Friday, May 22, 2009

Yes, there are Wine Regions in BC

British Columbia, Canada, is one of the world's newest and most explosive wine regions. In the 1980s, there was a scant 1000 acres in BC devoted to vitis vinifera, but today that number has blossomed to 9000 acres and over 100 wineries. This newly discovered wine territory is still very small in comparison to the wine giants of France or Austrailia, but everyone is taking notice. The Bordeaux producer Groupe Taillan and Vincor Canada joined together in 1999 to produce one of the best examples of BC fine wine that I've ever had the pleasure to sip. The winery was dubbed, Osoyoos Larose, and all their wines are made in true Bordeaux style with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot dominating with a dash of Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petite Verdot to add complexity. Being the new kid on the block in terms of wine production means that BC wineries take advantage of all the most progressive viticultural and vinification techniques available today. We hover around the 49th parallel, which is comparable to Champagne in France and Germany's famous Mosel and Rheingau regions. With better viticultural and vinification practices, vines are able to ripen in areas further and further north, especially when they take advantage of micro-climates that favour the sun.

The Vintners Quality Alliance is Canada's regulatory body, they have named four distinctive wine regions in BC. Our province has an extremely wide range of terrain from semi-desert country to Pacific islands which makes each of these areas very distinctive. The Okanagan Valley is by far the largest and most developed. I would further divide this area into North Okanagan and South Okanagan sub regions for clarity. Both regions' temperatures are moderated by a large lake body. The second region includes the southern Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island. This area has only 10 wineries, but a lot of potential. Another up and coming wine region is the Similkameen Valley, located south-west of the Okanagan Valley in the mountains at Keremeos.

The southern Okanagan Valley is Canada's only true desert, its heat produces the bulk of BC's fine red wine. Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah are in fine form taking advantage of the valley's varied and Bordeaux-esque soil types: gravel, sand and clay. If you are a fan of big, bold, rich, spicy, aged reds you cannot go wrong in this region. Wineries like Nk'mip, Osoyoos Larose and Black Hills produce consistent examples of the excellence that can be achieved on BC soil. These wineries bring forth the essence of southern Okanagan terroir. Many of the vineyards are planted on the Black Sage Bench where sandy, clay soil runs deep and sage grass spice wines are produced from the vines.

The Similkameen Valley is a very new wine region for BC. Its rocky, mountainous terrain is very arid and windy which is just the way we like them for wine production. There are wide variety of vines planted in this region with merlot, gamay noir, chardonnay, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon predominating. This area has yet to leave its mark on my palette, but with time and viticultural experience it may just hit the mark.

Northern Okanagan wineries focus on cooler climate grapes taking their direction from northern France and Germany. There is also a central Okanagan wine region, in my mind, around Okanagan Falls that produces good quality Chardonnay, pinot blanc and pinot gris, but most people seem to bulk that into the north. Some of the finest boutique winery, dry riesling is produced in the northern Okanagan with good acidity, buckets of fruit and the stoney minerality you need to push riesling to greatness. Some excellent pinot noirs are vinified by small and large producers alike: Quails Gate Winery and Nichol Vineyard. Many other lesser known, interesting and frequently German varietals are planted in the north: Ortega, siegerrebe, sylvanner, chasselas, marechal foch, gewurtztraminer and optima. Lang Vineyards produces an award wining late harvest Optima bursting with honey and tropical fruit. Lang is located on the famous Naramata Bench, a wine area on the East side of Lake Okanagan near Penticton. Some of our most famous wine houses were started here from Joie Farms crisp whites to Nichol Vineyards gorgeous pinot noir.

The Island wine region, for me, includes Cowichan Bay on the east coast of Vancouver Island, Saturna Island and Salt Spring Island (both part of the southern Gulf Islands). This is a very small area of production, but do NOT dismiss them. They produce some of the most distinct BC wines at very high quality. Pinot Noir, a grape that when expertly crafted picks up the flavours of the specific terroir like no other grape, is in its finest form on island soil. In a recent blind tasting I attended, three Island pinot noirs stood out from the competition. Five Burgundy, two California, one New Zealand, and one Oregon were present, all vetted to be at the top of their class under $150. I will say that California won hands down, $56, Ojai from Santa Maria Valley. But BC beat out all the Burgundy, the region most famously noted for fine pinot noir production. The key for me wasn't in the winning, but in the complexity of the flavour profile that the Island wineries were able to convey. Basically, they were really yummy. Venturi-Schulze ($45) 2006, Salt Spring Island Reserve ($32) 2006 and Averill Creek ($26) 2006 showed extremely well. The Island sits in a vine friendly, warm micro-climate, they call it the mediterranean of Canada. And the soils of the islands that you may taste in their stunning pinot noirs are frequently marine fossil, gravel, limestone and clay. Many of their best whites; pinot gris, pinot blanc, ortega, siegerrebe and sylvanner pick up a refreshing minerality and have excellent acidity. A mountain rainshadow to the west and the temperature moderating influences of the ocean positively influences the growth of the Islands precious vines. Venturi-Schulze Brut, Salt Spring Island Rose and Averill Creek Pinot Gris are some of the Islands best products. Unfortunately, because of the small production, they are very hard to find.

The one BC issue that keeps me up at night is price. BC wines are generally overpriced. There are two reasons as I see it, the local market will pay more to buy local (good for us... and bad), and the provincial liquor taxes bleed us dry. Also, some of the best wines are very difficult to get your lips on. Luckily, the best place to taste a glass to see if it tickles your fancy is at one of Vancouver's many fine restaurants that are always stocked to the teeth with BC product. For some of the best examples of BC regional differences try Averill Creek, Pinot Noir, Black Hills, Note Bene or Carmenere (at Salt Tasting Room), Tantalus, Old Vine Riesling and Nk'mip, Meritage most of which you can find at Rain City Grill on Denman Street in Vancouver. I would highly recommend a visit to this legendary restaurant that focuses solely on BC food and wine. Taste for yourself and decide if BC cuts the mustard in wine country.

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