This afternoon I was a judge in the Victoria version of Gold Medal Plates here on Vancouver Island. We tasted the following wines, and these are my personal notes.
Pipe Dreams Gruner Veltliner 2014 Okanagan Valley, Canada
From Oliver. Dense and quite oily with powerful pear and quince fruit. Intensely flavoured with some pithy bitterness on the finish. A very rich style but it lacks finesse. 85/100
Culmina Decora Riesling 2015 Okanagan Valley, Canada
This Riesling is floral, fine and expressive with a hint of white pepper, some nice pithy grapefruit character and lovely fine-grained texture. There’s real concentration here. A dry style with lovely poise and finesse. High acid is really well integrated. 92/100
Tantalus Chardonnay 2014 Okanagan Valley, Canada
From Kelowna. Fresh and detailed with white peach and citrus fruit, and a fair whack of oak, although it’s elegant, refined oak, contributing some cream, toast and spice notes. Fresh, lemony and expressive, this wine needs more time to settle down and integrate the oak characters, when it will likely score higher. 89/100
Liquidity Chardonnay 2014 Okanagan Valley, Canada
13.5% alcohol. Clone 76, planted in 1994 and 2009, Okanagan Falls. Lively with lots of flavour: there are nuts, bread, some toast, plus dense pear and citrus fruit. It’s fresh and appealing with good acidity underpinning the rich fruit. Oak is in the background. Bright finish. 90/100
Tightrope Viognier 2014 Okanagan Valley, Canada
From Naramata Bench. Concentrated flavours of pear, white peach and melon, together with some really vivid apricot aromas. It has a lot of promise on the nose, but the palate has a pronounced sweetness and some intrusive pithy notes. It finishes with a bitter character. Just a little big and clumsy, although there’s some Viognier character here. 87/100
Stag’s Hollow Viognier 2014 Okanagan Valley, Canada
From the Hearle vineyard. Beautiful nose of apricot and peach is really varietally true. There’s a subtle almond note, as well. The palate is fresh and expressive with lovely purity and balance. It’s a ripe but fresh Viognier that’s very pretty and detailed. Lovely wine. 91/100
Time Estate Meritage 2014 Okanagan Valley, Canada
13.9% alcohol. From the Sundial Vineyard in the Black Sage Bench. 68% Sauvignon Blanc and 32% Semillon. Very smooth and richly textured, this shows fat white peach and pear fruit with some sweet, spicy detail. Concentrated, lush and with a very fat mid-palate, this a ripe interpretation of the white Bordeaux style that could probably do with some tightening up. There’s a touch of fudge and honeycomb on the finish. 88/100
Calliope Figure 8 Blanc 2014 British Columbia, Canada
13.5% alcohol. Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer. Distinctive stuff. Ripe and generous with some grapey richness, and floral, spicy aromatics with lychee, peach and yellow plums. A rich, easy, fruity style, but there’s a tiny bit of pithy bitterness on the finish. 87/100
Sea Star Blanc de Noir Rosé 2015 Pender Island, BC, Canada
12.7% alcohol. Pinot Noir. Fresh, lively, juicy and sappy with lovely leafy spicy red cherry fruit. Lively and bright, this is really fresh and focused. Pretty, in a dry style. Highly food compatible. 90/100
Haywire Pinot Noir Canyonview Vineyard 2013 Okanagan Valley, Canada
13.5% alcohol. Raised in concrete. Lifted, warm, smooth cherry fruit with a touch of stewed plum character. Has softness of textured and some complexing herb and undergrowth characters. Finishes savoury. A warm, soft, satisfying style with lots of interest. 91/100
The Hatch Black Swift Vineyards The Long Road Pinot Noir 2014 Okanagan Valley, Canada
13.8% alcohol. From Kelowna. Slightly lifted cherry and spice nose leads to a structured but quite fine palate with taut raspberry and cherry fruit. There’s freshness and finesse here: it’s a grown up Pinot with some appeal, although the cedary oak isn’t quite integrated yet. 89/100
Burrowing Owl Pinot Noir 2013 Okanagan Valley, Canada
14.5% alcohol. Ripe, sweet, spicy and tarry with lush berry fruits. Very ripe style that has generosity and an easy-going nature, but it also has sweet fruit and ripe oak that get in the way of site and varietal expression. 86/100
Black Sage Vineyard Cabernet Franc 2014 Okanagan Valley, Canada
13.5% alcohol. South Okanagan, aged in French and American oak. Sweet, lush, ripe and creamy with seamless cherry and berry fruits with a bit of blackcurrant. There’s some chalkiness, too. Ripe and seductive, this has lovely purity. Very well crafted in a new world style. 89/100
Calliope Figure 8 Cabernet Merlot 2014 British Columbia, Canada
14% alcohol. Very sweet, supple and easy with soft blackberry and blackcurrant fruit. Has an easy texture. A generous crowd-pleaser of a wine. 86/100
Tinhorn Creek Oldfield Series Cabernet Franc 2012 Okanagan Valley, Canada
14.6% alcohol. Supple and bright with refreshing green-tinged blackcurrant fruit. Midweight and digestible, this is juicy and tasty. Subtle tar and spice notes. Quite savoury. 88/100
Stag’s Hollow Heritage Block 2013 Okanagan Valley, Canada
14.2% alcohol. Bordeaux-style blend from the South Okanagan. Lively herb-tinged, midweight berry fruits. There’s an attractive texture with appealing blackberry notes and some tar and herb spiciness. This has warmth to it. There’s quite a bit going on here: ripe but detailed. 89/100
Quails’ Gate Merlot 2014 Okanagan Valley, Canada
14.5% alcohol. Ripe but elegantly textured with concentrated, smooth red berry and blackcurrant fruit. Nicely structured with sweet, dense fruit, this is an attractive, stylish new world style Merlot with lush but fresh fruit. Very ripe but well made. 90/100
Last week we had a wonderful lunch at Trinity Restaurant in Clapham Old Town, with Dirk Niepoort and his wines. Trinity is a great place, and Adam Byatt had prepared a lovely informal sharing menu based on pyrenees kid goat cooked on charcoal. This is the sort of food I love. There was roast goat leg, goat offal kebabs, a really nice burrata, and some lovely salads. Byatt has just got his Michelin star, and on this showing it is well deserved.
Adam Byatt, Trinity
The wines? Some I know quite well, but even then it’s good to come back to try a wine on different occasions. The Bairrada VV, in particular, was singing. ‘Since 2013 we are making wines that are much more elegant and less extracted,’ explained Dirk. And since 2012, Niepoort has also been working in Bairrada and Dão. ‘In those areas I made no compromise,’ says Dirk. ‘I took the old styles. I’m going back to what used to be made.’ He explained that in the 1960s Dão wines weren’t alcoholic, and they weren’t dark in colour. They had good acidity and lots of freshness. ‘Bairrada should be Barraida and Dão should be Dão.’ In the 1960s monster cooperatives started appearing and wine quality went down. Another problem is that Portugal mainly exported to former colonies, and they sent cheap bad wine to these undemanding markets. Dirk is a big fan of both regions. In particular, he says that Bairrada has the best terroirs in Portugal, but it’s also the most difficult to work with. This is only partly because of the humidity that can cause disease problems. ‘Actually, the biggest problem is the people,’ he says.
Some selected tasting notes:
Niepoort Conciso 2012 Dão, Portugal
60% whole bunch, no pumping over, 10 days on skins. Racked to stainless steel and then to a large 2500 litre barrel. Grainy, fine and fresh with linear cherry fruit as well as some lifted raspberry notes. Fresh and fine with real finesse. 95/100
Niepoort Bical Maria Gomes Vinhas Velhas Branco 2013 Bairrada, Portugal
This is made in 1000 litre fuders from the Mosel, and spends 3o months without sulfur. Fine, stony and mineral: you can taste the chalky soil influence here. This is a blend of a few vineyards, and it’s lemony, pure and very fresh. So fine. Practically perfect on today’s showing. 97/100
Turris is a vineyard that Dirk fell in love with as soon as he saw it. He initially rented it to correct Batata. It’s 0.8 hectares and is located in Alves at high altitude. It was one of the first plantings after phylloxera, and it was untrellised until the IVDP ordered all vineyards to be trellised. This wine is made in foudres with 30% whole bunch. ‘The purity is what makes this wine so special,’ says Dirk.
Niepoort Turris 2012 Douro, Portugal
Really fine, fresh and detailed with pure, linear, mineral black cherry fruit. Such finesse here, with amazing purity. 97/100
Niepoort Poerinho Baga 2013 Bairrada, Portugal
Tight, focused and really fresh with red cherries, spice and some citrus. Grippy and focused with raspberries and herbs. Linear and taut. Stony and mineral. Some grip, and high acidity, both of which make this a little challenging. It’s a lovely wine though. 95/100
Tried these three yesterday. They are all really good, and all quite different. The Comtes was the star; the Dom P accessible yet serious; the Krug still tight and youthful, but with latent richness and depth. We drank them, too.
Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2006 France
12.5% alcohol. Tight, fresh, complex and detailed with subtle toast, white peach, white pepper, yellow plum and lemon notes. Bright and pure with precision and good acidity. Has beautiful detail and brightness, with a core of lemony fruit. There’s a bit of toast and honeycomb here, also. A remarkably good wine. 96/100
Champagne Krug Grande Cuvée NV France
12% alcohol. Disgorged summer 2014, oldest wine 1990, base wine 2007, seven years on lees, 12 different vintages. Complex and intense; lemony, appley and herby. Lots of flavour here with bracing freshness and notes of toast, citrus pith, grapefruit and herbs. There’s a sweet toffee and toast note adding richness, but the core of this wine is linear, intense, citrussy fruit. Still quite primary, this will blossom into all out toasty richness with a bit of time in bottle. Very tight now, and tighter than I’d expect from Krug. 94/100
Champagne Dom Pérignon 2006 France
12.5% alcohol. Fine, expressive and fruity. Lovely weight here: pear, white peach, a hint of melon. Generous fruitiness and attractive, smooth texture define this wine. A bit of sweetness, too. There’s an elegance and purity here, and it’s a wine that has some seriousness but also it’s so approachable and friendly. Such a good wine. 95/100
I was given this blind to taste. Immediately I opted for very serious Chardonnay, and Chablis in quick succession. I wrote my note and scored it. Then I was stunned to find out that this wasn’t a grand cru or premier cru, but just a regular Chablis. It’s quite brilliant.
Jean-Paul and Benoît Droin Chablis 2015 Burgundy, France
Very fine, linear and pure. This has great precision and concentration with a really linear mineral core, and a slight saltiness. There’s just a faint hint of matchstick mineralogy, and this wine shows amazing purity and focus. I really like it. 94/100
One of the most popular programmes on BBC Radio 4 is Desert Island Discs, which is presented by Kirsty Young. It has been running forever (since 1942), and the idea behind it is that a notable person undergoes a biographical interview punctuated by eight pieces of music that they’d choose to take with them if they were to be sent to a desert island (these are the ‘discs’: this only really works with vinyl). I recently caught the episode with Ali Smith, the writer. As usual, it was interesting to listen to: this format works well for an extended interview. But one interchange in particular struck me:
Smith: Stories are incredibly powerful. We think we live; that we are just going along from day to day. Actually, we live by telling ourselves stories about the lives we are living. We take in, like sponges, the stories that come at us on all the waves – the TV, radio, internet – everything is a kind of story, which all adds to the story which is supposed to be the story of each individual’s life. So it is not surprising that if the stories are good, and they come at us and we are the sponges that take the stories in, then we will feel better about it. And those stories are coming at us, and us being so porous, if we aren’t careful with our stories then we will probably block our pores.
Young: If there are right stories, then by definition there are wrong stories that can do harm. That seems quite a curious thing for a writer to say.
Smith: We have to know that our lives are narrated to us, and also the way that we narrate lives around us. It is all construct. As soon as we become aware of that, we can do whatever we like with the construct: we can change it if we need to, we can stay with it if we like it, we can change bits of it. In other words, it empowers us. So if we are not careful, stories will take the shirts off our back, but if we are careful, the stories will see us through like boats on whatever surface the sea is doing.
The idea here is one I’ve been interested in for a while. It is stories that mould us, and if we want to change, then we need to retell these stories – or absorb and integrate fresh ones. You can’t change people’s minds by presenting them with facts. You have to use stories.
There is very little that is neutral in our culture, and in the media. Most information we are exposed to comes with narrative attached. As Smith points out, we are like story sponges. We soak up narrative and it becomes part of us.
Our culture is full of these stories and, inevitably, we pick them up. At the moment, the world is focused on what has just happened in the US political arena. For many of us it is hard to see how anyone could have found Trump a plausible candidate for any public office, yet we forget that the average Trump supporter has been soaking up very different stories, and their belief in the man – which is astonishing to us – is a result of sponging up what many readers will regard as ‘bad’ narratives.
I’m interested in stories and how they apply to wine. I think there are similar narratives in wine that influence how we feel about certain regions and styles of wine. A great example of wine storytelling is Kermit Lynch’s excellent Adventures on the Wine Route. This narrative has, I think, had a strong impact on the world of wine, particularly for those Americans who know of Lynch and have read the book. The quest for real, authentic and natural wine is, remember, a relatively recent one.
I like to think we are moving away from the points system. The idea that a wine can be summed up usefully in a points score is absurd, although a score of some sort is useful in that it helps readers know how much you liked the wine. Wine is so diverse, and the story of wine that has at its centre the notion that a wine can be of a place, is a powerful narrative. I buy a Chablis and celebrate its Chablis-like essence. A good Chablis is one that is a sensible, skilled interpretation of that place.
To suggest that the merit of a wine is how much you ‘enjoy’ the flavour, and how much hedonic appeal it has, is nonsense. If you view the destination as 100 points, a wine that is perfect, then it reduces place to merely a means of helping create this perfect wine, and not as something important in its own right.
Do wine journalists matter? I think so, and it’s not just because of the way their recommendations affect the sale of specific wines. It’s because good journalists tell stories, and this narrative then shapes how people feel about regions, varieties, producers and vintages. Just as Smith points out, there are good narratives and bad ones. As journalists, and as a wine trade, we need to be careful that we are telling the right sorts of stories.
I love red Vinho Verde. It’s just so distinctive and different. Usually (but not always) it’s made from a single variety, Vinhão. This has a thick skin, and the result is inky dark, vivid wines. It’s also widely grown in the Douro, where it goes under the name Sousão.
Some people think of it as a teinturier (a red-fleshed grape), but it’s not, although sometimes the colour can bleed from the skins into the pulp. Vinhão is a really distinctive wine. As well as its intense colour, it has really high acidity, and it sometimes doesn’t go through malolactic fermentation (which is really unusual for red wines).
In a tasca drinking Vinhão
Typically the wine will be served straight from cask or tank, and then poured from carafes or jugs. It’s not all that often that it’s bottled. You’ll find it in the traditional tapas bars, tascas, in Porto and the Minho. It doesn’t really leave the region.
Most commonly it is served in small ceramic bowls, not glasses. The white ceramic enhances the intense colour of the Vinhão.
Sopa de Cavalo Cansado
It is also sometimes served as a soup. Bread and sugar are added to the wine. This is the sopa de cavalo cansado, which translates as soup of the hungry horse. It sounds weird, but it’s actually quite delicious.
Vinhão on the vine, Vinho Verde
Here’s a short video from a tasca crawl I did with Dirk Niepoort, who is planning a red and white vinho verde project focusing on the more traditional styles (slightly fizzy white and inky dark red).
Blue Mountain Brut NV Okanagan Valley, Canada
Pinot Noir (56%) and Chardonnay (39%) with a bit of Pinot Gris (5%) from the 2013 vintage, two years on lees, disgorged March 2016. Fresh and vivid with bright lemony fruit and some herbal overtones. Lovely fruit here with good acidity and some slighty pithy, waxy notes in the background. Has a savoury twist and a core of well integrated acidity. 89/100 ($24 in Canada)
Blue Mountain Blanc de Blancs RD 2009 Okanagan Valley, Canada
100% Chardonnay, 5.5 years on lees. Lively and direct with lovely precision to the lemon and herb flavours, as well as some pretty floral notes. There’s a nice acid drive here and a real tightness to the palate, which still shows linear fruit without much autolytic character, despite the time on lees. I love the purity and length of this wine. 91/100 ($40 in Canada)
Blue Mountain Reserve Brut RD 2008 Okanagan Valley, Canada
50/50 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, 6.5 years on lees. 4 g/l dosage. Focused, fresh and intense with lovely linear acidity. Lime and lemons with a faint hint of toastiness. Very pure and linear with such precision and freshness: even though this has spent so long on the lees, it’s still very pure and dominated by citrus fruit characters. 92/100 ($40 in Canada)
Blue Mountain Brut Rosé RD 2012 Okanagan Valley, Canada
Pinot Noir with a touch of Chardonnay, aged 30 months on lees. Pale pink in colour. Fresh and vivid with some juicy red cherry and cranberry fruit, as well as a touch of herbiness. Attractive lemony core to this wine with a hint of pepper adding interest, and a bit of mandarin character, too. Juicy and lively, but with a more serious side, too. 90/100 ($33 in Canada)
One of the sessions at the Cornucopia Wine Summit was a good old fashioned debate about the future of BC (British Columbia, Canada) wine.
What should BC’s identity be as a wine region?
What does BC want to be when it grows up? A region known for high quality, focused on a few flagship varietals and blends that speak to BC’s sense of place? Or a region known for a wide range of interesting varietals, with varying styles and definitions of what represents BC?
Compered by local councillor Jack Crompton, the debate was cleverly run, with each member of the audience being given two ping pong balls. At the beginning we all voted whether or not we agreed with the motion, and then after the debate we voted again. The winning side was the one who had successfully changed the most minds.
The resolution? ‘Be it resolved that BC’s wine identity should reflect a distinctive region known for a few flagship varietals and blends.’
At the moment the Okanagan has no real specialism, and works with lots of different varieties, including Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon for the whites, and Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Gamay for the reds.
Defending the motion were David Paterson (from Tantalus) and Sid Cross. Opposing were Cynthia Enns (of Laughing Stock) and Andrew Windsor (from Tinhorn Creek).
David kicked off. He said that BC is producing too much wine for the domestic market, so the only option is to produce less wine, or fine export markets. So export it has to be. But there’s a problem. ‘The region lacks identity and focus,’ David says. ‘We need a tight focus to be relevant internationally. Producers need to focus on their terroir and what is working.’ Merlot is currently the most planted red variety, but he says, ‘it makes boring wine with no sense of identity: it is not a variety we can hang our hat on.’ David says that signature varieties are needed. ‘We will never have volume or cheap labour, or economies of scale, so we can only compete with signature wines of high quality.’
David made the point that ‘diversity is a feeble identity.’ He then identified four varieties that BC should focus on: Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah.
Cynthia Enns replied. She spoke from two perspectives, first as a farmer and second as a business owner. ‘We’ve just completed our 14th harvest [at Laughing Stock in the Okanagan] and we are still figuring it out.’ She says that from a business point of view, focusing doesn’t make sense. The Okanagan makes just two million cases of wine a year as a region, so there’s no need to export. ‘Why focus? The economics don’t work.’ Cynthia gave an example of the sort of sums that would be involved in specializing if replanting was demanded. At the moment the top planted white variety is Pinot Gris, at 12% of vineyard area. To double this area of Pinot Gris by replanting would cost CA$72 m, she calculated, including the lost vintages while the new vines established themselves. She also pointed out the Naramata Bench (where she is) wineries all sold out this summer. So why replant? ‘We have to focus on making delicious wine and raising the quality bar,’ she concluded.
Sid Cross began by pointing out that no one knows what the signature grapes of BC are. BC should concentrate on what it does well. ‘We don’t want Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Gris or Merlot,’ he said. ‘We don’t want any more Sauvignon Blanc with residual sugar: stop that!’ He added, ‘we need to make ourselves unique. We can still make things for ourselves, but we need to get the word out we do some things well.’
Andrew Windsor finished off the main debate. ‘We do a lot of wines really well,’ he said, before launching into a description of the complex soils and geology of the Okanagan. It really is varied, not just in climate terms (there’s a massive difference between the north and south), but also in terms of what the vineyard soils consist of. ‘We don’t want to force two, three, or four grape varieties on these regions,’ he stated. ‘Diversity also leaves us in a better position against climate change,’ added Andrew.
There was then some back and forth, some questions from the floor (most were comments, not questions) and a summing up session. Then we voted with our remaining ping pong ball. Although the vote would have carried the motion, Cynthia and Andrew won because more people changed sides to support their viewpoint.
What do I think? I agree, there are significant climate differences between the north and south of the Okanagan, and this means that Pinot is great in the north but would be horrible in the south. Chardonnay does well from north to south, as does Syrah. Riesling is best further north. There are the climates and soils within the Okanagan to do many things well, and it would be a shame to restrict the number of varieties grown there.
A lot depends on where the wines will be sold. If the vision of the Okanagan is simply to be a region that makes good wines for local consumption, then there’s no problem with the diversity that’s currently on show. But I think the Okanagan could be more ambitious, and play on a global rather than local stage. If it is to do this, what’s the message it should take to the world? Currently, it suffers from a lack of focus. The message, ‘we do lots of things quite well,’ is a disastrous one. It’s so much better to focus. Going to the world with a simplified message doesn’t necessitate telling people what they can grow or oblige people to rip out vines. The whole region would benefit from more focus and a clearer message, and export success in turn would give the wines more credibility on the domestic market. It’s for this reason I voted for the motion.
Continuing with the series on Gamay, I’m sticking with the Okanagan Valley in Canada. I’m in Whistler, now, and this wine is from Samantha Rahn, who’s the wine director at Araxi restaurant here. She made this wine at Okanagan Crush Pad (OCP), in collaboration with winemaker Matt Dumayne. A substantial portion of the wine was aged in concrete, which is the OCP style. [This, of course, isn't a wine that many will be able to find. But I quite like that on this site I can, on occasion, just write about interesting things without a concern for where they are available. It's about what is interesting.]
Samantha Gamay 2014 Okanagan, Canada
13.1% alcohol. This shows generous, elegant textured sweet cherry and plum fruit with a really smooth, rounded character. There’s a lovely elegance and smoothness to this wine, with silky, velvety structure and fruit purity. Seamless and fine-grained with lovely generous fruit, but also some finesse. There’s a superficial simple fruit quality to this wine, but beneath this there’s also some depth and complexity, too. It’s ripe, but not overly so, and I just love the texture on this wine. 90/100
There’s something special about mountains. I’m in Whistler, Canada, for the Cornucopia food and wine festival, and it’s great to be here.
Whistler is North America’s largest ski resort. It’s odd being in a ski resort just before the first real snows of the season. It’s as if it’s still snoozing, waiting to wake when its slopes open, which is probably going to be in a few weeks’ time. The village has a lovely feel to it, with its pedestrian-focused streets.
Yesterday I had a clear morning, so I walked. There are lots of trails here, clearly marked, and I took a stroll over to, and all the way around, Lost Lake. It was quite magical.
Being in mountains does something for me. It’s what I liked most about skiing, when I used to do it: you are on the mountain. I walked and walked, breathing it all in. Alpine beauty.
There was a moment that was quite special: a tree growing out of a tree. New life coming from something that looked dead. It spoke to me of new beginnings and second chances. And that nothing is wasted. Even the seemingly dead bits of our life can be the source of new life.
I’ve come away more centred. Ready for what comes next.