More Canadian wine at the Vancouver International Wine Festival. This tasting was a tour of British Columbia’s wine regions with a star panel ably led by Rhys Pender. Taking part were Michael Bartier of Bartier Bros, Nikki Callaway of Quail’s Gate, JAK Meyer of Meyer Family Vineyards, David Paterson of Tantalus and Chris Turyk of Unsworth Vineyards.
The BC wine region is dominated by the Okanagan Valley, and its adjoining valley the Similkameen. The key to these vineyard areas is the rain shadow effect: moist air hits the coast (Vancouver gets lots of rain) and the coastal mountain range strips the air of its moisture. Thus the Okanagan and Similkameen enjoy a very dry, sunny climate.
The industry really got going in the early 1990s when the free trade agreement with the USA removed economic protection from Canada’s wines. This pushed quality winemaking, because the wines needed to improve in order to be competitive in the absence of economic props. There has been a steady pattern of growth since then.
There were 17 wineries in 1990; now there are almost 300, and there are 10260 acres of vines (Ontario has 17 000). ‘It’s a small industry, and that’s one of our big strengths,’ says Rhys Pender. ‘When we got started we did a lot of copying other regions of the world. Now everyone is really focusing on making wine that is 100% BC,’ he says. ‘You start to figure out what the grapes want to do naturally, without forcing a square peg into a round hole. We are a unique wine region, so let’s not fight against that. There’s nowhere else like this in the world of wine. This is pretty special: no one can make the same styles of wines that we do.’
Rhys presented a list of the factors that make BC wine unique. None of these things are unique on their own, he suggests, but the combination of them is. They are:
- Huge diurnal temperature ranges lead to naturally high levels of acidity
- Naturally intense fruit flavour
- Naturally high levels of tannin in red wines.
- Long sunlight hours.
- Cold winters.
- Dry conditions requiring low fungicide or pesticide use.
The challenges are the cold arctic air flows that can sometimes result in winter kill of vines, and the reliance on irrigation.
There’s a wide diversity of grape varieties in BC, which makes it hard to identify the key talents of the region. The Okanagan valley has 84% of all vineyards, with one subregion Golden Mile Bench. Rhys is part of a task force working on creating more subregions in the Okanagan: these are potentially Kelowna/Lake County, Naramata/Penticton/Summerland, Okanagan Falls, Osoyoos/Black Sage Bench. This would make sense because the region ranges from 1200-1500 growing degree days from the north to the south.
We tried a range of wines, taking in some newer regions as well as the more established ones.
Unsworth Vineyards Charme d’Isle Sparkling NV Cowichan Valley, Vancouver Island, Canada
Very fruity and lively with apples, pears and some spiciness. Juicy and lively with a distinctive sweet apple character. Fruity and distinctive. 88/100
Harper’s Trail Estate Winery Pioneer Block Dry Riesling 2014 BC, Canada
This is from a vineyard in Kamloops, in the Thompson Valley, which is a new, developing region. Soils are limestone bedrock, located above the banks of the south Thompson River at 51 degrees latitude, with very cold winters. Vines were planted in 2008. 10 g acid and 10 g residual sugar. Beautifully delicate lemony, limey fruit with great precision and lovely integrated acidity. Very fine and expressive with a stony minerality. Lovely stuff. 93/100
Ex Nihilo Vineyards Pinot Gris 2015 Okanagan Valley, Canada
From Lake Country. 14.5% alcohol, 5.4 g/litre acidity, 4 g/litre sugar. Has a slightly hollow edge with some strange mushroom and green herb notes as well as tangerine and lemon fruit. It has a slightly sake like character with the high alcohol and thin fruit. 83/100
Tantalus Vineyards Chardonnay 2014 Okanagan Valley, Canada
Subtle mealy, spicy notes complement the linear, stony citrus fruits. There’s some freshness here, but also subtle spicy, nutty, peachy richer notes. Finishes lemony with just a hint of oak blending in well. Nice acidity here. 92/100
Meyer Family Vineyards McLean Creek Chardonnay 2014 Okanagan Valley, Canada
Very fine spicy, toasty, nutty nose. The palate has nice concentration with intense citrus, meal, bread and spice notes. There’s a power to the peach and citrus fruit. There’s a delicacy to the finish on this wine. Lovely stuff. 94/100
Baillie-Grohman Estate Winery Pinot Noir Reserve 2013 BC, Canada
13% alcohol and 7 g/litre acidity. In an emerging wine region called Creston, on the same latitude of Osoyoos but higher, at 600 m. Glacial till, with a lot of granite. Supple and pretty with lovely fresh red cherry fruit. Light, expressive, fine and fruity with purity and finesse. There’s a lovely texture to this fruit. It’s so drinkable and pure. 93/100
Quails’ Gate Winery Stewart Family Reserve Pinot Noir 2014 Okanagan Valley, CanadaSmooth, refined black cherry fruit here with a savoury, stony undercurrent. There’s fruit here, but also some savouriness. Some grippy tannins, too, as well as some sappy green notes. Very appealing, with layers. 92/100
Bartier Bros. Cabernet Franc 2013 Okanagan Valley, Canada
From the Cequiera Vineyard, on the Black Sage gravel bar in Oliver/Osoyoos. Supple and fresh with a distinctive stony character and nice acidity. Fresh red cherries and plums, with some floral detail. There’s a bit of sappiness here, too. A lovely balanced expression of Cabernet Franc in a lighter style. 92/100
Poplar Grove Merlot 2013 Okanagan Valley, Canada
Naramata Bench. 13.5% alcohol. Supple and fresh with a leafy edge to the cherry and berry fruits. Attractive and understated, but has some vanilla oak poking through on the finish. The oak ruins it a bit. 86/100
Osoyoos Larose Estate Winery Le Grand Vin 2013 Okanagan Valley, Canada
Based in Osoyoos on the west side. 80 acre plot at 400 m, with a gentle slope. 13.5% alcohol. 57% Merlot with the balance a mix of the other Bordeaux varieties. Sweet, supple blackcurrant fruit here with a nice gravelly, spicy edge. Quite dry and structured, but has some texture and generous fruit. Hints of olive and pepper add interest. Good concentration of flavour: ripe but balanced. Lovely fruit quality here. 91/100
Sandhill Vanessa Vineyard Syrah 2013 Similkameen Valley, BC, Canada
Sweet and textured with ripe black cherry and berry fruits with some lovely olive and pepper notes. Some dried herbs and spice, with a savoury, mineral intensity to this wine. Warm but with some peppery notes of cool climate. Lovely stuff. 93/100
C.C. Jentsch Cellars Syrah 2013 Golden Mile Bench, Okanagan Valley, Canada
No Viognier in the blend in this vintage. Some spice and olive character with berries and cherries, and some savoury plummy notes. There’s some pepper and olive, too. Nice fruit here with some savoury spiciness and a bit of green herb character. Grippy finish. 90/100
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