow tail] may be made with only one grape variety (Merlot in this case) but because the Merlot comes from perhaps hundreds of vineyard sources, it dilutes any trace of terroir (or any possibility of unique wine flavours) from the finished product. Of course, that’s exactly the point – to create a non-invasive, innocuous, and widely appealing wine with no sharp edges. Because it’s a deliberate, human-initiated activity, I consider it to be a blended wine as well. A lot of BC wines are made this way but on a much smaller scale than the [yellow tail] example above. Unless it is stated as a single vineyard, most wines will very likely come from 2 to 4 different vineyards.

Blended wine is cheap wine

Well, not necessarily. There are still wineries in BC that produce a low-cost base-line blend using the tailings of batches of wines that were used elsewhere or that didn’t measure up in quality.  These wines will be the least expensive bottle in their portfolio and honestly, there is nothing wrong with that in my opinion. The alternative is that it is sold off at a reduced price to another winery where it will be blended away into something else or worse, that it is simply wasted and poured down the drain.

Sometimes these wines can be an accessible and inexpensive option to start learning about wine. For me, Gray Monk’s Latitude 50 was always on my radar as an early wine lover. Road 13’s Honest John’s series and The Cellarhand from Black Hills are other modern takes on this same style.

IMG_0810Many blended wines in BC are climbing higher up the portfolio’s quality ladder. My theory is that wine makers are getting more confident with their skills and are starting to put more thought into making a better wine and not just accepting what nature throws their way. Perhaps the Pinot Gris was a little flabby last year? Maybe adding a little Pinot Blanc will brighten it up? Adding a little Chard might round it out a little. There’s all kinds of qualities in wine that can be tinkered with simply by combining wines from different grape varieties. Wine makers in BC are getting better and more confident at crafting their blends. Winery sales and marketing staff have also gotten behind the blended wines as well, which is critical if a style is going to be successful in the marketplace.

For me personally, I love seeing what a winery can do and the blended wines are a great indicator of their potential.

Blended wine is not as fruity

This came from a customer’s comment sometime last year and has stuck with me ever since. I wouldn’t say that blended wines aren’t as “fruity” as single varieties but that perhaps they are simply not as predictable. It’s hard to tell what to expect from a wine by looking at the name on the label. Seeing “Pinot Noir” on the label tells you a lot. For BC wine in means that it’s going to be a light to medium red wine without a lot of tannins and some bright cherry flavours. Seeing “Felicidade”, “2Bench”,  or “Autumn Gold” on the label means nothing unless you’ve previously tried the wine.

Being less predictable also makes the wines a little more challenging. Single variety wines are easy to figure out if you’ve tasted enough of them and know that you like a particular one. It’s an accessible way to get into wine and learn about it. I remember being faced with a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and a bottle of Cru Bourgeois Haut-Medoc and choosing the Cabernet Sauvignon because I’d had a few of them before, liked them all, and bought the Cabernet Sauvignon because I thought that I would like it better than whatever the other one was. Of course, the other one was also made of Cabernet Sauvignon (mostly) but because that wasn’t on the label, it didn’t register with me. My loss.

Blended wine is in fashion

IMG_0809Well, it is right now. Or maybe it was? Fashion changes quickly in everything although its difficult to predict and, in the world of wine, is extremely slow to adapt. There’s a big time lag between starting a wine and getting it to market. Wine tastes also change much more slowly than tastes in music, shoes, or handbags. (Uh, so I’ve heard. I’ve read about it somewhere…) Pinot Gris was the hot variety in BC when I first moved to the Okanagan 7 years ago. Blended wines are moving up in the BC wine world and leading the charge for high quality is the blend known as “Meritage”.

Meritage (pronounced “meri-tij” not “meri-tawj” – it rhymes with “heritage”) is a way of indicating that the wine was made using the same grape varieties allowed in Bordeaux. (Technically for a winery to use the word “meritage”, they must belong to the Meritage Alliance, an American organization of which wineries can become a member and therefore be able to legally use the name “Meritage”. However in practice, it has become a generic term to denote a style of wine that is like a Bordeaux.) The earliest prestige or trophy bottles in BC wine’s history were all meritages; Oculus (first vintage ’95), Pinnacle (’97), Nota Bene (’99), and Osoyoos Larose (’01). It was as if BC wine had to prove to the world that we could make a serious meritage. Our current generation of the industry came about at the height of “Parkerization”, when rich, extracted styles of wines were the ones that gained the most attention and were considered to be the most prestigious. Thankfully that era has past but the desire to craft a high quality, complex blend will hopefully never go out of style.

If you blend it…

So the moral of the story is this: Be not afraid of wines not named Cabernet. Single varieties are good, for sure, but there’s a whole world of creativity out there for you to try. Instead of Merlot, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris or Pinot Noir, look for Character, Corner Stone, Fossil Fuels, and Freud’s Ego. A lot of the blends will also have the varieties listed on the back label just in case you wanted to start with a wine that has varieties that you know you like.

There’s lots of great blended wine out there to discover. Challenge your taste buds and enjoy the wine adventure. Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

Corcelettes Moves to the Upper Bench

Jesce and Charlie from Corcelletes

Jesce and Charlie from Corcelletes

Celebrated garagistes Corcelettes Estate Winery in the Similkameen Valley have graduated and are on their way to becoming a larger production winery with the recently announced acquisition of the Herder Winery and Vineyards. Corcelettes also has a new ownership team which will now include Charlie Baessler, his partner Jesce Walker, Charlie’s parents Urs and Barbara, and their new partners, Gord and Diane Peters, long-time friends of the Baessler family.

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Charlie Baessler

The tasting room and production is all planned to take place at the former Herder location on Upper Bench Road. Located next door to Clos du Soleil, down the road from the historic Grist Mill, and around the corner from Robin Ridge, Corcelettes will be ideally situated for wine tours and offer a spectacular views among other innovative experiences. With Clos du Soleil’s new building that is scheduled to open in 2015, that area of Upper Bench Road looks like it will become the hot spot for wineries in the Similkameen.

So, inquiring wine nerds want to know: What’s going to happen to Josephine, Herder’s iconic red blend? According to their recent press release, Jesce Walker, Co-owner & Sales and Marketing Manager explained, “Although we are in early days, we are in discussion to brand the infamous Josephine red blend and perhaps other Herder trademarks under our Corcelettes brand.”

If you’ve toured the Similkameen wineries and Keremeos and are not familiar with the Herder property, you are probably not alone. It was a small production and limited visibility on maps meant that only people who were aware of it even noticed that it was there. That will likely change for the better with Corcelettes moving in and also joining the Similkameen Wineries Association, which promotes the region as a whole through tourist maps, online campaigns, and events such as the Similkameen BBQ King Championship. In fact, Corcelettes could now be the closest winery to the BBQ King event since it is within easy staggering distance from the Grist Mill. I sense an after-party in the works…

(Actually Robin Ridge may be closer physically, but I won’t knit-pick.)

In any case, this is an exciting new development in the Similkameen winery scene and one that I will be closely following as it progresses. However it develops, put Upper Bench Road in the Similkameen on the itinerary for your next wine tour.

Urs Baessler, Barbara Baessler, Jesce Walker, Sharon Herder, Charlie Baessler

Urs Baessler, Barbara Baessler, Jesce Walker, Sharon Herder, Charlie Baessler (photo supplied)

Past articles and podcasts on the Similkameen Valley.

BBQ King 2014

BBQ King 2013

BBQ King 2012

BBQ King 2011

Similkameen Wineries Association podcast

Corcelettes Trivium 2013 podcast

 

 

How can a wine be DRY??

**I realize that this article might seem a bit pedestrian for the typical wine-savvy Wine Country BC reader or podcast listener. I write things like this so that these topics can get discussed more often. Sometimes wine knowledgeable people need to be reminded that some things that seem simple are not always obvious to the average person. Also, you might be able to share this kind of thing with friends who may want to learn more about wine.**

There are a couple of things that I’ve noticed that people have trouble understanding about wine. I know this because I am one of those people. Or at least, I was. It’s come up a lot over the past couple of years over the course of my daily work routine at wineries and wine stores. Everyone has their own unique way of learning and understanding the world around them and their own way of communicating about it. Therefore all customers have their own unique ways of explaining how they’ve learned about wine and describing what they like or dislike.

This means that everyone comes to the tasting bar with a different set of parameters about what they like in a wine and what they expect. Pair that with the different experiences and skill levels of whoever the staff is behind the bar and the possibilities of miscommunication or reinforcement of errors is huge. The flavour of oak in wine is one thing that I think many casual wine lovers are somewhat negligent about. (I’ve had customers who state in no uncertain terms that they can’t stand oaked wines praise the lovely cocoa and vanilla aromas in the merlot that I’d just poured for them…) This isn’t as common as the one thing that I’ve noticed that seems to be all over the place in terms of understanding about wine; Dryness in wine.

I always used to wonder why a wine was considered DRY when it was most obviously NOT DRY. Wine is a liquid. Liquids are WET. WET is the opposite of DRY. Right?

Well, no.

Ok, so when I drink a wine and my mouth feels DRY after I swallow it, then that’s a DRY WINE, right?

Again, no. 

Does it have something to do with “after taste”?

No. That is a term that comes from beer ads in the ’80’s and doesn’t make sense for wine. In the wine world, we call it “finish”. Wines can have a short or long finish. But maybe that’s for another article…

When a wine is said to be DRY, that means that there is no sugar in it. It’s that simple. Dry wine is wine that has no perceivable sweetness in it.

Grape juice has lots of sugar in it and tastes sweet. Wine is made by fermentation when yeast will eat the sugar and turn it into alcohol. Eventually, the yeast will eat all the sugar and the wine will be considered to be DRY. At its most basic level, wine is simply grape juice with the sugar completely removed.

Residual Sugar

Sometimes, the wine maker will not want a wine to be completely dry and will opt instead for a wine that has a little bit of sugar left over. This is called “residual sugar” and means that the wine will have some amount of sugar that wasn’t fermented by the yeast. The wine maker may have filtered the yeast out of the wine before it had a chance to eat all the sugar. Alternatively, the wine maker may have added sugar back into the wine after it had been fermented completely dry so that the finished wine has more sugar than it would have had if it were DRY.

A wine that has a little sugar in it may not actually seem to be sweet but may instead appear to be very smooth in texture. A wine with a proper balance of residual sugar and acidity will feel very smooth when you drink it. An imbalanced wine will either be cloyingly sweet (too much sugar) or tart and sour (too much acidity). Some styles of wine are much better with a little sugar (Gewürztraminer here in BC springs to mind) while others are best when completely dry (Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon). Most all wines will likely contain at least a tiny amount of sugar since not all of the sugar present in grapes is fermentable.

So DRY wines have no sugar in them, what are wines called when they do have a little sugar?

They are called (creatively) OFF-DRY. Usually off-dry wines won’t appear very sweet at all, if they are done right. They should simply taste smooth. It’s almost more of a texture difference between DRY and OFF-DRY wines. Off-dry wines are great with foods that have a spicy edge to them – Cajun catfish, Thai sauces, southern barbecue, etc. The sugar will offset the heat of the spice and make a wonderful combination.

There are more levels of sweetness in wines that range from DRY, and OFF-DRY. The continuum goes something like this:

  • DRY – least amount of residual sugar
  • OFF-DRY – a little bit of sugar, hardly noticeable to most people
  • MEDIUM – noticeably sweet at this level, great with the really spicy dishes, as an aperitif, or with light desserts
  • SWEET – the sweet stuff – dessert wines, Ports, Madeiras, Sauternes, Late-Harvest wines
  • LUSCIOUS – no other wines are sweeter than this – Icewine, high quality Tokaj

Some grape varieties are great at specific sugar levels but there are some grapes that are marvellous at all sugar levels from bone dry to lusciously sweet. Riesling and Chenin Blanc are two of those grape varieties that we have here in BC that can be made at all residual sugar levels. Riesling’s home is Germany and Alsace but there are many fine examples in BC; Gehringer Brothers (they make 5 different Rieslings at various sugar levels), Tantalus, 8th Generation, and Wild Goose all spring to mind. Chenin Blanc is rarer here but it be made brilliantly at all sugar levels in the Loire Valley and in South Africa.

Balance

This is where the concept of Balance becomes important. Balance refers to the amount of residual sugar and acidity being perceived in balance when tasting a wine. If a wine has tons of sugar (such as in an Icewine) then it must also have tons of acidity to balance it, otherwise the wine will taste cloyingly sweet like syrup. (Every kid growing up in Quebec has, at least once, tried to drink maple syrup. FYI, it’s not as good as you’d think, probably because there is no acid to balance it.) Likewise, a wine with a huge amount of acidity will taste sour and unpleasant if it isn’t balanced with some amount of sugar. When the two elements of sugar and acidity are in balance, the wine will have a smooth texture and be quite pleasing to a lot of people.

Of course there are different styles of wine that make use of tipping that balance to one side or the other. Some wines need to be crisp and refreshing. These wines will be balanced more towards the acidic side of the spectrum. Some people prefer these types of wines while others will find them not enjoyable at all, preferring the sweeter, smoother style. At some point, it simply comes down to personal preference. People who are very wine knowledgeable seem to deride the sweeter styles of wines in favour of the drier style perhaps because of ‘tradition’ or perhaps because sweeter wines are more appealing to the masses and are therefore written off as being ‘simple’. Even within that community, it still boils down to personal preference. For myself, I enjoy a sweeter wine with spicy food or even without food (which I rarely do unless the wine is sweeter) but I do love those very crisp, high-acid wines with meals because I think it pairs better with food.

Most of the time I’ve noticed that to most people balanced wine is like a movie musical soundtrack – nobody notices it at the time but it makes the experience better. A wine without a balance between acidity and sugar is like a movie without any music at all – just kind of awkward and you’re left wondering why you’re sitting in the dark watching a big flash light projecting pictures on a wall. If a wine is good and you like the way it tastes, then it’s good for you. Enjoy!

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

(If you have any questions about wine that you’d like me to tackle at some point, please leave me a comment here or send me a note at winecountrybc(at)yahoo.com, and I will try to answer your question as best I can.)

The Grand Crus of BC

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.

Criteria

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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

Sperling – Kelowna
Terravista – Naramata
Meyer Family – Okanagan Falls
Culmina – Golden Mile Bench, Oliver

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…

No.

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!

~Luke

Off-Season Wine Touring

No crowds means lots of time to learn about the wines.

No crowds means lots of time to learn about the wines.

Touring off-season is awesome. Here’s why.

  • Lots of winery action to see (in the fall during harvest).
  • No crowds.
  • Special wine tastings.
  • No crowds.
  • Undivided attention of the wine shop staff.
  • Beautiful scenery (colours in the fall, snowy vineyards in the winter)

Sometimes there’s other treats to be had, especially if there’s a regional festival or promotion going on such as OOWA’s Winter in Wine Country or Summerland’s Light Up the Vines.

This biggest piece of advice I can give to anyone looking to tour wine country in the off-season is this:

Call first.

Like, with an actual phone. Call the winery and find out if they are open and what their hours are. Do not rely on Google, websites (wineries are notoriously slow at updating their own sites), app or blog (including this one) to tell you what the current hours are for any winery.  (I had a customer complain to me the other day that Google told her that we were open until 6pm. I told her that we had changed our hours and that we were now open only until 4pm. She then asked why it was listed on Google as being open until 6. I calmly explained that we can’t control Google’s content but in my mind, I face-palmed.) Use the phone and talk to a human.

I used to create a list of wineries that were open in the off-season and some of them are still generally open throughout the year. I’ve stopped trying to update the list since it becomes a crazy case of tracking down information that just isn’t easily available. The general rule of thumb is that the bigger the winery, the more likely it is to be open year-round. They will also be closer to larger towns and on main routes like Highway 97. Some of them may have restricted their hours (again, call first, don’t Google) for the off-season and likely have reduced staff as well. Always book ahead if you’re thinking of arriving with a big group (more than 6).

Wine Availability

It’s important to know that not all wines will be available. If you are looking for that fresh and lovely aromatic white wine in the late fall, chances are pretty good that it will have sold out long ago at the winery. Likewise touring in the early spring might mean that the next vintage of your favourite big red won’t be released until mid-July. Some wineries have set schedules for releasing their wines because they know how their wines react in production and plan accordingly. Others release their wines as soon as the previous vintage has sold out. Very few wineries release their wines only when the wine is deemed ready by the wine maker or winery owner. These last two scenarios mean that any particular wine could very likely be released at any time of the year. The best thing is to follow the winery’s website or through social media in advance of your trip and actually ask them directly.

A new experience

Plan on taking your time. I’ve had some of the best experiences in wine shops in the off-season both as a customer and as a wine shop sales person because I wasn’t in a rush. I’ve had many great conversations and learned a ton of information about wine at these times. I remember going to visit a winery for the first time in July and feeling irritated that there were so many other people around. I didn’t get have even half of the experience that I’d hoped for. It wasn’t the winery’s fault, it was mine because I expected to have an experience that was just not possible at that time of year. I still avoid going to wineries in the height of summer if I can. I also see very little industry visiting the wineries during the summer where I’ve worked.

Be considerate of their time

Also note, if you are going to call your favourite small winery and get them out to open their wine shop for you, you’d better be in the mood for making a big purchase. And just so we’re clear, 4 bottles of wine is not a big purchase at most small wineries. It may be big for some but it’s hardly worth opening up a wine shop for only a few bottles. You should be willing to purchase upwards of a half-case minimum (6 bottles) but a full case is more like it. This precludes the whole ‘shopping around’ experience that is much easier to do in the summer. I recommend only visiting wineries that you are at least somewhat familiar with and know that you enjoy their wines. Nothing is more annoying to a winery owner as opening up a wine shop, talking about and maybe pouring wines for a half-hour only to have the people say thanks and leave. Do your research first and be ready to load up the car. Buy a bottle at a VQA or private liquor store first to see if you like the wine before making the call to the winery.

Have a great time touring wine country in the winter. Don’t forget your camera – it’s pretty here all the time! Cheers from wine country!

~Luke