Trending @ B.C. Wines

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

With Nova Scotia now the third province to open its borders to direct shipping of Canadian wine, can Ontario be far behind? Perhaps not, as private members bill C-117 to allow just that has passed first reading at Queens Park. While we wait, Ontarians have been ordering in  anyway, and many B.C. wineries are now willing to ship. So here at WineAlign we are making efforts to review more and more B.C. wines.

Last month I enjoyed a 16-day vacation/work/family visit to B.C.. It was centred on the Canadian Wine Awards in Penticton, but I also had time to unwind beside Lake Windermere near Invermere, visit wineries in Creston, drive up and down the Okanagan, plus take a quick peek at wineries on the Saanich Peninsula after a family reunion on Vancouver Island.  Here are some observations about the dynamic and expanding universe of B.C. wines.

The Canadian Wine Awards Go Big

The 11th annual Wine Access Canadian Wine Awards judging was held August 12-15 in Penticton – the heart of Okanagan wine country.  I joined 14 other judges from seven provinces to spend four days sifting through over 1,250 wines – a record number of entries. The official results will be released by over the weeks ahead, with the distinguished Winery of the Year and Top White, Red and Sweet Wine Awards, to be announced during the annual Ottawa Wine and Food Show during November 7-11.

We dispensed a bushel of medals. With an average bottle price of $30 the wineries were clearly not submitting low end wines that didn’t have a snowball’s chance. Blind tasting by its very nature amplifies faults, and our experienced core of judges is quick to pounce when they hit upon flaws, or general weaknesses like blandness and dilution. So we found much to get excited about, especially in terms of oaked chardonnay, riesling, (improved) cabernet franc, pinot noir and syrah – most definitely syrah.

The final flight of syrah had the judges doing cartwheels. I presumed that most of the syrahs were from B.C. (although with the ripe 2010 vintage in Niagara, Ontario syrah could easily be among the medalists). And with wines this good I was left to muse whether B.C. had got off on the wrong foot by focusing so much vineyard acreage on merlot and cabernet sauvignon. Time, and consumer preference, will tell.

The Top Red Wine of the 2011 Awards last year was a B.C. Syrah from Church and State, and ironically this was the last wine I tasted in B.C. before boarding a plane in Victoria for the homeward journey.

Church & State, Saanich (Vancouver Island)

Church and State was founded on the Saanich Peninsula – very near Butchart Gardens and Victoria’s Airport. But it now has a winery in the South Okanagan as well, where they make their terrific Coyote’s Bowl Vineyard Syrah and Hollenbach Vineyard Pinot Noir. The winery and tasting room on the Island is surprisingly grand, spacious and complete with a restaurant. It is tucked against a stand of forest with several acres of vines out front. The Saanich Peninsula, just north of Victoria is rural-urban eco-Eden of forests, gardens, orchards, vineyards, small farms, large houses, coves and marinas. It is temperate enough here to grow figs, indeed it is dry enough in the centre of the Peninsula to have attracted several small wineries like Starling Lane, De Vine, Dragon Fly Hill Vineyard and Symphony Vineyard.  And Muse Vineyard (formerly Chalet Vineyards) sits at the very tip of the Peninsula on Chalet Road.

Back at Church and State, their perfumed, seamless 2009 Pinot Noir Island Estate, is very fine indeed, admittedly from a warmer vintage. The cool, wet 2010 and 2011 vintages did not produce pinot – indeed it was so miserable that last year they renamed June – June-uary. But clearly the best efforts of ex-Burrowing Owl winemaker Jeff Danner are from the Okanagan Vineyards, where he has made terrific almost tropical 2010 Chardonnay, a soft, pure white Rhone blend called Trebella, excellent 2011 Viognier and a battery of cab-based reds. I expect another good Canadian Wine Awards showing for Church and State.

Tantalus Vineyards, East Kelowna

Tantalus Riesling has become the iconic B.C. riesling – the darling of Vancouver sommeliers eager to match a steely, riveting, mineral-driven (Beamsville Bench style) riesling with their seafood bounty. I had not been to Tantalus since the 48 acre property high on a hill overlooking East Kelowna was purchased from Pinot Reach in 2004.  So I had to see why the riesling was so good, and I discovered several reasons including old vines of the Mosel 21B clone that is widely grown in Ontario. Tantalus is all naturally farmed and all its wines are estate grown.  Vancouver-born, New Zealand-raised and schooled winemaker David Paterson joined in 2009 (after stints in Australia, Oregon and Burgundy), and he has brought with him a flair for chardonnay and pinot noir. The Tantalus 2010 Chardonnay is among the best in B.C. in my view, and the 2010 Pinot Noir is also very fine.

Sperling Vineyards, East Kelowna

Nearby, at an ever so slightly higher altitude with a grand view south down Lake Okanagan, lie the Sperling vineyards – first planted to table grapes in the 30s, then to marechal foch in the 60s, to riesling in 1978, to gewürztraminer in 1987, and more recently to pinot gris. It is snapshot history of the development of the B.C. wine industry. The land has been in the Casorso family hands since the mid 19th Century, the story unfolding in a museum beside the general store, tasting room and retail shop on Pioneer Road.  This is where Ontario winemaker Ann Sperling (Southbrook) grew up, and she has launched a 2,500 case winery based on the unique setting. Part of what makes it unique is very diverse soils within the site, including a limestone seam beneath the oldest vines. The Sperling 2011 Old Vines Riesling is among the most concentrated and riveting in the country.  I also was very taken with a new 100% pinot blanc Sparkling Brut 2008 aged three years on the lees that is being released this fall, as well as a classy 2011 Pinot Gris, and the new, low-alcohol, cleverly named Sper-itz made from bacchus and perle of casaba. There is some seriously good viticulture and winemaking going on here.

CedarCreek, East Kelowna

The East Kelowna riesling tour de force continued over at CedarCreek, where lunch on the deck is now a tradition when I am in the area – even better with winemaker Darryl Brooker and owner Gord Fitzpatrick. Darryl migrated west from Niagara (Flat Rock, Hillebrand) a few years ago to take the reins of a winery that had already won the Canadian Wine Awards three times. The brilliant, steely yet delicate 2011 Riesling grown on estate, hillside vines overlooking the lake showed he is fitting right in. Lunch continued with a rounded 2011 Pinot Gris with vibrant acidity and no aromatic trace of being 30% barrel aged for four months. On came the rich, very pure 2011 Platinum Viognier from estate vineyards in Osoyoos; then a sneak peak of the estate grown, terrific 2010 Platinum Chardonnay and 2010 Platinum Pinot Noir that should wow one and all when released early in 2013.  Mr. Brooker is achieving great purity and balance in his wines, which he attributes to his viticultural efforts.  And I am expecting a strong showing for CedarCreek at the 2012 Awards.

Okanagan Crush Pad, Summerland

This was my first visit to the very trending little winery with a big idea. Tucked away on a spectacular, tough-as-nails ridge above Okanagan Lake in Summerland, OCP  is essentially a winery for hire, a place for aspiring grape growers to send their grapes and have a wine bottled under their name by a professional winemaker – like Harper’s Trail, the first winery in the far north near Kamloops. Or a place for celebrity sommeliers (Kurtis Kolt) and restaurateurs (Rob Feenie) to have a vanity bottling under their own name. “The Pad” is the brainchild of long-time B.C. wine marketer Chris Coletta, with a range of partners that include Italian consultant Alberto Antonini and winemaker Michael Bartier (ex-Road 13). The first label and wine out of the compact, ultra-modern winery was Haywire Pinot Gris – complete with concrete egg fermetnors – but the range has exploded in three years, with eight different labels, and 27 wines – most made by Michael Bartier in a very controlled, varietally precise and lean style.  Last year winemaker Tom diBello (ex CedarCreek) moved in to create his own brand of very supple, rich wines like the DiBello 2010 Syrah. If you only have time for one stop as you whisk down Highway 97 from Kelowna to Penticton, this is the place to explore wines from up and down the Okanagan

Painted Rock, Okanagan Falls

At the end of each day at the CWAs, the judges were hosted by various regional winery associations – the Naramata Bench bunch, the Similkameen Wineries Association, and two new groups – the Bottleneck Drive Wineries Association (Summerland area) and the Okanagan Falls Winery Association. The latter includes wineries from the benchlands region south of Penticton overlooking Skaha and Vaseaux Lakes.  Famed wineries like Blue Mountain, See Ya Later Ranch, Blasted Church, Wild Goose and Stag’s Hollow were joined recently by Painted Rock, which last year was the top B.C. winery at the Canadian Wine Awards. At the hospitality event owner John Skinner presented his Painted Rock 2009 Syrah. What a great wine, with all kinds of tension, complexity and depth! His cabernet and Icon Red are excellent as well, and by the way, you can taste them for yourself at a Painted Rock tasting in Toronto at Canoe, Sept 25th from 4 to 7 pm. You must however contact Jill at [email protected] to pre-register.

Le Vieux Pin, Oliver/Osoyoos

The day I visited Le Vieux Pin near Oliver the thermometer peaked at 40-degrees C, which didn’t help to dispel the tendency to think of the south Okanagan – Canada’s only official desert climate – as one big sandy beach. The logical conclusion in the glass is that the region uniformly produces big, ripe, shallow and soulless reds. A barrel tasting of three 2010 syrahs at Le Vieux Pin with winemaker Severine Pinte proved very much otherwise. Being from the Languedoc region of southern France and having also worked I Australia she knows her way around syrah. In great detail she explained the terroirs of the south Okanagan. The first sample displayed the soft, smooth style of predominantly sandy soil in the centre of the valley.  The second showed the grittier, leaner style from a vineyard on the west side that loses evening sun behind the mountains; while the third showed the power and depth of a syrah from the rocky bench lands on the east side. Her job will be to blend these elements – into which some of their individuality will disappear – but hopefully the result will be a refined yet powerful wine that perfectly catch the French/Rhone interpretation of this grape with classic dark fruit, smoked meat and pepper.

Baillie-Grohman & Skimmerhorn, Creston

I took a vacation from my vacation in eastern B.C. to drive down to Creston, a new, very promising wine region. The Creston Valley spills south from the toe of Kootenay Lake (which like Lake Okanagan never freezes) and across the U.S. border into Idaho. The bench-lands on the east of the valley floor, right to the sheer wall of the Skimmerhorn mountains, are chock full of cherry, plum and apple orchards. And more recently with vinifera grapes. A winery called Skimmerhorn opened in 2006, producing a range of aromatic whites like riesling, gewürztraminer and Ortega.  And a very good value pinot noir at only $16.50!

Next door, Baillie-Grohman opened in 2009, with essentially the same range of varietals. Both wineries employ New Zealand winemakers who come to the northern hemisphere in their off season. (Baillie-Grohman’s Dan Barker of Moana Park in Hawkes Bay once worked at Niagara’s Hidden Bench, and is training hands-on co-owner Petra Flaa). Despite being from young vines the Baillie-Grohman wines in particular, are firm, bright and intense – again with 2009 Pinot Noir Reserve being a strong suit. The pinots of Creston have cool climate pomegranate-cranberry-wild blueberry fruit profile that is very Burgundian (Cote de Nuits in fact.)  But I also liked gewürztramineras well as pinot gris. New plantings by other growers are underway, making Creston a can’t miss quality wine appellation in the years ahead.

And so ends the tour, for this year. There is so much going on in the B.C. wine scene that an annual trip is virtually mandatory for anyone trying to follow the bouncing ball.