Getting our Hands on B.C.’s New, Big Reds – by David Lawrason

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

I recently spent four days in Kelowna, B.C. during the Canadian Culinary Championships, then another subsequent two days at home in Toronto, tasting B.C. reds.  There are many intriguing and excellent new labels on the market. (See picks below linked to WineAlign reviews). The vast majority however are not available on the shelves of the LCBO’s Vintages stores; and the prices of some that are available for order via local agents are bloated by 50% to 100% over retail in B.C., thanks to LCBO mark-ups.

The Crack in the Wall

Before you say ‘so what’s the point’ and click away, hear my tale.  Their availability may improve dramatically before this year is out, and you may be able to access them at something closer to B.C. prices.  Our archaic interprovincial wine shipping system is seeing its first official crack.

In the Air Canada departure lounge at Kelowna Airport I spent a few minutes talking to Ron Canaan, MP for Kelowna-Lake Country. He, along with MP Dan Albas of Okanagan-Coquihalla, have been championing a private members bill (C-311) that would make it legal for individuals to carry or import wines across provincial borders (which has been technically illegal since Prohibition almost 90 years ago). A website called has the full story.

The bill passed Second Reading in the House of Commons in the last session, and Mr. Canaan is “confident” it will pass third reading and become law this year. He is hoping in early summer.

Bill C-311 is an amendment to current legislation that would allow  “… the importation of wine from a province by an individual, if the individual brings or causes it to be brought into another province, in quantities as permitted by the laws of the latter province, for his or her personal consumption, and not for re-sale or other commercial use”

Loose interpretation – consumers will be able to bring back, ship back, or order on line, as many cases as local liquor authorities says is allowable.  In Ontario, the limit of this “personal exemption” is still in the hands of the LCBO, and we all wait with bated breath to hear how much wine Father McGuinty and his flock think should be allowed to import before we might considered ‘traffickers’.  But hey, even a single case minimum would be a help.

The other all-consuming question that remains outstanding is how this will affect the pricing of B.C. wines coming through existing LCBO channels, i.e. Vintages, the Consignment program and private order?  I wouldn’t mind prices that fairly reflect the cost of shipping and local agents’ commissions, but let them be sold here at prices that are competitive and reasonable.  Once this happens agents and restaurateurs will offer a wider range of B.C. wines through official channels too.

Great New B.C. Reds

So what is the fascination with B.C. reds here in Ontario?  Perhaps it has to do with the notion that we don’t see that many, and that we want, as Canadians, to be part of a “big red” scene that Ontario doesn’t really deliver.

Born in hot, arid growing seasons that boost fruit ripeness and alcohol, yet tempered by nighttime, desert-like coolness that maintains acidity, B.C. reds have the potential to be dense, ripe and well structured at the same time.  Finding the balance is a struggle however, and many B.C. reds are hot and clumsy. But the proportion of more elegant reds is increasing every vintage. The 2009s tasted recently have upped the game.

B.C. is moving toward 200 wineries, most of them relatively new sub-10,000 case properties that are championing estate-grown, or at least regionally-grown fruit in so-far-unofficial Okanagan sub-appellations like Naramata, Osoyoos, East Kelowna; as well as the burgeoning Similkameen Valley. Although their production is small the retail market within B.C. is very competitive, and many would welcome shipping directly outside their province.

The Similkameen Wineries Association hosted the Grand Finale Event of the Canadian Culinary Championships (see a full report on this event at GoldMedalPlates) so I was able to taste from its eight member wineries in some depth.  Similkameen is 30 minutes west of Osoyoos in a warmer, dry, organic-minded lake-less valley. Its 600 acres of vineyard are largely situated on bench lands composed of very diverse soils. I was very impressed by the structure and age-worthiness of many of the reds from this region.  So let’s begin our new winery role call here.

Orofino Vineyards is the leading Similkameen producer with their tiny, already sold out production of Orofino Syrah 2009 being named Best of Show at the CCC Event.  But John Weber is doing great work throughout his range, whether in a Bordeaux blend called Beleza 2008, or with riesling. His maturing 2007 is terrific and his 2009 Riesling won the Gold Medal Plates competition in Saskatchewan, Weber’s home province. Fortunately there is some access in Ontario already through Terroir Wines and Spirits. Other very promising Similkameen wineries include Seven Stones, Cerelia, Clos du Soleil, Eau Vivre, Robin Ridge and a top notch fruit winery called Rustic Roots.

Painted Rock is the new star of B.C., the top finisher from B.C. in the 2011 Canadian Wine Awards (won this year by Tawse of Niagara).  John Skinner, with the help of a top Bordeaux viticulturalist has done a masterful job with his new vineyard on a bluff above Skaha Lake.  His just released 2009s, from an excellent vintage in B.C., are stunningly good.  The Painted Rock Red Icon 2009, is one of the best Canadian reds I have ever tasted, and his Merlot 2009 and Syrah 2009 aren’t far behind. They are represented in Ontario by Lifford Agencies .

La Stella

Le Vieux Pin and twin-owned La Stella from Osoyoos have really turned on their A-game as well in the last two or three vintages.  Originally conceived by owner Sean Salem as a France-inspired winery Le Vieux Pin is following a natural path into Bordeaux and Rhone-inspired wines (they bade pinot ‘adieu’). The Le Vieux Pin Equinoixe Syrah 2009 is absolutely exquisite, not a term I would use easily for B.C’s often rough and tumble reds.  The not-yet-released Retouche Cabernet Syrah 2009 is a great beacon for a blend that B.C. needs to be taking very seriously.  Meanwhile, La Stella Fortissimo 2009 is a spirited tribute to Tuscany, with sangiovese blended with merlot and cabernet to take this wine into an engaging old world direction. Le Vieux Pin and La Stella are represented in Ontario by

Meyer Family Vineyards, based on 19 acres spread farther north in Okanagan Falls, Naramata and Kelowna has turned its sites on small lots of Burgundy-focused pinot noir and chardonnay. Canadian winemaker Chris Carson spent eight years in New Zealand, Burgundy and with Calera in California, before returning to this project.  The results are very impressive indeed. Meyer Family Pinot Noir Reimer Vineyard 2010 is a knock out, a modern B.C. classic. Meyer Family is also represented in Ontario by Terroir Wines and Spirits.

Haywire is perhaps the hippest new label in the Okanagan – a virtual label made at a new rental facility called the Okanagan Crush Pad.  The deep talent pool includes local hero Michael Bartier (ex-Road 13), former B.C. liquor board fine wine buyer David Scholefield, and Italian consultant Alberto Antonini. Haywire Pinot Noir 2010 is a fine effort that captures the essential vibrancy and sour red fruit of B.C. pinot. Famous Vancouver chef Rob Feenie selected it to match to his silver medal winning dish at the Canadian Culinary Championships.  Both labels are represented in Ontario by Trialto Wine Group .

Moon Curser is a funky new label from Osoyoos, very near the U.S. border. It has adopted a rather goofy ‘smuggling-under-the-cover-of-darkness’ motif in its marketing, but the wines are very good. I was impressed by a blend called Border Vines 2009 that incorporates six Bordeaux varieties.  It is available in Ontario via Terroir Wines and Spirits, but is sold out at the winery. Unfortunately Ontario won’t see any  Tempranillo 2009, a very promising, sold out, experiment with Spain’s signature grape.

Ex Nihilo – which means ‘out of nothing’- was founded by art and music aficionados Jeff and Decoa Harder, on the Lake County Scenic Sip Trail north of Kelowna (near Gray Monk). Their most public claim to fame was creating an icewine for the Rolling Stones, and riesling twice honoured at the Riesling de Monde in Europe. I was impressed by the reds sourced from a new estate-owned vineyard south near Okanagan Falls, and I draw your attention to Ex Nihilo Merlot 2008 in particular.

The list of interesting new wineries goes on and on. Terroir Wines and Spirits focuses exclusively on B.C. and you will find new WineAlign reviews from their portfolio when you search by Stoneboat, Desert Sage, Four Aces, Mt Boucherie and Lulu Island.  In Kelowna I also tasted the exciting portfolio of Spierhead by famous Okanagan photographer Brian Sprout, which will be posted to WineAlign soon.

Next week I return to B.C. for the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival, where I may uncover even more.  Meanwhile check out the  following fine B.C. reds now at Vintages, the very good  Mission-Hill Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2009, the spicy Township 7 Syrah 2007, the well-structured Nkmip Qwam Qwmt Meritage 2008 and the iconic Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin 2007 (yes the 2008 is now arriving and I will taste it shortly).

David Lawrason
VP of Wine