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

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

 

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

The Terroir of Tasting

I believe that where and when we taste a wine will have an effect on how we perceive the wine. The physical conditions and environment of the person along with those of the wine will influence perception. I call it the “Terroir of Tasting”. How can wineries better prepare their own wine shops to have better tasting terroir for their customers? The same is true for music – listening to a song at a loud concert with all of the sensory stimulation that comes with it (light show, smells, other people, etc) is very different from listening on an iPod in the dark – so why not for other experiences like wine?

Don’t agree? Try pouring a glass of your favourite wine into the most suitable stemware that you own. Turn on some appropriate music, light some candles, maybe prepare a little food to compliment the wine, and then… take that wine and drink it while sitting on a bucket in a broom closet with the door closed.

Not the same experience, is it?

“The wine tasted different at home than it did when I tasted it at the winery,” said more than a few customers to me over the years while working at a wine store. There must be reasons for that and it may help understand the terroir of tasting a little bit more. It’s not a scientific study or anything (this is a wine blog after all, not a peer-reviewed academic journal) but are a collection of observations based on my own experiences. Just like in Jonah Lehrer’s book Proust Was a Neuroscientist, science generally proves what art has already figured out first. A great article recently in The Guardian also touches on this subject as well.

So, why do the wines sometimes taste different when you get them home? Let’s explore…

1. Travel Shock

Wine bottles get shaken up a lot while they are travelling. While there’s nothing scientific to prove that the wine is somehow different after arriving home, I think it’s always a good idea to let the wine rest for a while (maybe a couple of weeks) before opening it after coming home from your wine country excursion. Just like wine, we can be travel shocked in a way as well. Having a glass of water is a little boring during a meal but I’m pretty sure most people think it tastes pretty amazing after a vigorous run or a workout.

2. Decanting or Ageing

Sometimes wines poured in a tasting room have been open for a little while. They may have been exposed to oxygen for an unknown amount of time and anyone who has worked in a wine shop pouring the same wines each day for years knows that the same wine will change as it is being pour throughout the day. (I always used to feel bad for whoever had to taste the top 2 inches of wine from a freshly opened premium bottle of Cab Franc at winery where I used to work.) It may be that you, as the wine customer, tasted the wine at a point that you really enjoyed.

While I’m on the subject, glassware is also hugely influential on how a wine will be perceived. Notice I didn’t say how a wine will taste. Some styles of wines just show better in some types of glasses. I did a podcast about this early on using a Pinot Noir and the results were astounding even though we were all a little sceptical that it would make a difference at all. I’ve visited a couple of very promising new wineries and been very disappointed because, for whatever reason, they skimped on the glassware or were using glasses that were entirely inappropriate – wrong size or shape for the portfolio, or just plain cheap. I’m not saying that every winery has to have Riedel Vinum XL’s or anything but if the winery plans to sell a $45 meritage as the top end of their portfolio, it won’t show very well in a $3/stem thick-walled wine glass they bought in bulk at Canadian Tire.

3. Palate Fatigue

20141108-213136.jpgEven professional tasters admit to palate fatigue. Everything starts to taste the same and none of it is good. Or at least the distinguishing flavours are a little more blurred than they would have been. Tasting the wines at the 7th winery of the day is going to be different than if it had been the 1st winery that day. It’s not rocket science to figure that out. Wine makes us hungry and after we’ve had food, our tastes seem to settle down a little.

4. Bombardment of the senses

Wine tasting is really a multi-sensory experience. Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer was intently interested in creating works of music that encompassed more than just listening to sound. Schafer (in the late ’70’s) listed the traditional Catholic Mass as a true multi-sensory experience because it involved all of the senses (sight – the beautiful church, smell – incense, taste – communion, sound – music, touch – kneeling) and this was a huge influence on all of his works. His best music had to be experienced in person and some of them sound utterly ludicrous without the proper context. Hearing 12 trombones perform around the edge of a lake in the wilderness is vastly different than listening to the same music on an iPod while waiting for the bus in the rain in Vancouver. (A completely random example that I may or may not have experienced myself…)

A turntable and a large record collection are part of the experience at Culmina.

A turntable and a large record collection are part of the experience at Culmina.

I’m amazed at how little thought goes into the acoustic environment in a wine shop. Live music can make it feel more like a special event and some wineries have really built a tradition with having regular live entertainment. I created a whole project designed for performance in wine shops and have personally seen what adding music to the mix can do to lighten the mood. Thornhaven, Dirty Laundry, and Sonoran in Summerland and Hester Creek in Oliver all have regular music performed throughout the summer months. There are probably others who have live music but these wineries have been doing it for a long time. Does that effect the tasting terroir? You bet it does.

Colours help as well. Is the environment bright or subdued? I’m amazed at how many so-called ‘architects’ or ‘designers’ think that dark brown or black is an appropriate colour for a wine bar. Thankfully we’re seeing this change with the newer, more thoughtfully designed spaces like the bright white spaces of Painted Rock in Penticton and Liquidity in Okanagan Falls. Other wine shops have more earth-toned ambiance that also work well. I love the differences between each wine shop because it really expresses the different personalities of each location. Rustico‘s shop is an old-time saloon, cluttered with wine, signs, and products everywhere and it’s great. Meyer Family Vineyards is surrounded with windows that show the vineyards rising up all around them and it’s spectacular when tasting around that focused tasting bar. Ancient Hill‘s wine shop is a classically grand and has unique views without loosing its cosiness that really contributes an elegance to the wines.

Delhi to Dublin at Festival of the Grape '12

Delhi to Dublin at Festival of the Grape ’12

The only sense that needs to be restricted is the sense of smell. A stinky wine shop will not sell much of anything although neither the customer nor winery owner will be able to put a finger on why. Possibly the only thing aromatic that I can think of that will enhance the experience is a yeasty, cellar aroma which is part of the wine’s own natural habitat anyway. Terravista in Naramata has their tasting platform (it’s a piece of glass across some barrels) in their tank room and it’s a cool experience tasting the wine steps away from where it was made surrounded by all of the sights, aromas, and ambiance of the cellar. I remember tasting the first vintage of Painted Rock‘s Syrah outside of their old, tiny tasting room after it had just rained – the smell of wet earth lifted the syrah right out of the glass. It was an unbelievable experience.

Scented products like soaps or incense have no place in the wine shop to be sold as gifts. Those scents are distracting and can interact quite badly with the wines. I did a test at a wine shop where I worked some years ago: An otherwise beautifully scented soap turned an otherwise beautifully scented Pinot Gris into the pleasant smell of rotting flowers instantly. We opted not to carry that product.

Unless all of those winery smells are exactly the same at home, it’s likely that these differences will influence how you perceive the wine once you are home from your trip to wine country.

5. Context

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

Church and State’s comfy tasting bar

Then there is the context of the wine drinker and the wine itself – where are they in their day? Is there an optimal point for both to get the most out of wine? This is a big part of what intrigues me about what I do in wine sales. Wineries sometimes shoot themselves in the foot by not taking into account the ‘terroir’ of their tasting rooms. They can’t control the timing (when a customer will actually taste a wine or how many wineries they’ve already been to) but they can be aware of their tasting room environment. There is one other thing that can be either beneficial or detrimental to a customer’s wine shop experience and it’s something that I’ve found that I am tolerating less and less the more wineries I visit.

The tasting bar. There’s just something about it that has always bothered me. In terms of efficiency (getting the most customers through the bar quickly) it’s hard to beat. But I don’t have a bar of my own at home and if I did, I’m not sure that I would drink my wine standing up at it. When I go to bars, I usually get to sit down rather than stand. After visiting a half-dozen wineries, I find standing at them to be kind of tiring. None of this occurred to me until I stopped working at a winery with a tasting bar and started at another winery without one (FYI – Black Hills). It was a truly enlightening experience because I realized that the customers were getting an entirely different experience without having to stand uncomfortably at a tasting bar. They could relax, listen, have a proper conversation, and actually take the time to enjoy the wine rather than “splash and dash” through a portfolio of 8 wines in 5 minutes before hitting the road. Black Hills isn’t the only one doing this. Culmina has sit-down guided tastings and you can also sit down at both Church and State‘s and Painted Rock‘s tasting bars. Mission Hill and Hester Creek both have tours or experiences that feature guided tastings in different locations away from the typical tasting bar. Did all of these wineries really put a lot of thought into their customer’s tasting terroir when they deigned their building or set up their wine shop? You bet they did and it shows.

Conclusions

It’s time that wineries in BC start to thinking about how they present themselves a little more. Some wineries have not really given the ‘tasting terroir’ of their wine shops much thought and it shows. I’m sure that most of the successful wineries have already done this and realize how important it can be to presenting their wines as best as possible. It can also be taken a little too far where the experience overshadows the wine by a long shot (where most people remember the experience but can’t recall anything about the wines).

If you are a winery, please take the time to consider how your guests are experiencing your wines. Little changes can make a big difference in sales.

If you are a tourist in wine country, take the time to appreciate the effort that a winery has put into their ‘tasting terroir’. Some of those special touches can be used at home to make your own wine experiences more enjoyable.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

7 things you didn’t know about the BC Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence in BC Wine

The winners have been announced for this year’s Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence in BC Wines (or as it is known in winery lingo – “The LG’s”) and the list of winners is extremely interesting to me for a lot of reasons. Alphabetically, the 2014 winners are:

8th Generation Vineyard Riesling 2012
Bonamici Cellars Merlot Cabernet Franc 2012
Fort Berens Estate Winery Riesling 2012
Hester Creek Estate Winery Block 2 Reserve Merlot 2011
Howling Bluff Estate Winery Summa Quies Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc Sémillon 2013
Kraze Legz Vineyard & Winery Skaha Vineyard Unoaked Chardonnay 2013
Laughing Stock Vineyards Portfolio 2011
Okanagan Crush Pad Winery Haywire Canyonview Pinot Noir 2011
Pentâge Winery Syrah Reserve 2010
Quails’ Gate Winery Stewart Family Reserve Chardonnay 2012
Ruby Blues Winery Viognier 2013
Wayne Gretzky Okanagan The Great Red 2011

Firstly, congratulations to all of the winners this year. All are, I think, well deserved and it’s great to see some new wineries getting a trophy this year. Okanagan Crush Pad, Kraze Legz, Bonamici, and Fort Berens are all newbies to the LG and seeing a quarter of the awards go to new wineries is refreshing.

Fort Berens brings the first LG trophy home to Lillooet making it a true trailblazer in the BC wine world. It’s always big news when a non-Okanagan winery wins an LG for a wine that is not grown in the Okanagan. While I’m not sure of the exact provenance of Mt. Lehman’s Viognier that won in 2011, it seems unlikely that it’s grown in Abbotsford. Correct me if I’m wrong. Also, I’m pretty sure that Domaine de Chaberton’s Syrah (winner in 2006) was not grown in Langley although it’s quite likely that their Gewurztraminer (winner in 2005) was. Either way, Chaberton was the first to collect an LG for a winery located outside of the Okanagan.

Also groundbreaking in a way is Kraze Legz win which may be the first LG for a wine grown on the west side of Skaha Lake. The east side has been decorated many times already by Pentage, Blasted Church, and Painted Rock. If you include Wild Goose’s win for their God’s Mountain Riesling in 2005, that pretty well makes every major vineyard on the east side of Skaha Lake an LG winner at some point.

In fact, going over the past 12 years of LG winners reveals some interesting information about BC wine. Allow me to go a little wine-nerd crazy here because there are a few things that I find incredibly interesting when I look at the list of previous winners.

BC Wine-Nerd Stats about the LG Awards

photo 1– Hester Creek is the second non-commercial winery to do a three-peat by winning in three consecutive years (’12, ’13, ’14) which ties Road 13’s wins (’07, ’08, and ’09). Another award for Hester next year and they’ll tie Jackson-Triggs’ run from ’05-’08. They’ll need a 5th win to tie Sandhill however who won 5 straight from ’07 to ’11 and has the record for most consecutive wins.

photo 2– Sumac Ridge has won the most LG’s ever (10) but nothing past the 2006 vintage. (Hmm, what happened after the 2006 vintage?)

– The most decorated single wine is the Sumac Ridge Stellar’s Jay Brut, winning in 5 vintages including the 1999 which is the only LG awarded to a wine from the 1990’s. (Of course, the first awards were in 2003 so it has nothing to do with the quality at the time.)

– Oddly, only one rosé table wine has ever won – Volcanic Hills 2010 Rosé in 2011.

– 54.76% of LG award winners are red wines. Whites make up 44.44% with the one rosé taking the remaining 0.79%. Statistically speaking, a rosé won’t win you an LG which is kind of a pity since the category itself has come a long way in terms of quality and market perception. (Millennials have never tasted Mateus and don’t care to. Get over it already.)

– 75.4% of winners are single variety wines while blends of various kinds (mostly meritage) make up just over 15%. Sparkling and Dessert wines make up the rest.

But probably the biggest surprise to me while I was going through all the data though was this:

One quarter of all LG winners go to wines made with Syrah / Shiraz.

25.26% of all awards for single-variety table wines to be precise or 24 awards in total. The second place grape variety, Pinot Noir, isn’t even close at 13.68% (13 wins). Of all LG awards given out, Syrah/Shiraz is just over 19% or nearly 1 in 5. It’s also not just one producer getting all the hardware – 16 different wineries have won with Syrah/Shiraz with Jackson-Triggs winning the most with this variety at 6. This particular grape variety seems to be showing well by many different producers which makes it seem like not only is the ‘next big thing’ but has probably always been on the radar of wine makers in BC, who are now able to take the time and learn about how to work with it as best as possible. An article by Rhys Pender on page 19 of the latest special issue of Wine in Canada by Maclean’s magazine proposes Syrah as the “next sensation” for Canada, His argument is based on the shifting consumer trends away from the huge jammy monster shirazes of hot climates like Australia and more towards a brighter, juicier, and more perfumed French style. It’s an intriguing argument and one that I have to say I agree with. It’s very interesting that the stats from LG winners also seems to back this up.

photo 3

Of course, I could have gone further with this analysis, especially concerning the location of the winning wines, although that might be harder to figure out. There may be some more number crunching at a later date but until then, I’ll leave it at this.

Congratulations again to all of the winning wines, the wineries, and the wine makers, vineyard managers, cellar hands, vineyard workers, and pickers who helped make them. Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

Hester Creek’s brand new digs

Hester Creek's grand opening

Hester Creek's grand opening

The grand opening of Hester Creek’s new wine shop and winery took place today in the sun, and then rain, and then sun again near the end.

Let me say just say this – if you visited Hester Creek before, even recently, it will be worth visiting again soon. The wine shop is spacious, the tasting bar is large and brightly lit and they’ve even paved the parking lot!

The tasting room was packed when I arrived, most likely due to the rain that had everyone claiming space inside rather than lounge outside or mill about on the patio. Unfortunately, the first thing that I could smell upon entering the wine shop was a good dose of Calvin Klein or similar blend of fragrance, which almost entirely masked the wonderful scents from the hors d’oeuvres created by Chef Heinz Schmid. (If you don’t already know the effects of wearing too much perfume in general, please don’t douse yourself in anything smelly before going to a wine-related event…)

After a Pinot Gris and some appies, I started to take in the sights. The large main room, with the curvascious tasting bar as a center piece, has many rooms and spaces adjacent to it that will be useful for functions. Off to the right is a private dining room with an entrance to a small, viewable barrel cellar. The dinning room also has its own private entrance and patio outside. The main room has a large, partially covered patio as well which will easily handle the summer (or wine festival) crowds that will do doubt be descending on Hester Creek in the future. There is a viewable demonstration kitchen just to the right of the tasting bar and probably a whole lot of different rooms that I didn’t get the chance to see on this occasion. Perhaps soon.

I’m glad to see that Hester Creek is on the up and up. It was only about six years ago when it would not have been possible to say that. I’m glad to see that this winery will be around for many more years to come. Cheers!

Hester Creek patio off the main room

Hester Creek patio off the main room