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?

Advertisements

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.

IMG_0245

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.

Incomprehensible vineyard name: Nk’Mip Cellars

Wine could very well be one of the few products that can have a confusing name and still sell well.

This goes against the ethos of most branding experts. Our supermarkets and department stores are bursting with products whose creators went to great lengths to find the easiest, most recognisable names. Nike. Arm & Hammer. Apple. Google. Tesco. You get me.

But look at most French, Italian or Spanish wines. Unless you are fluent in all three of those languages, there is a strong chance you have been flummoxed by a winery name, the name of the wine itself, the name of the region where it came from or the name of the grape used to make the wine. And if you hit the jackpot, you were confused by the lot.

Yet you still bought it. Why? Because it’s wine. Because no one can pronounce most Italian words anyway. Because no one really knows where the Cotes de Blaye appellation is but they know it’s probably drinkable. And that’s all that matters.

Now, for us Anglophones you would have thought most of the English-speaking New World would offer us a welcome respite from the confusion all those foreign labels have created.

Then the Canadians come along and decide to screw with our minds…

IMG_0158

Ignore my bald head for a moment and focus on the sign in the background.

Nk’Mip.

Now try to pronounce it. Think you got it right? Probably not.

It goes like this: In-ka-meep.

Nk’Mip is a First Nations word from the Okanagan language that means ‘bottomland’ and refers to the area where British Columbia’s Okanagan River flows into the north end of Osyoos Lake (where you’ll also find the town of Osoyoos). Founded by the Osoyoos Indian Band, Nk’Mip Cellars was the first aboriginal-owned and operated winery in North America. And they’re no slouches. The winery is part of the greater Nk’Mip resort project, which includes a golf course, resort and spa, as well as a desert cultural centre. It’s a serious business.

The winery/cellar door is in a modern building that on one hand is impressive and new, but on the other seems a little soulless:

IMG_0172

But there’s no denying that this is in a beautiful setting. Here we see the rolling hills just outside Osoyoos:

IMG_0170

And here we see views of Osoyoos Lake from the winery looking over the vineyards:

IMG_0167

Like any good winery, they have a restaurant and patio. It turns out this is how you make big money in wine country:

IMG_0165

Not to be outdone, their tasting room is large and spacious. And if you’ve ever watched Sideways or been to Santa Barbara County, you might find it to be in the same spirit as the Fess Parker winery (known as Frass Canyon in the film), complete with cheesy souvenirs that fit in with the vineyard’s theme:

IMG_0162

Yes, that’s me looking a little bit lost in the cavernous tasting room:

IMG_0161

Now to the wine. I managed to work my way through quite a few of Nk’Mip’s wines and overall I found them to be fairly pleasing. They arguably make the best chardonnay in Canada and, being that it’s the only wine of theirs I’ve actually bought and dragged back to London with me, you could say it gets my seal of approval. It is Burgundian in style but not too oaky or flabby like so many New World examples.

Anyway, to the tasting notes, which had to be fished out of my recycling bin a few weeks ago. If the little stars that I drew on my tasting sheet are to be trusted, I was particularly fond of the winery’s Winemakers Series Riesling 2011 and Chardonnay 2011, as well as the Qwam Qwmt Series (Kwem Kwimt) Chardonnay 210, Pinot Noir 2010, Syrah 2008 and Meritage 2008.

The Winemakers Series Riesling 2011 is from their basic range of wines and sells for $17.99 Canadian. But it isn’t a slouch. It has a classic gasoline/petrol nose, has plenty of citrus and has a grassy, chalky palate with a pleasing minerality. For the price, you probably can’t go wrong, although I accept that there might be better examples from Australia and of course Germany and Austria – albeit for more money.

The basic Chardonnay 2011 is predominantly aged in steel (60%) but it also sees (40%) French oak to give it some much-needed depth. It had hints of vanilla from the oak, was medium-bodied and also had a mild creaminess. Not at all bad for the price, but it left me wanting more.

My favourite wine of the tasting might have been the Qwam Qwmt Chardonnay 2010 ($24.99). This sees 10 months of new French oak and extended ageing on the lees. It is a nutty wine of medium body and acidity with just enough hints of vanilla to be pleasing without going overboard. I found it to be aromatic, full of citrus fruits and minerality, as well as a long-lasting finish.

Other wines on offer included a fabulous Qwam Qwmt Pinot Noir 2010 ($29.99) that reminded me of a pinot from New Zealand’s Central Otago region. Plenty of red berries, mild oak, caramel, along spices and earthiness. It was quite a bold pinot, but also enjoyable.

The Qwam Qwmt Syrah 2008 was also a top wine and, if I’m not mistaken, earns high scores from critics. It seemed reductive on the nose, but I could have just been imagining things. It displayed the classic pepper and spice you’d expect from a syrah, but also seemed to have some sort of scent of tree sap or pine, which many people in the Oakanagan believe is a characteristic of some wines there. Whether or not this is truth or fiction remains to be seen.

On not drinking a wine before its time (And how to do it cheaply)

Okay, so I’ve been admonished.

Friends and readers who say they just want to buy a modest bottle of wine and not have to endure wade through my ramblings about posh wines have spoken their minds.

“Write about wine I can actually afford,” people have said.

And I will, but not before I say something important about wine that just happens to involve bottles costing a lot of money.

Here goes: I’d say it’s safe very few of us actually get to drink wine of any significant age. Wine we see in specialist shops – and particularly supermarkets – tends to be released at a relatively young age for early drinking. That is a fact.

It is widely known that most bottles sold are opened on the same day they are bought; only true wine nerds care to mess about with any of that cellaring faff (people like me, I suppose). Most of the world lives bottle to bottle.

Add to this the fact producers sell a lot of wine young because they need the revenue and you have a society full of wine drinkers who have never tried something truly mature.

This is a shame. And I will tell you why.

Never a wine before its time

Orson Welles famously said in advertisements for wine brand Paul Masson (ironically not one you would *ever* age in a cellar), “We will sell no wine before its time.”

Even if Paul Masson wasn’t the sort of wine you would brag about drinking, the message was at least right.

A couple weeks ago this mantra was reinforced in my mind when I attended a wine tasting of the 2003 and 2004 vintages of Bordeaux estates Chateau Calon-Segur and Chateau Phelan-Segur at an event hosted by Schroders for personal finance journalists (full disclosure: Schroders organised and paid for the wines). First, we started the night with Joh. Jos. Prüm’s Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese 2003, which itself was an education in drinking medium-term aged riesling.

The aroma of gasoline/petroleum was almost off-putting at first, hitting your olfactory centre with a pungent rush that might have turned off shy wine drinkers. This was a far cry from your father’s bottle of Black Tower.

After this, we sat down for the main event, where we compared the 2003/04 Calon-Segur with the 2003/04 Phelan-Segur. The Calon-Segur, known for being the bigger, better and more expensive of the two, was still tight and closed at nearly a decade old.

Meanwhile, the 2003 Phelan was starting to show its age a little more and, arguably, was more mature and closer to being ready for drinking.

A few days later the Segur’s youth was driven home when I drank something truly mature – a bottle of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 1978.

I can’t really help myself but transform into Miles from Sideways and bore you to tears with the way the wine was showing its age by bricking at the edge, how the tannins were full integrated into the wine, or how it had aromas of leather, cedar and tobacco.

But I will say the exercise illustrated just how much potential the wine would have had if it had been, well, not opened so soon.

This point was re-affirmed the day after the Lafite experience when, armed with a bottle of Calon-Segur 2004 that had been opened but not used at the tasting earlier in the week (I pushed the cork back into the bottle, to keep it perfectly fresh for a few more days), I opened again it for a friend at dinner.

And it was…still tighter than a rusted nut and loaded with tannin.

If all this wasn’t enough, yet more mature wine came my way. The following evening we cracked open a bottle of Dom Perignon 1996.

You know how a lot of Champagne is very acidic, bright, bubbly and seems to cut through everything you might have eaten, including your gums?

You see, you don’t get that with properly mature Champagne. Everything just…sings in harmony.

Now to the money-saving bit

So here it is. If you want something with more maturity and a decent dose of bottle age, Rioja is a good bet. I am always blown away by how cheap and well-made the wines of Rioja are. Something like a gran reserva will have spent a lot of time in barrel and yet more in bottle before being released, quite often for a fraction of what you’ll pay for equally fine wines from Bordeaux or Burgundy. Same with Port, Madeira and Sherry.

If you want to drink something grown up and complex, I’d look south to the Iberian peninsula.

Recently I bought a bottle of Rioja from the 1996 vintage for less than £15. In general, unloved wine regions can be a source of wonderful wine bargains. I bought a bottle of Chateau Calon Montagne-St Emilion 1996 for €8 when I was in Bordeaux. Why was it so cheap? Because the Montagne-St Emilion appellation is a lesser cousin to St Emilion and, therefore, is not as popular among wine drinkers.

And there you go; something affordable to consider.