If there’s a wine that doesn’t travel well, it might be the wines of British Columbia. By this, I don’t mean that their wines crack up in transit, but that they barely travel at all. Domestic wine consumption within Canada is strong; as W. Blake Gray pointed out here on Wine Review Online some time ago, Canadians drink ten times more than the country produces, so there is little need to export. Domestic sales are encouraged by the provincial Liquor Boards, too, within their own provincial borders in particular. How provincial are they? Well, enough that it’s easier to find an Ontario wine in New York than in British Columbia, for example. But while Ontario wines are starting to dribble across the border, British Columbian wines remain virtually unknown in the USA.
That being the case, a lot of them have been crossing my path nonetheless lately. Some during a visit to Vancouver, some at a presentation in New York, and then a number of intriguing bottles at trade conferences of various sorts. For a region that’s not exporting much, they’re either really trying to get the word out, or the word is out and the trade isn’t letting them lie low.
The word, however, is still a bit unclear, in the sense that we’re waiting to see what British Columbia does best. As Treve Ring and Jamie Goode pointed out in a seminar on Canadian wines at TexSom, Ontario has carved up the Niagara Peninsula into a number of small appellations, but in the Okanagan Valley, regional distinctions are being recognized, but they’re not names you’ll see on a label yet. So the Okanagan Valley or the Similkameen Valley might appear on a Riesling, a Pinot Noir, a Cabernet Franc; the valleys sub-regions have conditions suitable to all of those varieties, and more.
In part, this is because the Okanagan Valley is quite large, stretching 250 kilometers north to south, with all the temperature differences that distance implies. As a whole, the region enjoys plenty of sun and low rainfall. Summers are hot, but
with large diurnal variations in temperature even in the warmest, southernmost portion, which helps maintain freshness and prolong the growing season.
The Okanagan accounts for 84% if British Columbia’s wine production, with the much smaller Similkameen Valley, snaking westward from the Okanagan’s southern end, accounting for an additional 6%. The latter is surprisingly varied in terms of growing conditions, despite its smaller size; soils and exposures change greatly, following the curves and oxbows of the Similkameen River. There are only 19 wineries here, about one-tenth the number in the Okanagan.
At the moment, Pinot Gris is he most planted white variety in British Columbia. It seems an unlikely grape for them to hang their hat on, and suggests planting decisions driven by marketing decisions (i.e. the popularity of Pinot Grigio) rather than growing conditions. I say that also because the results are variable; maybe if more producers focused on making a more rounded, Alsatian-inspired version of the grape we’d have a better idea of its real potential here. Perhaps this was the original intention, too, since at 15%, its Alsatian friend Gewurztraminer takes up a fair amount of vineyard space as well. Pinot Blanc has also gotten some attention, but this variety accounts for only 5% of the vineyards (compared to Pinot Gris’s 22%), and is on the decline, a trend which some say reflects consumer lack of awareness of the variety and supports the Pinot Grigio popularity hypothesis.
The ever-present Chardonnay (yes, I know people disparage it, but in North American at least its sales have faltered little in the last few decades) follows Pinot Grigio closely, and is similarly variable in style. Nonetheless, it seems more reliably successful here than Pinot Gris.
On the red side, Bordeaux varieties, Merlot in particular at 30% of plantings, dominate, especially in the Similkameen and more southerly portions of the Okanagan. The Valley pretty much has as much as they can take of these varieties in terms of suitable areas, but there are still cooler spots into which Pinot Noir, currently at 21% (and therefore second to Merlot in terms of reds) could expand. The range of grapes, from Alsatian to Burgundian to Bordelais, well-reflects the region’s diverse conditions and the necessity for articulating some smaller divisions that take those conditions into account.
I believe we’ll be seeing more of these wines in the U.S., especially in the Pacific Northwest; hopefully they’ll follow their counterparts in Ontario in claiming at least a small stake in the U.S. market. There does seem to be an interest from the producers, based on the small but significant marketing increase taking place. For now, the wines are hard enough to find that visiting the Okanagan remains one of the places with good wines that you can enjoy with the knowledge that you’re having something you wouldn’t likely find at home.
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Here are some recommended producers/wines. Given the challenges involved in finding them in the USA, I’ve kept these fairly general, rather than providing detailed tasting notes on individual vintages:
Steller’s Jay Brut 2010: Sparkling wines aren’t a big part of BC wine production, but this wine, made in the traditional method from Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir, offers an enjoyable mix of fruit aromas and a light brioche touch from three years on the lees.
Tantalus Old Vines Riesling 2014: From the northern, cooler stretches of the Okanagan Valley. Firm and juicy.
Little Farm Pied de Cuve Riesling 2016: Dry and mineral, with pleasant spice and apricot notes.
Maverick Pinot Gris 2015: Medium-bodied with a round texture; falls in between the Alsatian and Italian styles.
Hayward Switchback Pinot Gris 2015: Full and firm, with honey, mushroom, and apricot notes.
Quail’s Gate Chardonnay 2016: Medium-bodied and smooth; well-integrated oak and generous pear notes.
Little Farm Chardonnay 2015: Elegant and focused, with a textured, fresh nouthfeel.
Hayward Canyonview Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013: Mixes red fruit, earth, and mushroom aromas, with a light texture that reminds me of some German Pinots.
Nk’Mip Qvam Qwmt Merlot 2014: Easy drinking, medium-bodied Merlot, with decent structure and not lush or broad.
Black Hills Estate Nota Bene 2014: A firm, structured Bordeaux blend, with cedar, cassis, and graphite notes and a long finish.
Le Vieux Pin Syrah “Cuvée Violette” 2015: Dark fruit notes, with floral and meaty notes. Complex, with a lovely, long finish.