Golden times for British Columbia’s Golden Mile
This spring witnessed a pivotal moment in the relatively brief history of British Columbia’s modern wine industry when, on March 30th, 2015, Oliver’s Golden Mile Bench was formally recognized as the province’s first sub-appellation.
While Oliver has long proclaimed its prowess as one of the province’s more definable and specific grape-growing regions (and, indeed, likes to boast that it’s “The Grape Capital of Canada”), this sub-appellation encompasses the bench itself. Here, many of the Okanagan’s pioneering vineyards — such as Gehringer Brothers, Tinhorn Creek, Inniskillin Okanagan (formerly Okanagan Vineyards) and present-day Hester Creek (originally Divino) — were established. The other, equally noteworthy members are: CC Jentsch, Road 13, CheckMate Artisanal Winery, Rustico, Culmina, Fairview Cellars and Willow Hill Vineyards.
The process to formal approval (signed off in the BC Attorney General’s office) was lengthy, taking about five years and not without some bumps in the road. Nor is everyone happy, including a few people who wound up on the “wrong” side of the boundary. However, the applicant wineries were careful to do their homework in completing an in-depth scientific analysis that prove the wines produced on the Golden Mile Bench are distinct, as required by the BC Wine Authority.
At the moment, BC is divided into five Designated Viticultural Areas (DVAs). As the largest, the Okanagan Valley contains a diverse range of varying sites, soils and climatic conditions. In fact, harvest times alone can differ by as much as a month from North to South in the valley.
A sub-appellation — or more correctly a Sub-Designated Viticultural Area — can be approved only once a number of conditions have been met. Overall, these must “consistently demonstrate distinctive characteristics related to shared soil, topography and climate, enhanced by the adoption of specific production practices.”
Several experts contributed to the Golden Mile Bench study, including long-time Summerland Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre (PARC) viticultural scientist Dr Pat Bowen and Master of Wine Rhys Pender, among others.
Interestingly enough, the origin of the name “Golden Mile” actually had nothing to do with grapes. It dates from a time when Oliver enjoyed fame as “The Cantaloupe capital of Canada,” when the northern reaches of the Sonoran desert had only become viable for agriculture thanks to a newly introduced irrigation system that channelled water from nearby Vasseaux Lake to the US border.
(The system was built in part to provide work for soldiers returning from World War I, but its primary intention was to bring water to potentially thousands of acres, which would be farmed by the new settlers. Much of the irrigation canal built originally under the auspices of the South Okanagan Lands Project remains in service today and is vital to the wineries and farms of the south valley.)
In recent years the term Golden Mile was unofficially adopted to publicize all of the wineries on the west side stretch of the valley on Oliver’s southern limits. However, the “Bench” designation will apply only to fruit grown on the bench itself above the valley floor.
The northern boundary (based on soil sampling) runs right through Bill Eggert’s Fairview Estate. Interestingly, while much of the Triggs Family’s Culmina Estate is included, the ambitiously constructed, 595-metre elevation Margaret’s Bench (likely the highest vineyard in the south Okanagan) is not considered part of the Golden Mile Bench.
Even though the core group drove the application, it’s worth noting that these wineries do not enjoy sole use of the term. Any winery that buys grapes from within the sub-DVA may use them to make a Golden Mile Bench designated wine and use the term on the front label.
According to the regulations currently in effect (and unchanged in 25 years), the Okanagan Valley DVA is described very broadly as “the land within the watershed of the Okanagan water basin.” Important to note, BC’s DVAs were defined when there really was little happening outside of the Okanagan Valley — and when only about a 10th of the land was under vine compared to today.
Considering the growth in the industry, and the occurrence now of so many unofficial sub-regions within the 250 km long valley, some suggest that such a broad term as “Okanagan Valley” is no longer sufficiently specific. Also, not too far down the road — sooner rather than later — is the need to confer DVA status on emerging regions, such as The Shuswap, Kamloops and Lillooet. Their wine activity may be still small but it promises to grow. And they’re not designated within any specific DVA status.
While Ontario moved several years ago to adopt a comprehensive system of soil based sub-appellations throughout all of its DVAs, primarily guided by major winery and other commercial interests, BC has so far chosen to ignore the issue.
Those unofficial sub-regions that are in play are based on wine tourism and brand designations that, in most cases, offer little indication of the grapes’ actual origin.
Although there are no other formal applications known to be currently in process, it’s possible that a half dozen or more could eventually be forthcoming from the Okanagan Valley alone. These might include areas generally described as: Naramata Bench; Skaha Bluffs; Westbank Bench; Kelowna Mission District; East Kelowna Bench; Black Sage Bench and Okanagan Falls, and there are likely a few more, both in the valley and beyond.
Not by chance, the announcement of the province’s first sub-appellation coincided with the creation of the BC Wine Appellation Task Group, which is examining a number of ways to improve the appellation system for wine produced from 100 per cent BC grapes. The task group was initiated by the BC Wine Institute board of directors, in partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture and the BC Wine Authority. Among its goals, the group will review the current system of appellations and the BC Vintners Quality Alliance program.
Group chair Ezra Cipes (Summerhill Pyramid Winery) said the timing makes sense: “The quality of wine produced in BC has improved exponentially since the BC VQA appellation was put in place 25 years ago. Now, reviewing that system and updating it will help set us up for even greater quality, international recognition and success for the next 25 years and beyond … ”
The group’s timeframe is tight, as the government wants its recommendations to be made public by the fall. An initial meeting found consensus on many core issues, but the group also invited others on board in an effort to forge a broader coalition between sometimes differing factions.
The approach, says Task Group Executive Director Mike Klassen, is to consult with industry and key people, through town hall style meetings and other events. Klassen has already hit the road, visiting Vancouver Island’s Cowichan Valley, as well as Lake Country and West Kelowna, Summerland, Similkameen, Fraser Valley, Okanagan Falls and Naramata.
“We’re really covering the ground that we need to,” he says.
Klassen says, beyond producers, the group will also talk to “those who sell wine so we can understand what consumers are looking for as well.”
He says the discussions usually encompass four general topics: VQA and the need or not for tasting panels; appellations and sub-appellations; mandatory registration of origin (which has broad support); and the entire audit process.
“Audits for wine producers have become a real flashpoint, says Klassen. “Everyone welcomes the need to audit that the wine is produced with 100 per cent BC grapes. But the sheer number of audits (including those monthly for now-redundant excise tax) consume valuable hours that take away from the business at hand: producing wine).”
Klassen says the debate around VQA is “broad and diverse” — but most people still sense there is a value.
“There’s no strong desire for any tiered quality measurement for wine,” says Klassen, “But there is broad recognition that health-safety is an important factor. Also, there is a discussion as to whether it’s time to move on from VQA tasting panels, as to whether they still serve a useful purpose.”
As for the debate on sub-appellations, whatever the outcome, it needs to be founded on good science, says the group, which will work closely with Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre (PARC). The task group itself will not be identifying potential other sub-appellations but will be examining how such demarcations might be decided or applied.
Says Klassen, “There is a good case to be made for a region and village system for wine origin. Letting consumers know that the wine came from, say, Summerland or Oliver could be useful.” As far as further splitting the Okanagan into designated areas, “A few suggest there’s a need to ‘go slow.’ Some producers say only now do people understand that there’s real value in the Okanagan Valley brand.” However, others say it’s important to identify the likes of Golden Mile Bench, “to let people know that there are places distinct within the Okanagan Valley.”
The group says there are lessons to be learned from the Golden Mile Bench process, in that some things worked and others didn’t. It may have taken a long time but in the end it was successful, says Klassen, “So we need to learn from that.”
The task force will survey industry and other stakeholders to get data back in order to determine opinion across the board on these issues. Once the survey results are in, the group will develop a set of recommendations and a final report will be issued publicly by the end of September for government consideration. Coming on the heels of BC liquor licensing reforms that have provoked dissatisfaction within some sectors of the industry, the government has plenty riding on the BC Wine Appellation Task Group’s success.
Whatever the outcome, however, one thing’s certain: Golden Mile Bench signals an auspicious beginning of a far more detailed and transparent system of origin for the Okanagan and beyond.
At time of publication there are few, if any, wines released that are specifically labelled Golden Mile Bench, since approval came too late for member wineries’ spring releases. However, the wines below are all bench grown (not having any other fruit declared in their origin) and may, in time, be labelled as such.
Culmina Hypothesis 2012 ($48)
One of the most balanced Bordeaux blends to come out of the south valley, with Merlot (57%), Cabernet Sauvignon (24%) and Cabernet Franc (19%), in perfect harmony. From a spectacular vintage, this wine aged in mainly new French oak sports the vineyard’s trademark acidity with lifted red and black fruit on top, followed by a plush and plummy palate of mulberry and black pepper notes.
Hester Creek Cabernet Franc Reserve 2012 ($29)
The original and first planting of Cab Franc in BC (by pioneering Joe Busnardo) dates from the late 1960s. A combination of old and newer vines yields aromas of deep red fruit and vanilla before a layered palate Bing cherry and mulberry, wrapped in juicy acidity with good structure, approachable tannins and a lengthy close. Match with duck magret or venison.
Fairview Cellars Two Hoots 2012 ($25)
Bill Eggert likes to describe his classic blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc as his value wine for “daily consumption.” Grown on the northern limits of the designated sub-app, the Cab Sauv delivers structure, with plushness from the Merlot. Named in honour of the great horned owls that nest on the property, it sports lifted red berry and cassis notes followed by a medium bodied palate of cherry and cassis, wrapped in approachable tannins with a good, persistent finish.
Gehringer Auxerrois 2013 ($14)
Much of the Gehringer Brothers vineyard (which is just about in the centre of the bench area) harks back to the early 1980s, when trial plantings from Geisenheim’s Becker Project proved that many Germanic aromatics were well suited to several sites in the Okanagan. A classic expression of the winery’s popular off-dry style, this easy drinking white shows orchard and tropical notes on top, followed by a lighter palate of apple and citrus with a hint of pineapple. Think milder seafood plates such as shrimp or scallop.
Inniskillin Dark Horse Vineyard Meritage 2012 ($24)
Long time Inniskillin winemaker Sandor Mayor, who recently returned to his native Hungary, was another driving force behind much of the ground-breaking early vinifera plantings on the Golden Mile Bench, including one of the first blocks of Cabernet Sauvignon on this very warm site. From one of the best vintages in many years comes this Merlot dominant/Cab Sauv/Cab Franc blend, with up front dark notes such as cassis, followed by a supple palate of blue and black fruits wrapped in easy, well integrated tannins.
Tinhorn Creek 2012 Pinot Noir ($20)
From another of the bench’s pioneering producers, also one of relatively few remaining blocks of Pinot Noir after others were pulled out in the now much warmer South Okanagan. Red and black fruit on the nose with a herbal hint, followed by a quite full bodied palate of spice and slightly savoury notes underpinned by juicy acidity but balanced with plushness and finesse, before a lengthy finish.
Top image: Hester winemaker Rob Summers