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.