PENTICTON, B.C. — The thing about the Okanagan Valley, aside from its stunning beauty, is its inability to stand pat. The vistas morph right before your eyes as more and more patches of green vineyards are carved out of the of the valley’s most unlikely landscape.
It never ends. And with it comes the infrastructure — new wineries, new tasting rooms, new restaurants, new hope and a brand new chapter in the winsome wonder that is B.C.’s largest wine region.
The pace of growth is staggering for a region that clearly is still defining what it is and how it will move forward. That was most evident as a team of nine wine judges (and one apprentice) converged on Penticton for three days of tasting to determine the best wines in B.C., at least from the wines that were submitted to the competition.
The results of the B.C. Wine Awards, sponsored by the Okanagan Wine Festivals, are listed below (Premier’s Award, Platinum and Gold winners only).
Tasting and judging at least a third of the 650 or wines presented over three days offers a perspective, a snapshot of where B.C. stands in terms of signature varieties and blends and where it needs to up the game.
It is a bit dicey to offer perspective from an outsider’s point of view because, living and writing mostly about Ontario wines, I never get to taste the vast majority of wines being produced in the Okanagan Valley. At the competition, I only tasted the wines that came to the panel I was sitting on with DJ Kearney and Sebastien Le Goff, both excellent tasters and with spot-on palates.
But, regardless, here a few takeaways from my experience tasting and touring during the judging that took place Sept. 15-18 in Penticton.
The Good …
• Syrah, baby, it absolutely rocks in the dirt and warm climate of the Okanagan Valley. Such depth and consistency from winery to winery with lavish peppery notes and rich fruits that elevate them from earthy and tough to interesting, bold and multi-dimensional. It was the hardest category to judge because so many were excellent. It was almost a shame to relegate any of them to the Silver and Bronze categories. Syrah should be made across the board in the Okanagan as one of the region’s most fascinating categories of wine.
• Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are close seconds to Syrah. The pride of Burgundy, these varieties are standouts in the Okanagan Valley when sourced from the cooler and higher elevations. All lot of effort is going into perfecting both Pinot and Chardonnay and it showed with the wines that passed through our panel. The Pinots range in style from pretty and finessed to complex and earthy with room to get better with age. The Chardonnays are blessed with racy acidity that provides balance to the range of ripe fruits in combination with a measured approach to fine oak we tasted in most samples we encountered. It is no secret that these two grapes have firmly established themselves in the hierarchy of B.C.’s finest wines.
• Sparkling wine has the potential to bust out of the doldrums and really stake a claim with the top wines in B.C. Wineries are just now scratching the surface of what can be done, especially in the traditionally-made (Champagne method) spectrum.
One of our visits during the trip to the Okanagan was at Haywire Winery (Okanagan Crush Pad) in Summerland to visit with owners Christine Coletta and Steve Lornie along with the winemaking team led by Matt Dumayne. They all took time out from the harvest to dazzle us with one of the top-down best sparkling programs in the province.
Haywire has made a range of bubblies since 2011 and we tasted the full library of their “Bub” vintage sparklers (a Pinot/Chard blend made in the traditional method) up to the 2015 vintage that is currently en tirage. Also in the program is the new The Bub Reserve sparklers (50-50 Pinot/Chard) beginning with the 2013 vintage that will see a minimum of five years lees aging and low to absolutely no dosage.
We tasted the 2013 and 2014 vintages (en tirage) and they were gorgeous, simply beautiful examples of where sparking wine can go in B.C. Haywire doesn’t stop there; there is also the stunning Narrative Ancient Method sparkling wines made from the process commonly called Pétillant Naturel (or pét-nat) using 100% Pinot Noir from Haywire’s Garnet Valley Ranch Vineyard, and delicious rose-style sparkling wines.
Haywire is all in on Okanagan sparkling wine.
A Work In Progress …
• Red blends, the vast majority using Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc as the base, is perhaps the largest category of wine being made in the Okanagan. And the range is huge — from over-oaked, overly-tannic monsters to more subtle, less interventionist examples that have to the ability to enthrall. Trouble is, it’s all over the map. The Okanagan is blessed with warm, even hot, growing conditions in the south of the valley where the majority of the ripest red grapes are grown. But a softer hand is needed in the creation of these wines to provide interest and sustainability in the category.
• White blends, that kitchen sink approach to winemaking, is a category that is unappealing to me. Just tossing a bunch of white grapes into a tank and dialing up the RS is not a good recipe. Those that are developing interesting proprietary white blends with purpose are finding success such as the Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blends being made. But too much uninteresting, flabby, sweet white blends are finding their way into the retail stream.
What A Surprise …
• Riesling from the Okanagan continues to confound me. It has such potential to be a superstar in B.C. but it is taking a long time to find its happy place. Don’t get me wrong, it is out there, some wineries have found the magic and make some stunning Rieslings, but the wines that passed through our panel were (and I generalize here) unbalanced and super-sweet. Riesling needs to express the terroir of where it is grown, it can’t be drowned out by residual sugar. There needs to be a balance between the sweet and tart fruit and space for the minerality to shine through, otherwise you are left with sugar bombs that might taste delicious with the first sip but fall quickly apart after that. Go drier, way drier, and find success.
• Gamay is the fastest rising superstar on the Canadian wine scene. It is easy to grow in the cooler climates of Canada and needs no trickery in the winemaking process. It’s a simple gulping wine and a joy to behold when left to its own devices. Too many we judged just didn’t feel like that. Too much oak dominated the category, too much saturation smothered the joy that should be a simple, delicious wine capable of being a part of every winery’s portfolio. In this case, less is more.
Your Yurt is My Yurt …
noun: yurt; plural noun: yurts
1) a circular tent of felt or skins on a collapsible framework, used by nomads in Mongolia, Siberia, and Turkey.
Let’s just say that I have stayed in some pretty fancy digs while travelling the world in pursuit of good wine. Fancy hotels, resorts, winery guest houses, you name it, I have stayed there. But never ever have I ever stayed in a yurt.
A yurt, as noted above, is the preferred accommodation for nomads. I suppose you could argue that the nine judges for this competition, who travelled from as far away as Niagara, Calgary, Winnipeg and Seattle, are modern-day nomads but it can’t be argued that this is their preferred form of lodging given the choice.
But there we were, nine judges in nine yurts stuck beside the highway where 18-wheelers did not respect our quiet time at night and the airport bordering the property on the outskirts of Penticton did not restrict air traffic during the day.
It was, shall we say, an experience.
The yurts all had showers (some of them even had hot water), kitchens (some bigger than others), a comfortable bed (some had two beds, mine did not), an outdoor porch where you sit and watch the other yurtites go about their daily business. One yurt had a gigantic hot tub (mine did not), all yurts had a moon roof whether you wanted it or not. All yurts had windy conditions at night (canvas is a porous material), extreme heat during the day and up to four blankets that were used to their fullest as the temperature dropped overnight.
I could hear people snoring in the yurts on either side of me (yes, women do snore, too!), was woken each day by the sound of flushing toilets echoing through yurtville, but found some comfort with the arrival every morning of a Starbucks breakfast delivered to the yurt’s front door. And, truth be told, I’ve never had to batten down the hatches at any other previous accommodations when a storm was approaching until that second day in the yurt.
Next time someone asks if you don’t mind staying in a yurt during your visit to the Okanagan, tell them, yes, it sounds like fun. But once you stay in a yurt you can then cross it off your bucket list. As I have done.
Seriously, though, it provided a neat experience that I think we all found amusing, and it certainly gave us something to talk about in the van heading to the judging every day. And more than a few yurt jokes.
About the Okanagan Wine Festivals Society:
The Okanagan Wine Festivals Society is responsible for the development of the wine tourism sector in the interior of British Columbia. It is well known for producing two annual Okanagan Wine Festivals in spring to celebrate the bud break and in fall to celebrate the grape harvest. Its Winter Okanagan Wine Festival is run in partnership with Sun Peaks Resort near Kamloops.
The festival and competition are both run by a group of dedicated volunteers (judges are paid an honorarium). Marjorie King, manager of the judging competition, deserves a lot of credit for keeping the wine judges in line and keeping us focused on picking award-winning wines through panel scrutiny, group discussion and thoughtful contemplation. It was one of the best run competitions I have been involved in and most of the credit goes to Marjorie and her team.
Here are the results of the annual British Columbia Wine Awards, the largest B.C. wine competition in the province, which were presented Thursday night (Sept. 29) at the start of 36th Fall Okanagan Wine Festival (as noted, only the Premier’s Award, Platinum Awards and Gold Awards are published here). Check here for full results:
- SpierHead Winery Pinot Noir Cuvee 2014
- Road 13 Vineyards Sparkling Chenin Blanc 2012
- Summerhill Pyramid Winery Cipes Blanc de Blanc 2010
- Mission Hill Family Estate Reserve Chardonnay 2014
- Red Rooster Riesling 2015
- SpierHead Winery Pinot Noir Cuvee 2014
- Deep Roots Syrah 2014
- TIME Estate Syrah 2013
- CedarCreek Estate Platimum The Last Word (Meritage) 2013
- CedarCreek Estate Senator’s White 2015
- Arrowleaf Cellars First Crush White 2015
- Innkiskillin Discovery Series Chenin Blanc 2014
- Road 13 Vineyards Roussanne 2014
- Conviction Wines The Financier Pinot Grigio 2015
- Evolve Cellars Pinot Blanc 2015
- Gehringer Brothers Optimum Pinot Gris 2015
- Arrowleaf Cellars Pinot Gris 2015
- Quails’ Gate Stewart Family Reserve Chardonnay 2014
- Quails’ Gate Chardonnay 2014
- Harper’s Trail Pioneer Block Dry Riesling 2014
- Wild Goose Vineyards Stoney Slope Riesling 2015
- Wayne Gretzky Signature Series Riesling 2015
- Wild Goose Vineyards Gewurztraminer 2015
- Arrowleaf Cellars Rose 2015
- Monte Creek Ranch Winery Riesling Icewine 2014
- Gehringer Brothers Estate Signature Riesling Icewine 2014
- Robin Ridge Gamay Noir 2014
- Moraine Estate Pinot Noir 2014
- Church & State State of the Union Pinot Noir 2014
- CedarCreek Estate Senator’s Red 2013
- Black Sage Vineyard Merlot 2014
- Lake Breeze Vineyards Syrah Torok Vineyard Syrah 2014
- Wayne Gretzky Signature Series Shiraz 2014
- The Hatch Black Swift Vineyards Long Road Syrah 2014
- Blasted Church Vineyards Syrah 2014
- Bench 1775 Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot 2013
- vinAmite Cellars Compass 2014
- CedarCreek Estate Meritage 2013
- Blasted Church Vineyards Nothing Sacred (Meritage) 2014
- Kismet Estate Mantra (Meritage) 2014
- Blasted Church Vineyards Holy Moly Petit Verdot 2014
- Perseus Winery Cabernet Franc Select Lots 2013