Riesling from British Columbia and why I need to find $7.9-million

Hey brother, can you spare $7.9-million? If so, you could own your very own vineyard in a beautiful setting among British Columbia’s Gulf Islands.

That’s right, Saturna Island Family Estate Winery is up for sale – again – and the property could be yours if you can make the mortgage payments. It’s best if you’re into your cool climate and aromatic white wines, however, because I doubt you’ll b able to make anything good other than riesling, pinot gris and chardonnay. But that’s okay, because as it turns out, British Columbia is a good place to make riesling and other aromatic white wines. That is, if you aren’t among the masses who think they’re all sickly sweet German concoctions.

Depending on your upbringing, riesling is either the greatest white wine in the world or a sickly sweet concoction often associated brands like Black Tower and Blue Nun (even if they’re actually blends of several white grape varieties).

But put a decent glass of riesling in the hands of the uninitiated – whether it is sweet, semi-sweet or bone dry – and more often than not the reaction is positive in nature.

We associate riesling with Germany and Austria, where the cooler climates in these countries suit this grape well. But the rest of the world is catching up. Australia, New Zealand, New York’s Finger Lakes; each of these regions does a great job of it. Washington State has also proved to be an ideal climate for riesling and Chateau Ste Michelle, its most widely recognised vineyard, has grown to become the world’s largest single producer of the wine.

So if Washington State can do it, why not British Columbia? First things first, riesling is not a new grape for British Columbian wine producers. There are plenty of vineyards growing it and fermenting it, but it isn’t exactly the region’s signature white grape either. Perhaps it ought to be.

There are plenty of interesting producers in B.C. but I am going to pick out two that completely blew my socks off rather than prattle on about all the others.

First up, a dry riesling fermented with wild yeasts from Saturna Island Family Estate Winery.  Where is Saturna Island, you ask? Right here.

As islands go, Saturna is sparsely populated, having about 350 permanent residents. It is close to Victoria and Vancouver as the crow flies, but feels remote and rural given that it can only be accessed by sea or air.

But if you do end up buying this vineyard, don’t expect it to be a major tourist attraction. It takes a bit of time to get there by ferry, so only the truly determined customers are likely to schlep all that way.

BCwineSaturna Riesling Wild Ferment next to a Sumac Ridge Stellar’s Jay Brut

The 2011 Wild Ferment is crisp and dry with a moderate alcohol level of 12%. It is full of citrus flavours and offered pleasant drinking overall, and seemed to have a bit of a spritz to it. I’d say it could use with a bit more refinement, but it was worth the money (about $18) and is unique in being made with indigenous yeasts. Definitely one to watch.

Next up, Tantalus Vineyards, which also makes a pinot noir that I discussed in another post.

They make two standard rieslings at Tantalus, their ‘Riesling’ and their ‘Old Vines Riesling’. There is also an icewine variant, but I won’t get into that here.

The Tantalus Riesling 2012 is a blend of old and new vines, and is off-dry with medium acidity. It has a fruity, floral aroma, and is grassy with plenty of citrus on the palate. This is the cheaper of the two, at $23, and is well worth the price.

The Tantalus Old Vines Riesling 2010 is a more mature, more rounded wine than its baby brother. The nose is full of gasoline/petrol aromas and it has plenty of citrus and lemon flavours. This is made in a dry style, but it is backed up with enough fruit to make it seem almost off-dry at times. This is definitely not a bone-dry, almost ‘stealy’ riesling. It has a lingering, fruity finish and is truly elegant. Cost? $30.

You can also find B.C. riesling at plenty of other vineyards, of course. Quails’ Gate, Nk’Mip, Cedar Creek, See Ya Later Ranch, Orofino, Snychromesh, and so on.

Now, how much would the mortgage repayments on $7.9-million be?

B.C. pinot noir: Apparently it is award-winning

Good news, everyone. A wine from British Columbia has been declared ‘best in the world.’ Yes, you read that right — the world. And not just any wine, but the most challenging of them all, the heartbreak grape, pinot noir.

Think I’m pulling your leg? If the Vancouver Sun says it is so, it must be true. And if Decanter hands out the award, well it really must be true.

There it is in the headline:

Mission Hill wins world’s best pinot noir award

Need any more convincing? Here’s a screen grab:

Screen shot 2013-10-09 at 9.25.45 PM

That’s a bold statement, isn’t it? Best pinot noir. In the world. Ah, but when we get to the story’s lead line, we are — thankfully — given the qualifying statement:

Mission Hill Family Estate has won ‘World’s Best Pinot Noir’ in the under £15 category at the Decanter World Wine Awards.

Oh. Well that’s a bit different, isn’t it? So, with that nugget of information out of the way, let’s move on to the next sentence:

Considered the world’s leading international competition, the stunning win puts B.C.’s Okanagan Valley on the world pinot noir map.

In the past, Canadian wine was reviled. But with any luck, it will soon be revered. Perhaps Canadian winemakers can do a better job with pinot noir than our various national ice hockey teams have been at winning recent world championships.

Anyway, to the more boring part of the article; the bit where I drone on about wine I have tasted.

For years, I had always wondered what all the fuss was with pinot noir. When I first saw the film Sideways, I was intrigued by it for sure, but when I travelled around Santa Barbara County tasting the wine, I wasn’t exactly sold. In fact, I was more taken by the syrah on offer. Perhaps my palate needed time to mature.

This is probably not the sort of thing I should confess given the bottle that got me into wine in the first place was, in fact, a pinot noir from WillaKenzie in Oregon.

But back in June, during a tour of vineyards in my home province of B.C., I began to notice that the pinot noir was actually pretty good. This was a new one for me.

So what did I find? Good pinot noir is available all over the valley, but I couldn’t taste it all. The highlights from my small selection came from Nk’Mip Cellars, Quails’ Gate, La Frenz and Tantalus, although this is by no means an exhaustive list.

The styles vary dramatically. Nk’Mip, which I covered in a previous blog entry, offered a basic pinot and a reserve, the former being more delicate and the latter being more Burgundian and woody. Both are good and worth buying.

However, La Frenz and Tantalus were the two big surprises for me.

La Frenz is a winery I didn’t know before I visited, but its rich pinot won me over and reminded me of the sort you would find in New Zealand’s Central Otago region. Located on the Naramata Bench north of the town of Penticton, La Frenz is in a vineyard area that is earning a reputation for good pinot.


The La Frenz Reserve Pinot Noir 2011 is earthy, very New World and powerful, but with plenty of red fruits, some blackberries and a tannic kick. This is very New World but is also an homage to Burgundy with its woody notes. This was one of my favourites and, while it was powerful and could use some years to mature, it was balanced with dryness, acidity and tannins, so it didn’t have that annoying fruit-bomb characteristic that is found elsewhere.

IMG_0249The view of Lake Okanagan from the La Frenz tasting room

At Quails’ Gate, the operation is bigger, slicker and more commercially minded, but that doesn’t mean the quality of the wine is any lesser. This is a vineyard that makes good rieslings, chardonnays and pinot noirs, as well as a more curious variety called foch. Before you conclude that foch is a lesser wine, try the Quails’ Gate Old Vines Foch or the premium Quails’ Gate Stewart Family Reserve Old Vines Foch. You might find it surprising.

IMG_0251Quails’ Gate tasting room

As for the pinot, again, there is quality here. The basic Quails’ Gate Pinot Noir 2011 seemed to offer some of the best value in the Okanagan. With bright red cherry flavours, medium tannins and medium acidity, it is correct to the variety. Meanwhile, the Stewart Family Reserve Pinot Noir 2011 was a bigger wine. A very deep red colour with oaky aromas, medium tannins and a long finish, this had lots of bright red fruits and was very enjoyable.

IMG_0252Rows of vines outside the Quails’ Gate tasting room

And finally, to Tantalus. Now this is a winery that produces some satisfying wine. Best known for its incredible rieslings, its pinot noir is just starting to find its legs.

IMG_0261The Tantalus tasting room has impressive aesthetics

When I visited the vineyard, we had the opportunity misfortune to witness an event that all growers dread: a hailstorm.

This is what a hailstorm looks like from the windows of a tasting room:

IMG_0265Those clouds bring hail…

Okay, so you can’t see much other than dark clouds, but I assure you the looks on the employees’ faces was anything but happiness at that moment.

I simply loved the wines at Tantalus. This 40 acre estate produces mainly riesling and pinot noir, although they also have some chardonnay and even a syrah icewine.

The riesling is the showstopper at this estate. Made in a dry and an off-dry style, it could very well be the best riesling to come out of B.C. (more of which at another time).

But the big surprise was the Tantalus Pinot Noir 2010. Made from fruit harvested from young vines as well as older spätburgunder vines, this is a delicate, supple pinot noir with a good dose of acidity and tart red fruits. It isn’t yet polished as wines go, but there is real elegance here. Matured in 100% new French oak, there is something of a pine or cedar aroma to go along with the fruit. This has plenty of balance but still needs time in bottle.

IMG_0264Rugged Okanagan scenery as viewed from the Tantalus tasting room

And that Mission Hill pinot noir that won the Decanter award? I still haven’t tried it.

Give it to me straight: Why consumers lose when wine critics shy away from negative reviews


By Renee Vimmerstedt / Contributor

While I tend to poke fun at shy away from the deep, philosophical conversations about wine, there are a few subjects that will draw me in. One topic is “free wine”. By “free wine” I mean wine that is accepted at no cost by wine critics and other wine writers for the purposes of being reviewed. Another is the question as to why so few bad reviews are published.

These are not new topics. In fact, I find they are often connected. But the questions that arise in debates about these topics never seem to get answered.  For this reason alone I think there is merit in revisiting them once in a while.

When it comes to wine reviews, I lump folks into two categories. The first group would be the professional critics who earn a living (even if indirectly) based on their opinions and ratings of wine. The Robert Parkers and Jancis Robinsons of the world are included in this group. The other group is made up of, frankly, everyone else out there who shares an opinion on the subject. This includes enthusiasts, wine trade workers, hobbyists and amateur bloggers (This blog included! – Ed).

My question about free wine is not about the fact that it exists. What wine lover wouldn’t love a free sample? But, should there be some accountability or responsibility that comes with receiving free wine for review purposes? Now, not every reviewer gets free wine. Most are not offered it and many, in fact, refuse it.

Robert Parker, for one, is known for “paying his own way”. But those who do receive free samples tend to wield a certain amount of influence over their followers. Whether the reviewers use social media, print media or a combination, wine producers would not waste their advertising and marketing budget sending free wine to people who do not have a decent, reputable following.

I think it can be safely assumed that when a sample bottle of wine is sent to someone for a review, there is some hope that it will result in a glowing write-up that will then be passed on to consumers and, ultimately, result in sales dollars for the wine producer. But is a sale the only thing they seek? And is a reviewer sampling wine any different from other types of marketing research that involve product trials?

Manufacturers have used product trials for years to determine product quality and consumer appreciation. Of course they want to hear the positive feedback. But anyone who produces a product should be interested in knowing what doesn’t work. This isn’t necessarily possible if no one is willing to write a negative review. While producers are interested in making a sale, they are also without a doubt interested in knowing what is liked and not liked about their wine.

So are wine producers any different from other manufacturers who do product trials? I feel I should inject at this point that no matter how much “love” or “philosophy” goes into the making of wine, make no mistake, a winery is a business. They have accountants and marketing directors, and the owners are quite rightly concerned about making sure the business is profitable.

Many reviewers who receive free wine have a written policy that states they neither guarantee a good review nor (more importantly) any review at all. Is this fair? I would suggest not. Wineries and readers cannot assume that a reviewer didn’t like their wine simply because a review was never written. Who is to say the reviewer simply didn’t get around to it? And who knows, maybe they needed a last-minute gift?

I often hear from wine critics who say they don’t see any point in wasting their time talking about bad wine. But don’t they have a responsibility to the consumers who depend on their recommendations? Let’s face it, wine reviews are not written for the person who reviewed the wine. That’s what tasting notebooks, apps and databases are for. These reviews are being made public as a recommendation to others. So critics don’t mind steering someone towards a wine that in their opinion is worthy of drinking, but do not feel an obligation to steer folks away from a wine they do not feel is up to par?

Here is my big question: Why does anyone tolerate this, whether they are the wineries who make the wine or the consumers who are bombarded with mostly glowing reviews? Some of the question of responsibility needs to be laid at the feet of the wine producers, distributors and others who dole out the wine. If they send free wine to 100 reviewers and three of those reviews were less than favorable, would that not seem to them a fairly good overall result? If 75 of the 100 reviewers give it a bad review, that should speak volumes to the winemakers. They should insist on a review if they are sending out wine for that purpose.

Here are a couple of ideas to think about. It would be good to see the wine critics and amateur reviewers step things up a notch on the accountability side. Publish the good, the bad and the indifferent reviews. As for the wineries, it would help if they were more picky about where they sent their samples. For starters, it would be wise not to send free samples to any reviewer who states they will not guarantee a review. If you send and they fail to review, then that reviewer is removed from future free wine offers.

Now that we’re on the topic of my ideas, how about a really wild one? In product trials, it is common for placebos to be used. They are common in the medical field, but also for foods and beverages. What if wineries threw in the occasional placebo? We all know palates are subjective, but how subjective are they? Could your favourite wine reviewer tell the difference between a winery’s $30 fiano and a $2.99 bottle of pinot grigio? This would not be hard to implement. It would be a simple matter of numbering the bottles and choosing each bottle’s recipient at random. The reviewer would of course have to publish the number of the bottle they reviewed.

Of course, this brings another question. What happens if a bunk review is published? It will be up to the wineries and merchants to decide how they react to the criticism. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I am certain I have not even raised all the right questions. What I am certain of is that it is a disservice to wine consumers if they have only the positive information on wine and none of the negative.

For some critics, having to publish reviews on every wine they receive, whether good or bad, will take the fun out of the job for them. Call me a killjoy, but I am happy with that if it means I am getting better, more complete information. I am also certain that no harm has ever come from expecting integrity and accountability of those who review products.

Renee Vimmerstedt is a US-based wine enthusiast